Walston: Hoop Dreams
Like many, many kids raised in North Carolina, I had basketball dreams. I’d spend hours shooting baskets in the driveway, talking to myself out loud as if Woody Durham were on the call. Always, we trailed Duke by five or so with seconds to go. I always hit a three to cut the lead, then I always stole the ball and nailed another one for the win. If I didn’t make it, I’d been fouled. If I didn’t make all the free throws, I tipped in a shot at the buzzer. But Carolina always won. Always.
Growing up, there was no question where I was going to attend college. Mom and Dad had met at the Baptist Student Union on the Carolina campus, and that was that. Without UNC there’d have been no ‘M-E,’ so I owed it to Carolina to follow in their footsteps. And of course I was going to play basketball once I got to Carolina. What else did one do there? Getting the opportunity to hit that shot, the one I’d made thousands of times in my driveway - to wear that jersey - was a primary focus of my childhood. So I played on countless youth teams and spent a week every summer at Carolina Basketball School. I was going to earn a scholarship, start for four years*, and then go on to a fabulous career in the NBA.
*In 6th grade (1993), my friend Walt Anderson wrote up several mock NBA Drafts for years down the road. He had me forgoing my senior year at Carolina to enter the 2002 draft, where I was selected second overall behind Paul Foster, who at the time was a standout at Mount Olive Middle School. How ridiculous. Paul Foster went on to play at Furman.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Over and over I kept just missing the cut (I think). I didn’t make the Goldsboro Middle School team as a 7th grader. After transferring to Eastern Wayne the next year (no, not for basketball reasons), I thought I had a good shot. In fact, I scored 45 points over the course of two try-out days (yes, I remember), but still missed the cut.
Convinced that Wayne County just wasn’t recognizing my talent, I actually did try to enter the draft after eighth grade, when I sent an email to the NBA offices (in those days it was probably addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org) and declared that I would forgo high school and college. I got a response that read, in part, a) you can’t do this via email and b) you have to go to high school.
Undaunted, I made the 9th grade team at Eastern Wayne High, and had one glorious afternoon in which I scored four points (six if a bogus charge call hadn’t wiped out a beautiful finger-roll) in garbage time. Following that game, our ancient coach Charlie Somethingorother told my mother that he’d been planning to cut me, but I’d surprised him that day. Which was nice for her to hear.
The varsity basketball coach was also the cross country coach, and he used the sport as something of a conditioning period for basketball. Thus, I ran cross country for three years in an attempt to impress him. It didn’t work. When I went out for varsity as a sophomore, he told me, “JV try-outs are tomorrow.” So, I made the JV and sat the bench again. With our team comfortably ahead late against Southern Wayne, I entered the game. I heard cries of “Timeout! Timeout!” So I called timeout. It had been our opponents that wanted the timeout, after they’d clawed back within eight points. The stoppage allowed our coach to sub me out of the game.
I never did make varsity. In the summers of 1997 and 1998, I attended team camps and played in the State Games*, but when the season came around, I’d be cut. Again.
*I did earn a third-place medal for my trouble. When a classmate couldn’t attend the State Games, I was invited to take his spot. One problem: the other player had already registered, so I had to pretend my name was Hines Carter. When they called his name and I came forward for my medal, my teammates cheered and laughed. “Wow, you’re a popular guy, Hines!” the State Games official said.
In the fall of my senior year at Eastern Wayne, when my name wasn’t on that varsity basketball roster, I checked myself out of school. There had been a death in the family, I told my statistics teacher. I didn’t tell her that it was the death of a dream. It sounds a little too dramatic now, but I was devastated. My mom went to the school to beg the coach to reconsider. I wished she hadn’t done that. But really only because it didn’t work.
I arrived at Carolina in the fall of 1999. Coach Bill Guthridge was entering what would be his final season in Chapel Hill, and of course I was going to try out for the JV team. Coach Dave Hanners was running the team that year, and that was going to be my ticket to the varsity roster. Yes, I wanted to play for the team, but I also wanted my Michael Jordan moment: to take a jersey back to Eastern Wayne and show it to that coach: ‘Look who you cut. Twice.’
There were a few sure-fire guys at try-outs, but mostly it was about 60 guys a lot like me: 6’1, 170 pounds or so, and decent at basketball. Not a lot of separation. I made the first cut (if you forgot your physical on the first day, you automatically made the first cut), but missed the second.
That year, some friends from down the hall at Granville Towers invited me to join their intramural basketball team. Coincidentally, it was the team representing the Baptist Student Union. Playing basketball was fun, but if I was going to take up a roster spot, I felt like I ought to go to meetings too. I began attending regularly.
Doug Wojcik and Fred Quartlebaum came to Carolina as assistants under Matt Doherty. They ran the junior varsity team my sophomore year. They too cut me, but were nice about it. I thanked them for the opportunity.
Meanwhile, I was having a blast on the intramural team. We were pretty good my junior year and rolled through our three regular-season games and into the playoffs. I scored 26 points in one game, and cockily added my own Woody Durham narration once I got hot. In the semifinals, I hit a ‘no-no-yes’ three-pointer to give us a slim lead late. Our opponents blew a last-second layup attempt to send us to the championship.
The final game was played on the court at Carmichael Auditorium. Instead of the flip scoreboards used for normal games in Woollen Gym, the large center scoreboard above the court was going to be used. One side said ‘Carolina,’ the other ‘Guests’ (or ‘Visitors;’ I can’t quite remember). Before the game, I asked the scorekeeper if we could be ‘Carolina.’ At least on the scoreboard, I could finally play for Carolina.
A handful of Baptist Student Union members came out to support our team. A few girlfriends attended, too. I didn’t have a girlfriend, but my mom, dad, 16 year-old brother and two grandparents drove from Goldsboro to attend an intramural basketball game.
The team from the BSU faced a group of law students in the championship game. I don’t remember them being particularly nice; in fact, one of them hurled the basketball at my face with the basketball when protesting a call. The law students hit some shots early and jumped out to a lead. Our team trailed by 12 at halftime. I wanted to be the scorer (I would finish with ten points), but we needed to take advantage of our size inside. In the second half, we fed our big men, who went to work down low. The BSU team hustled for every rebound and used good shot selection to creep back into the game. We pulled away at the end. Victorious, we got the all-important intramural championship t-shirts, and a trophy.
I continued to go to Baptist Student Union meetings, and like my father before me, I met my wife there. I’d moved from dreaming that I’d be playing professional basketball to dreaming I’d make it as a singer/songwriter, and she approached me after a gig. This April, it will have been ten years since we met.
My dad is fond of saying that when you look back, a lot of things in life tend to work out for the best. They may not happen exactly the way you wish at the time, but they work out. I recall Garth Brooks’ song "Unanswered Prayers," in which he goes back to a high school football game in his hometown, sees the girl he once had a crush on, and realizes that life went in another, better direction.
I don’t know what would have happened if I’d played varsity basketball at Eastern Wayne, or even on the JV team at Carolina. Last week, I happened to interview Coach Hanners for April’s Tar Heel Monthly. After the interview, I said I’d forgiven him for cutting me from the JV team in 1999. “Uh-oh,” he said. “I knew that was coming! I looked at your name, and I thought, ‘I know I know that name, because you start filling out those (try-out) sheets every day.’”
The truth is, he didn’t need forgiving at all. Things worked out. Every once in a while, my wife and I stop by the Battle House, the home of the Baptist Student Union, and I check in on that intramural basketball trophy. It turns out that my hoop dreams came true after all.
King's X: The 2002 Intramural Basketball Champions. Back row, from left to right: Brandon Bienvenu, Rick Uhlir-Hall, Turner Walston, Aaron Hinton, Jon Overbay, Jimmy Wilson, Kris Norris. Front row: Chris Holland, Ben Leder. Visible in the background are Jane, Jason, John Turner Walston, Sr. and John Turner Walston, Jr.