Elite ballplayers, as a rule, don't write much. Oh, they'll scribble: assembly-line autographs, college lecture notes, maybe an occasional warmed-over rap lyric. Generally speaking, though, Dear Diary introspection isn't part of the deal. ¬∂ Unless you're North Carolina junior forward-guard Rashad McCants. ¬∂ "I write whenever I feel like I'm too depressed to keep thinking about something," McCants says, brandishing a blue loose-leaf notebook. "So I put it on paper." One day this fall the best player on the nation's most talented team sat in his car, pulled out a pencil and spilled his emotions onto the page: His frustration over all those labels--moody, stone-faced, aloof--that swirl around him like storm clouds. His angst over being cut from the U.S. junior national team in July even though its coach, Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson, calls him "without question the best player at that camp." His chagrin over being regarded as Carolina's most dangerous threat ... and its biggest question mark. ¬∂ The result, captured in letter-perfect script, is titled My Life: ¬∂ Why is my life so hard, yet extremely easy? The things that I do are so easy to me that people make things hard just so it can be even. Well, everything is not fair. But right now as we speak I am the most criticized athlete ever. Feels like I'm under a microscope, everything I do someone has something to say as if they were waiting for a reaction. Just to see what I would do....
Do you trust Rashad McCants? Because he finally trusts you. Enough to share his most private thoughts. Enough to admit, after two years of denials, that he does care what you think of him. ("Always, always, always.") Enough to reveal that he's a stubborn but sensitive 20year-old who's trying to change. "I want a kid to see my picture and smile, not frown," he says. Last January, after a wretched game against Kentucky, McCants came clean with Tar Heels coach Roy Williams: Coach, I need your trust if you want me to perform the way I can. "He gave it to me," says McCants, who went on to average 21.6 points in the rough-and-tumble ACC, "and I gave him everything I got."
Now, perhaps, it's your turn.
By any measure, North Carolina has all the parts to win Roy Williams's first national title: a jackrabbit point guard in Raymond Felton, a velvet-handed big man in Sean May, three capable seniors, an improved bench and a promising freshman class. Yet the linchpin--or, cynics would say, the grenade pin--is McCants. After battling former coach Matt Doherty as a freshman and chafing under Williams at the start of last season, McCants came into his own after New Year's, gunning more big shots than any Tar Heel in recent memory. Carolina's last 10 points to upset eventual national champion Connecticut. A school-record-tying eight treys to sink Clemson. A series of daggers to sweep rival N.C. State. Many observers thought McCants, not Wolfpack swingman Julius Hodge, deserved the ACC player of the year award.
"Rashad is such an offensive weapon that he's the guy the other coach talks about the most," says Williams. "He has an ability to score and make shots with people guarding him about as good as anybody I've ever had. But the other thing that's important with this team is his moodiness, his indifference, whatever you want to call it. Everybody told me it got so much better last year. Well, that's got to continue getting better."
McCants's Sphinx act would make him a dynamite poker player, but it can be maddening to his fellow Tar Heels. "Rashad is one of the coolest, most down-to-earth people I've ever met, but you have to know how to approach him," says May. "Some days he'll be upbeat, talkative, making fun of people--just how a teammate should be. Then other days he'll come into the locker room and not say anything. I've told him, 'We can't not know what to expect from you.' When you're not sure how someone's feeling or [whether] they're with you, you can't really trust them fully. He's made tremendous strides, but I tell him that's the way he should be every day."
For the past two years McCants Studies has become an unofficial UNC course, with lectures available on what seems like every TV, radio and Internet message board in the Piedmont. Not a nose scratch or a head shake escapes scrutiny. What was that shrug for? What does that X sign with his arms mean? Why doesn't he smile more? That one always kills James McCants back home in Asheville. "Is smiling a prerequisite for basketball?" says Rashad's proud and vocal father. "We smile when we get the W! Who's going to take me seriously when I'm walking down the court smiling and looking like the man on the Enzyte commercial? That's crazy."
Maybe so, but just as McCants's wondrous floor game could land the Tar Heels the biggest W of all at next spring's Final Four in St. Louis, an ill-timed case of his Carolina blues could scuttle everything. "If he stays away from that mood, everybody else isn't worrying about it, so their play is going to be better," says Williams. "Saying that puts an unbelievably heavy load on him, but it's a fact."
So many people are fond of calling McCants complicated, but the crux of the matter is simple.
"I think it's a trust issue," says May.
"He has to realize we need him just as much as he needs us," says senior forward Jawad Williams.
"Trust is the Number 1 thing with him," says Roy Williams.
Taking that leap is no small task if you're Rashad McCants. Sometimes it's easier trusting a blank sheet of paper.
It seems like every girl I meet, they have the same exact thing to say. "I HEARD ABOUT YOU!!!" Like, damn, how much can people really be talking about me? It's not like I do anything wrong. I get up, shower, get really fresh, go to school, lift weights, go home, sleep, wake up and do it all over again. So what is so bad about doing all of this?
"i'm probably one of the realest people you'll meet," says Rashad McCants during a three-hour conversation in his off-campus apartment. "I don't sugarcoat. I don't lie. And for that reason I sense a lot of fakeness in people. I can feel it. I can see it. I can smell it. That's what makes it hard to earn my trust. There's so many fake people out there, you never know. So I'll put up a shield."
If only McCants would lift the shield more often. Then everyone could see the Rashad who hangs not one but two pictures of the World Trade Center on his otherwise bare apartment walls to honor the victims of 9/11. Who makes sure to visit his godmother, a housebound diabetic named Julia Darity, every time he's in Asheville. Who got all giddy last spring when he met the rapper Jay-Z at a New Jersey Nets game. Who crouches down low to connect with a Special Olympian. Who calls a friend having a bad day and says, "Talk to me. Tell me what the problem is." Who happens to have a magnetic, All-American smile. Says Carolina sophomore guard Wes Miller, McCants's former roommate at the New Hampton (N.H.) School, where McCants spent his junior and senior high school years, "If you have the privilege to be Rashad's friend, you'll find that he's a great friend back to you."
But no, for the most part the shield stays up. Always has. "Certain things in your life will make you protect yourself," says his mother, Brenda Muckelvene. Here's one: During the summer before his sophomore year at Asheville's Erwin High, McCants attended a preseason meeting of his AAU team, the WNC Storm. He remembers everything about that day: How the coaches said a player was going to be cut. How he shrugged, assuming it was someone else. It couldn't be him. He was the star. The co-MVP of his high school league as a freshman. The main reason the Storm had won the state title the previous year. Why, Rashad had turned down other teams to play a third season with this one.
Two days later the coach, Andy Ray, visited Brenda to tell her: Rashad was the player he no longer wanted. Rashad was crushed. How could they let him sit there like a fool at that meeting? "I'm thinking, Man, how did I get cut from a team that I've led?" he says. When asked, Ray traces his decision to the behavior of James McCants, who he says would yell at Rashad's teammates and opponents from the stands. (James claims he'd heckle the referees but nothing more.) Nevertheless, Rashad felt betrayed.
Ultimately, McCants's new outfit, the Charlotte Royals, would win a national AAU title, beating his previous team along the way, but Rashad burned the pain of being cut into his mental hard drive. It was just one of several examples of how James, a bail bondsman, and Brenda, a hairstylist, had given the oldest of their three children a powder keg of traits. "My dad is a stubborn bull, and I'm the same way," Rashad says. "I see it every day, and I hate it more and more. But at the same time I love him, because he's one of the smartest men I've ever been around. The sensitivity I get from my mom. It's a mean combination, but I'll get through it."
From the moment James McCants wrote his one-line entry in his one-year-old's baby book--4-12-86 next michael jordan--it seemed as if the son was destined to play in Chapel Hill. Brenda proudly shows visitors an old Polaroid of toddler Rashad dribbling a Carolina-blue miniball in their Asheville apartment. (Remarkably, he's already working on his left hand.) There's a reason why Rashad wears number 32, the inverse of a certain number 23 who also hailed from Carolina. "I want to see if anybody in the world can be better than Mike," says McCants, who admits he got schooled by his idol during Jordan's invitation-only camp in August. "Mike said it himself: Somebody will be greater than him. We never know who it'll be. I'm not saying it's me, but I wish it was. It's all about being competitive and trying to have that spirit, to be the best you can be."
To hear McCants tell the story, Doherty nearly crushed that spirit two years ago. Despite scoring 28 points in his first college game and winning the MVP award of the Preseason NIT, McCants clashed early with the coach over his crowd-inciting displays (like that infamous X sign, which James McCants says means "total domination"). "The more I wanted to be this junkyard dog," says McCants, "the more I was turned into this laid-back grocery bagger." As McCants withdrew, Doherty tried other approaches. His staff asked McCants to meet with "a friend," who turned out to be a sports psychologist ("the most embarrassing moment of my life," McCants says). When Doherty continued chastising McCants in practice, the relationship soured beyond repair. ("I wish the young man well," Doherty says. "There are other people dealing with him now.")
It's worth noting that when N.C. State's Hodge called McCants a "pussy" at the scorer's table before last season's game in Raleigh, the Tar Heel merely laughed and dropped 22 big ones on his nemesis in a taut Carolina victory. McCants's response was evidence of the maturity he's gained under Williams, the result of a bond that was forged after McCants's miserable four-point, five-turnover performance in that 61--56 loss at Kentucky. In an emotional closed-door meeting, Williams dropped the hammer--demanding that McCants issue a cease-and-desist warning to his father, who had complained publicly about Rashad's benching during the second half against the Wildcats--and professed his faith, saying he believed in his fellow Asheville native.
At the end of the meeting Williams vowed to do something he had never done with any of his players. If McCants wishes, he'll join him in the greenroom at the NBA draft. "That was as big a promise as I'll ever get," McCants says. "From that point on I trusted him, and he trusted me."
There have been slipups, of course, especially with people who don't have the time to build relationships. At the tryouts for the U.S. junior team, McCants dominated the early workouts. He rained three-pointers from NBA range. He used his 6'4", 207pound bulk to overpower weaker guards in the post. "There wasn't anything I didn't do those first three days," McCants says. "Then I pretty much put it in cruise control, which is something an athlete should never do." Not wanting to injure his sore right knee, McCants says, he shut down. His defense sagged. His effort slackened. With NBA scouts watching, the bad old body language returned. At a team meal he complained about not receiving the entrée he wanted and stalked back to his room.
Bewildered team officials asked if McCants was trying to get cut. (He wasn't.) Scouts wondered privately if he should be on medication for his behavior. McCants apologized to Sampson, but it was too late. "I'm not taking you on this trip, and it's not because of your talents," the coach finally told him. McCants had been cut from a team despite being its best player--again. "My heart was in my stomach," he says.
"Rashad was our best shooter, our best post-up player, our best creator," Sampson says with a sigh. "He's a good kid who's going to be a lottery pick. But the area of the game where he'll make his biggest improvements is on teammate issues."
Within hours McCants phoned Roy Williams and said he was sorry for embarrassing North Carolina. But when the Tobacco Road media began calling, he ignored them, retreating back within himself, back within that blue loose-leaf notebook.
Is it because my car is nice, clothes are nice, because I listen to Jay-Z, cuz I'm kinda cute? Or is it just "jealousy"? This has got to be the weakest emotion that anyone can have. To be jealous that I have what you don't have. But what I don't understand is why hate on just me? Then I thought, ain't no one fresher than me, no one flier than me, no one realer than me. So I am the reason people hate, prime reason you should hate anyone like me. I think it's cuz I was "BORN 2 BE HATED."
during a layover at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on the way back from Jordan's camp in August, McCants had what he calls "a life-changing talk" with Sean May and another longtime friend, Wake Forest guard Justin Gray. McCants, May recalls, was almost in tears.
"I don't know what to do," McCants told them. "I feel like I've got the worst reputation in the world, and I don't know how to change it."
"Just start with today," May responded.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, when you leave here, don't be unapproachable. Smile if somebody comes up to you. You walk around sometimes with this straight-faced look, and it's like nobody can talk to you. I'm your boy, and I'm going to tell you: There's some stuff you need to change."
"He took it well," May says. "Nowadays on campus he'll stop and talk to everybody, even joke a little bit. He's starting to enjoy college."
McCants still has his moments. Last month he caused an uproar when he said playing for Carolina was like serving a prison sentence (he later apologized), and he occasioned more head-scratching with the two fresh tattoos on his arms reading BORN TO BE HATED and DYING TO BE LOVED. But most days McCants seems to be doing the right things: Cheering on his teammates during conditioning drills. Cracking wise in the locker room. Saying that for the Tar Heels to succeed, his scoring needs to go down while his rebounding goes up. The shield might be starting to lift. "I want everyone to know that just because I don't smile doesn't mean I'm gonna curse when you speak to me," McCants says. "Just because I'm not glowing with enthusiasm doesn't mean I'm gonna go crack somebody in the face. I'm a good kid. I don't want everybody to feel threatened or defensive around me. Perception is deception."
But McCants may learn this semester in Social Psychology, his favorite class, that deception can cut both ways. Despite what he may think sometimes, nobody hates Rashad McCants. Nobody who knows him, at least. Not Van Allen, his coach for two years at Erwin High, who still keeps one of Rashad's poems (title: I Am) on his office door. Not Jamie Arsenault, his coach at New Hampton, who says, "I've never had a more clutch player, and I love him as a kid." Not his Carolina teammates. "He doesn't realize that not everybody is against him," says Jawad Williams. "As a team we're never against him."
And certainly not Roy Williams. "Bottom line, he can play his butt off," the coach says. "Bottom line, he's a good kid. Bottom line, if it's something extremely important, I trust him unequivocally."
Late last summer McCants paid a visit to Asheville. He stopped to see Julia Darity and told her about being cut by USA Basketball. "I know sometimes you can't help it," she told him, "but maybe, baby, you'll have to start thinking before you act."
"I know," McCants replied. "You're going to see a better me this season."
A better me. The charming Southern lady smiles after telling the story. "I believe him," she says.
"Just because I'm not glowing with enthusiasm DOESN'T MEAN I'M GONNA CRACK SOMEBODY," McCants says.
"What I don't understand is why hate on just me?" he wrote in his notebook. "I think it's cuz I was BORN 2 BE HATED."
"Bottom line is, he can PLAY HIS BUTT OFF," says Roy Williams. "If it's something extremely important, I trust him unequivocally."
COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION
Photo illustrations by Howard Schatz
WHEN HE'S GOOD ...
McCants scorches foes with his acrobatic, slashing drives to the hoop and his daggerlike treys.
THREE COLOR PHOTOS
Photo illustrations by Howard Schatz