By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — As much as Roy Williams and Hubert Davis expressed their love and respect for each other Tuesday, they had a bit of a conflict.
Davis may have officially taken over as UNC’s men’s basketball coach but he wasn’t about to take Williams’ spacious Smith Center office.
It wasn’t an argument. It was a disagreement.
“When I heard that Coach Williams was in his office and even looking at pictures, the reason why I wanted to go in there, the first thing I told him, ‘Leave all the pictures up. This is your office,’ ” Davis said.
“I told him that for two reasons,” Davis said. “This is his office. This is his home. I want Coach Williams, I want Mrs. Williams, I want all of his children and I want his grandchildren — when they come to games — to go into his office. I want them to go home. And I don’t want that to change. The second reason is — it’s selfishly — that’ll make me think he’s still here.”
Davis says the desk, a couch and a TV in his current office gave him everything he needs. More importantly, he wants Williams to be around. Davis added that if he isn’t around, he knows where Williams lives.
“I know he likes to play golf,” Davis said. “So, I can find him.”
The bond between the coaches 20 years apart in age is obvious when you hear them talk about each other. With emotion apparent in his voice, Davis — who played for Dean Smith and Pat Riley — tried to explain what Williams meant to him.
Whenever Davis ran out of the tunnel for a game, he always looked for his dad, who he saw for the first time in more than a year this week after his father recently got his second vaccination shot. Davis knew that, regardless of how he played, there was one person in the stands who was on his side.
“That’s the way that I felt about Coach Williams,” Davis said. “He’s the greatest coach that I’ve ever been around. Every time he walked through the office, I took a deep breath because I just felt settled, because everything was gonna be OK. Because Coach Williams was there. … I absolutely love him to death. And I’m so thankful for just giving me a chance, and giving me an opportunity. I can’t believe that he’s here today.”
When Williams asked him to come by the office a decade ago, Davis figured that there might be a problem with the dates for his Christian basketball camp. He was wrong. Williams wanted the then-ESPN analyst to be one of his assistant coaches.
“And I don’t remember anything else he said. All I know is I left the office, I went home, I sat at the kitchen table and my wife said, ‘What is wrong with you?’ ” Davis said. “I told her, and we cried there for a couple of hours, and we cried not because we were leaving ESPN or crying because we didn’t know what we were getting into. Those were tears of joy and happiness, and knowing this is exactly the direction that we needed to go, and what we needed to do.”
It probably is no coincidence that Davis is succeeding Williams, considering the Hall of Fame coach’s influence on the hiring process and how much he respects Davis.
“I’ve never known a finer person in my entire life, who has a switch that he turns on and can be as competitive as anybody around,” Williams said in a video the school released Tuesday. “Hubert Davis will not be an overachiever as a coach to me, because I think he’s going to be great.”
Williams sat in a row of seats next to Davis’ father, wife and three children.
Davis clearly wants Williams around to bounce ideas off of him but goes into the job feeling confident even with the sky-high program expectations and the pressure that comes with replacing a legend.
“I don’t feel pressure because I’m not comparing myself to anybody. Coach Williams is the greatest. I’m Hubert. And, as I said before, the only thing that I need to do is to do this job with my personality and in my shoes. And I’ve been doing that for 50 years, so I think I can do it some more. I don’t have a problem with that. Yes, this job brings pressure. Yes, this job brings anxiety,” Davis said.
He added that his playing career at UNC, his 12 years in the NBA, his seven years at ESPN and his nine years as an assistant coach at Carolina collectively have him ready for the challenges ahead.
“All those experiences have prepared me to walk this path with humbleness, excitement, joyfulness and determination,” Davis said.
Considering that Davis said he’d need a beach towel and not a tissue to get through the press conference, he held it together well while also showing his passion for the university, the basketball program and for his faith.
If there are any UNC fans who doubt his ability to do the job, they wouldn’t be the first people to doubt him.
Even Smith doubted Davis as a player and suggested that he take one of his only two scholarship offers at the time — at George Mason, coached by Rick Barnes, or George Washington, coached by former UNC player John Kuester.
Virginia came into the process late. But even though he grew up in northern Virginia, he always had a passion for Carolina that he got from his uncle, Walter Davis, a UNC star in the 1970s. Smith said that Davis didn’t have the same type of experience or success as his uncle and he didn’t want to jeopardize his relationship with the family.
“You might be right, that I can’t play at this level,” Davis said he told Smith. “But you wouldn’t know for sure unless you gave me a chance. Unless you gave me an opportunity. And then I also told him I wanted to come here. This is where I wanted to get my education. This is where I wanted to get my degree. And Coach Smith and Coach Williams left my house and I did not get an offer.”
Two days later, Smith called and offered him a scholarship and Davis committed on the spot.
“Everything significant in my life has happened here,” he said during the press conference at the Smith Center. “This is where I played basketball. This is where I got better. This is where I went to school and graduated with the criminal justice degree. This is where I met the best friends in my life. This is where I became a Christian. This is where I fell in love with my wife. This is where I bought my first house. This is where my wife and I got married. And, in 2004, when we decided to retire from the NBA, we could have lived anywhere we wanted to in the country. And my wife and I decided to raise our three unbelievable beautiful children here in Chapel Hill.”
One of the most emotional moments this week came after he got a text message from Larry Brown, the former Carolina star of the 1960s who was Davis’ coach with the Detroit Pistons. They had a falling out and he eventually asked for and was granted his release and finished his career with the New Jersey Nets.
Davis hadn’t spoken with Brown since then.
“He texted me and said. ‘I just wanted to let you know I would love for you to be the next head coach at the University of North Carolina.’ And that, ‘Coach Smith, the idea of that happening would put a smile on his face.’ I just immediately started crying and gave the phone to my wife and I said, ‘Read this.’ And I said, ‘I thought he didn’t like me.’ And, to me, that’s just the perfect example of what this place is all about. There are so many people that use catchphrases and different words to describe the togetherness and the closeness of a program. North Carolina is the standard. There’s nobody that has family, nobody that’s an example of togetherness and family that we have here at North Carolina.”
He will bring intensity to the job just like Williams, but it will be in a different way. Kenny Williams, who has known Davis for six years, said that he has never heard Davis utter a curse word.
“He can get fiery,” Kenny Williams said. “He can get to yelling. But he also knows how to adjust to the moment. He’s probably one of my top three favorite people that I’ve ever been around.”
Although he still holds the program record for career 3-point shooting percentage, he proved in his long NBA career that he was more than a shooter. He’s proved people wrong his entire life and isn’t about to stop as he takes over one of the top basketball programs in the country.
Expect Davis to deliver messages to his players like the one he got from Don Nelson after the veteran coach became Davis’ coach with the New York Knicks in 1992.
Nelson told Davis, a starter at the time, that he could never play for him because he saw Davis as just a shooter. He wanted a “basketball player” who could defend, rebound, handle the ball and come off ball screens. He didn’t want a one-dimensional player.
“So, wow, that’s a really nice conversation to your starter in the first conversation,” said Davis, who told Nelson he appreciated the words. “And he just walked away. And I’m so thankful that he had that conversation with me because he told me exactly what I needed to hear as opposed to what I wanted to hear.
Davis then started working on being a more complete player.
“Because of him, the last four years that I was in the NBA, I played point guard. And that wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t challenge me there.”
After UNC’s struggles last season and changes in the roster, expect Davis to be issuing plenty of challenges to the Tar Heels between now and the start of the season that are similarly honest.