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College basketball: March Madness 2005

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  • North Carolina fans still wonder if star is heel or hero

    By GARY SHELTON
    Published March 27, 2005


    SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Some guys are easy. Some guys you have at hello.

    Some guys let you know the important stuff up front. Shake their hands, and you know their dreams and their fears and their backgrounds. Some guys are as easy to read as a billboard.

    Then there are those such as Rashad McCants, whose time at North Carolina has been like solving a riddle written in Sanskrit when the page has been printed upside down.

    Want to get to know McCants, the most talented mystery in America? Get in line. Roy Williams would like to know him, too. Even after three tumultuous seasons, Tar Heel Nation struggles to penetrate the shield of the occasionally moody, often magnificent McCants.

    Today, it is Wisconsin's turn to try to figure out McCants. If you can argue North Carolina is the nation's most talented team, you can argue McCants is its most talented player. If the Badgers are really going to slow the Tar Heels and ugly up the Elite Eight game, McCants is where they will have to start. Even on a team with center Sean May and point guard Raymond Felton, it is McCants who makes the scouts lean forward.

    No one ever denied McCants' talent. Not the people who called him moody or the coaches who thought him selfish, not the teammates who found him unpredictable or the critics who suggested he might be unstable. Not even Matt Doherty, back when the two of them seemed intent on driving each other out of town.

    His personality, on the other hand, has left everyone scratching their heads. Twice, he has been cut from summer teams because of it. Once, Doherty suggested he see a sports psychologist because of it. Once, even May, his buddy, suggested McCants had to be more predictable for his teammates.

    "Is that the purpose in life, to go around being easy to read?" McCants lifts his eyes, but his voice stays soft. He sits on a podium in the Carolina locker room, his narrow eyes peering out and then moving.

    "I'm not that kind of person. I don't want everyone to be able to read me. I'm private. It's just the way I am.

    "It used to bother me, the things people said. I have the same kind of questions you would have. "Why did they say that just because I made a face on the court? Why are they talking about me like that?' But I can't control what the media says."

    He would like to tell you he doesn't care, but that isn't true. He admits he reads the Internet chats to know what people are thinking. In a Sports Illustrated article, he suggested he was the most criticized athlete ever. That's overstating it, of course, but Carolina is a state where college basketball players are treated like rock stars, and the scrutiny has shaken McCants.

    He has been called selfish. He has heard fans suggest he is bipolar. When McCants suggested that being at Carolina was like "being in prison," there was backlash.

    Want to get to know McCants? The clearest hints are written in tattoo ink, the parchment of the young. On his right arm, it is written: Born to be Hated. On his left: Dying to be Loved.

    At the core, that seems to be McCants, a player struggling to be liked without knowing exactly how. In life, there are people with raging egos that hide massive insecurities. There are people who bluster to overcome shyness.

    Now that Carolina has regained its swagger, perhaps McCants can earn a fresh canvas. He seems to be one of the keys to the Heels' continued journey. He is also a reminder of how recently the program was in chaos.

    Two seasons ago, and McCants had kicked open the doors to college basketball. He scored 28 points in his first game, looking every bit like a player who wasn't going to wait to be a star.

    That was a splintered team, however, on its way to an 8-20 season. Doherty could not find a way to relate to McCants, or vice versa. McCants felt criticized for being too showy, then criticized for being too vocal, then criticized for being too quiet. When Doherty suggested McCants see a psychologist, the damage was done.

    Now that Carolina is winning again, it would be easy to lay all of McCants problems at Doherty's feet. It isn't that simple. McCants was cut from the U.S. junior national team, even though coach Kelvin Sampson of Oklahoma admitted he was the most talented player in camp. Last year, current Carolina coach Roy Williams banished McCants from the bench for not cheering for his teammates.

    "To this day, (Williams) still doesn't know me," McCants said. "But he knows I want to win."

    Like most of McCants' teammates, May will tell you McCants is misunderstood. That once you get inside of McCants' defenses, he's a different person than the perception.

    Perhaps success will change that. The Tar Heels are winning again, and if they can inflict their style on a slower Wisconsin team, rather than the other way around, the Final Four seems probable.

    Perhaps if Carolina wins it all, perhaps if he climbs the ladder to cut the nets, perhaps everything will change.

    From up there, perhaps he and his followers will understand each other a little better.

    [Last modified March 27, 2005, 00:35:15]


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