Returning to campus, Roy Williams and Tar Heels continue celebration

ByDavid Hale ESPN logo
Tuesday, April 4, 2017

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- A live stream of the plane landing at Raleigh-Durham Airport flashed across the video screens inside the Dean Smith Center, and nearly 20,000 fans roared their approval. Cameras followed each move of the Tar Heels' motorcade, from airport to highway, down Franklin Street as fans stood along the sidewalks and cheered, then into the parking lot.

By the time the players paraded into the arena and climbed the stairs onto a stage, the crowd had reached a frenzy, Roy Williams and his team looking almost embarrassed by the adulation.

For the Tar Heels who spoke -- the seniors, along with All-American Justin Jackson and Final Four MVP Joel Berry -- the theme, mentioned again and again, was redemption. They'd talked and texted and thrived on the idea all season after coming up just shy in last year's national title game against Villanova.

And to be sure, that was part of Tuesday's emotional scene. But perhaps as much as anything, there was relief, underscored by athletic director Bubba Cunningham's pointed tribute to Williams.

"He carries a heavy burden for all of us," Cunningham said of Williams. "He's fiercely defended this university at all times."

The line got a huge round of applause from a crowd that understood all too well what it has been like to defend the school's reputation the past few years.

"He recognizes that sometimes we make mistakes," Cunningham continued, "but when we do, we try to correct that, and we continue to strive for excellence."

Indeed, Williams has weathered the storms and defended North Carolina throughout a seemingly endless NCAA investigation into academic fraud that has hung like a black cloud over the program, even as seniors Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt have arrived and, now, depart Chapel Hill without resolution.

But Tuesday was about celebrating at a place desperate to turn the page.

There were ample references to North Carolina's storied history, too. Chancellor Carol Folt invoked Dean Smith, telling Williams the legendary Tar Heels coach would be proud of all this team had accomplished. Cunningham pointed to the rafters and noted each of the banners hanging there. Sean May, a member of the 2005 national champs, now an assistant, earned one of the evening's biggest ovations. And Williams read a text message from Michael Jordan, congratulating the team.

As much as anything, though, the crowd wanted to revel in a new championship, one earned despite the weight of scandal.

Fans began lining up at noon outside the Smith Center, holding newspapers and signs. By the time the doors opened, the line stretched down the block and wrapped back around again. A highlight video of the tournament played on the video board, and the crowd roared for Luke Maye's game-winning shot against Kentucky and Theo Pinson's final rebound against Gonzaga as if they'd happened live. The fans chanted "one more year" as Jackson was introduced and roared for Berry, who wore the net from Monday's game around his neck.

"We basically did our thing," Berry crowed. "And we came back home with [a championship]. That's about all I can say."

Williams applied the finishing touches to the celebration with his own nod toward what this championship means to the program -- be it redemption or relief or resolution.

"I just think of all those other people around here who are so ticked off [we won]," Williams said.