The Sad Tar Heel Fan’s Guide to P.J. Basketball-Gate

Last year, P.J. Hairston established himself as a supernova bright spot on a UNC Basketball team that spent the first half of the season oscillating between disappointing and infuriating. Over the course of the season, as Roy Williams transitioned into a style of basketball that played to his team’s strengths, The Black Wolverine went from reliable bench player to easily the most beloved of the starting five. He wrung drop after drop of goodwill and enthusiasm out of the fickle Sham-Wows that are Carolina fans’ souls, and drew, in particular, some borderline-psychotic affection from this guy right here.

Over the past four weeks, however, we may have learned that Neil deGrasse Tyson was right all along: supernovas happen when a star dies in a terrible explosion of monumental cosmic destructiveness.

To be fair, in a vacuum, PJ’s pitfalls are relatively tame, especially compared to the other athletic scandals that we are currently entrenched in. Johnny Football wins a crazy-off with P.J. B-Ball in a landslide. Good ol’ J. Heisman has put hands on a coach and picked actual fights with heated rivals on their turf, whereas P.J.B.B. got caught speeding on a stretch of highway that every single North Carolinian has broken 80mph on. (Seriously, that portion of 85 near Salisbury might be the most boring stretch of highway outside of the Dakotas). I also remain unconvinced that the pot wasn’t in that car because whenever The Black Wolverine drives through Durham, teenagers shout “PJ’s coming!” and toss their drugs out of their windows at him.

Unfortunately for Mr. Hairston, he doesn’t have the luxury of committing crimes in Texas, where things like rule-following and sobriety are considered signs of liberal femininity (legally, Texas’ state bird is “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and bars have a fight quota they have to meet or risk being shut down by the cops), nor does he have the luxury of misbehaving in a vacuum (which doesn’t exist in nature). Instead, he has to contend with the microscope that’s already focused on Chapel Hill, thanks in large part to a coach whose name rhymes with Mutch Mavis and an AFAM department that might have just been a random number generator programmed by the same scientists who engineered Julius Peppers.

Needless to say, the possible loss of UNC’s best 3-point shooter would be pretty terrible by itself, but add to that the fact that he’s the emotional center of the team and a tenacious defender, and you come up with something that, for a number of reasons, should leave fans of UNC basketball heartbroken.

I made the case here that because of of his impressive stats but often infuriating actual play, James Michael McAdoo was college basketball’s first fully tangible athlete. If you never actually saw him play, but only read the numbers in the paper the next day, you’d think he was the best player on the team. PJ isn’t the opposite of that, exactly, because he also had a pretty impressive statistical season, but the things he brought to the game beyond his ability to shoot the 3 made a huge difference for the team last year. As has been noted, he defended tenaciously, threw his body around with reckless abandon, and fired up everyone around him. There was a palpable shift in the team’s attitude from when PJ wasn’t on the court to when he was. In short, he was tangible and intangible at the exact same time, like some kind of basketball Schrodinger’s cat or that cute X-Girl played by Ellen Page. And to lose Ellen Page from the team would be a cause for great distress, to say the least.

P.J. seemed to find his shot after a summer under the tutelage of Hubert Davis, who came on in May 2012 as a shooting coach and assistant. If Leslie MacDonald (at just south of PJ’s 3 point percentage on a little over half as many attempts, also batting 1.000 on phones purchased from the gentleman who rented the car P.J. was driving in Durham) can keep developing similarly (and stay. Out. Of. Trouble.), he can be a viable threat beyond the arc, sure, but can he play the same kind of defense as Hairston, or occupy a role of emotional leadership?

The potential is there for next year to be very successful one for Carolina. A more mature Marcus Paige means steadier play and fewer turnovers, and Kennedy Meeks (and the possibly viable outside shooting of Leslie MacDonald) will take pressure off of McAdoo and allow him more space to work in (I’m pretty hard on James Michael here, but even I’ll admit that a big part of his problem last year was that defenses could key on him). The ceiling on this team, with PJ, is somewhere in the same ballpark as really really good bordering on great, but even without him it’s a collection of remarkable talent and potential.

We’ll have to wait and find out what the verdict is for P.J. (from Roy Williams, his actual judge, not the pitiable state Judge whose authority is merely legal, and who’s dropped the drug-related charge against Hairston) but what’s going to make this set of circumstances particularly sticky for UNC fan’s craws is how tame his actions are compared to certain other area delinquents.

It also can’t go unsaid: if P.J. somehow remains on the team, the signs in the student section of Cameron Indoor will be the stuff of nightmares.

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