Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Appalachian native wins second NCAA national championship

Appalachian native Roy Williams, head coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels, led his team to the NCAA Men's Basketball National Championship last night. The Tar Heels defeated Michigan State 89-72 to win North Carolina's second national championship under Williams, who also won in 2005. It was North Carolina's fifth NCAA men's basketball championship overall.

Williams spent his early years in the Appalachian towns of Marion and Spruce Pine, NC, but as a young child his family moved to Biltmore, outside of Asheville, NC. Williams was raised near the famous Biltmore Estate, the megamansion built by robber baron George Vanderbilt in the nineteenth century. Williams attended T. C. Roberson High School, where he earned letters in basketball and baseball.

A 2003 article by Ed Hardin, in the Greensboro, NC, News & Record, discussed Williams' years in Biltmore :

"I've never even been inside it," Williams said (of the Biltmore House)...He lived on another hill in a tiny white house under two giant hardwoods.

Williams escaped from these hills in a Ford Mustang, and he fully intended to come home forever. His mother died in 1992 and his alcoholic father moved a few years back... "My mother was my hero," he said. "She was a very intelligent, uneducated lady who only went through the 10th grade. She always said, 'You just try to do the right thing, and sometimes the right thing is not necessarily what you want to do, but you do the right thing.' "

"When I was a youngster I dreamed of playing at North Carolina," he said. "Then I dreamed of coaching at North Carolina. You may not believe this, but I never dreamed of being a head coach at North Carolina. I always dreamed of being coach Smith's assistant."

T.C. Roberson High School sits far off the main road, located on the banks of Lake Julian just below the Blue Ridge Parkway. The gym is named for Buddy Baldwin, the Roberson basketball coach who would become Williams' mentor.

Baldwin said that was something he found out later.

"You don't know about things like that at the time," he said. "I knew Roy when he came in the ninth grade. He played basketball, and he played baseball. He was a little guy, but he loved the game, and he worked really, really hard at it."

Basketball would be his way out, and he determined that early on.

"Roy could've done anything he wanted," Baldwin said. "And I mean anything. He was a very good student - a Morehead scholarship nominee. He had an offer to go to Georgia Tech on an engineering scholarship, but he wanted to be a coach."

Williams went to UNC where he met Smith and soon became a student of Smith's game. Williams was allowed to watch UNC practices. Upon graduation, Williams headed back to the mountains to start his career.

"You look at his teams now, you can see his teams at Owen," Baldwin said. "They had very little talent when he first started, but they developed quickly. They played very hard, and he played a lot of what Carolina did - run-and-jump, man-to-man defense. He played a lot of kids, not just the six or seven best. He played all of them, alternating them in and out. He took what he'd learned and did what he could with it."

Williams learned he wanted to coach forever. He learned he wanted to coach like Buddy Baldwin and Dean Smith. And as much as it hurt him, he learned he'd have to get out of western North Carolina to do it.

"If I have something I like, I usually stick with it," he said last week. "It's hard for me to leave and do something else. I've had the same putter for 34 years, and the same wife for 29."

Change comes slow to the mountains. The appeal of small towns like Biltmore and even the larger mountain towns such as Asheville is the slow evolution over time.

While Biltmore looks the same to the occasional tourist, the locals believe it's changed dramatically.

"It's been like an explosion," Baldwin said.

Williams would recognize his old neighborhood. Not much has changed since the day he left. The explosion of upscale homes and coffee shops and eclectic restaurants happened elsewhere. He likely wouldn't have much time for them.

His memories of home are of his mother and of the basketball courts at Biltmore Elementary, where he learned the game of basketball and discovered a way out. The irony on the hill, the giant Biltmore Estate that turned away locals while turning a profit on the tourists, was never a part of his world.

"I used to sneak onto the grounds," Williams recalled a few years back. "We'd steal sugar cane poles for the pole vaulters in high school. But I never went in."

There's an expanse between the haves and have-nots here, and it forms a person from an early age. There are million-dollar homes just off Hendersonville Road, and there are places like 6 Warren Ave.

Of course, that's the history of this place. Asheville looks just as it did decades ago when much of the state and the nation was blowing up old buildings to make way for new ones. Asheville couldn't afford to do it, so there's an old charm that can never be reproduced or bought.

Thomas Wolfe said the mountains beckon you to leave and then call you back home. People who leave here do come back again, and most haven't changed a bit. Williams doesn't come back as much as he used to, but he does from time to time. And when he does, he calls Baldwin, his old basketball coach, and they go play golf.

"Roy's the same now as he was way back then," Baldwin said.

Sources: News & Record, Greensboro, NC, April 20, 2003./ Photos from ESPN.com

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