HOUSTON — Sitting on the stage in the interview room at the NRG Stadium a few days before his team was set to play Syracuse in the national semifinal, North Carolina coach Roy Williams was asked about his relationship with senior Marcus Paige.
Their days together are numbered. After this weekend, their relationship defined in the roles of coach and player will come to an end as Paige finally exhausts his collegiate eligibility.
But just because Paige, Williams’ tough lil’ nut and go-to guy, won’t suit up for the No. 1 seed Tar Heels any more doesn’t mean that their friendship is over.
It’s impossible to predict the future, but in the past, Williams’ friendships have transcended the hardwood, and as Paige grows out of Chapel Hill, Williams hopes that their friendship will grow too.
“Gosh, I hope so,” Williams said, his voice not quite breaking, but already tinged with emotion. “I think it will. He’s one of the most incredible young men I’ve ever been around. Marcus Paige has made me a better coach every day. He teaches me something every day.
“I think you have an opportunity to learn from every player, But Marcus truly has the gift of getting other people to follow him. He has that gift. I hope that our relationship only gets better and better. I think it will.”
Decades ago, Williams was in a similar position with T.C. Roberson head coach Buddy Baldwin. Williams was Baldwin’s point guard in the late 1960s, and even after graduating high school and heading off to careers at UNC and Kansas, Baldwin and Williams have remained close.
Baldwin estimates that he’s come to 141 games at the Smith Center since Williams took over UNC’s reins in 2003. When Williams was at Kansas, Baldwin and his wife picked a weekend every year to drive down for a couple of Big Eight games.
Health permitting, Baldwin goes to as many postseason games as possible, and each time Williams goes the Final Four, Baldwin goes too.
“It’s one of the things I’m more proud of than anything,” Williams said before leaving for Houston. “I say that my teams have taken me to seven — and now I can say my teams have taken me to eight Final Fours — and I take my high school coach with me every year.
“He was in Philadelphia and Washington DC. He’s fought and beat cancer three times. He’s had a kidney removed, bladder removed, he’s been back out on the golf course. It’s a thrill for me. I talk to him a heck of a lot more than I should. I’m a pain the butt talking to him.”