Exhibition Game: Hubert Davis Shares His Carolina Basketball Journey

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By Jessica Stringer

Hubert Davis at a press conference.
Hubert Davis at a press conference at the Dean E. Smith Center on April 6. Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications.

Hubert Davis makes history as the first Black head coach of UNC’s men’s basketball team. You can learn more about his journey at the Carolina Basketball Museum, which reopened to the public on June 1 and will soon unveil a section dedicated to the new Tar Heels’ coach. We spoke to him in May about recruiting, his life experiences around town and his son’s high school graduation.

What were some of your favorite spots in town as a student in the early 1990s and now?

Chapel Hill’s changed so much. I loved the Ye Olde Waffle Shop, but that’s not even open anymore. Spanky’s – it’s not open anymore. But I love Carolina Coffee Shop on Franklin Street, and Top of the Hill is still here. Those are [some] favorite places to go. But anywhere on Franklin Street – it’s just a cool place.

The Carolina Basketball Museum will soon include a section dedicated to the new head coach.
The Carolina Basketball Museum will soon include a section dedicated to the new head coach.

Tell us about meeting your wife, Leslie.

I met her in high school at Lake Braddock [Secondary School]. She’s an Army child, and her dad was stationed at the Pentagon. So at the time, they were living in the northern Virginia area. She was 15; I was 16. We just instantly became great friends and were great friends all throughout high school. She’s one year behind me, and she wanted to go to Davidson. For whatever reason, she ended up [attending] North Carolina. I didn’t even know she was even considering it. She just showed up on campus, and I was like, “What are you doing here?” She said, “I got into North Carolina.” I said, “What in the world? You didn’t tell me?” So then we were best friends in college. We just did everything together. After she graduated, we just looked at each other and said let’s date and get married. We’ve known each other a long time and been married almost 22 years. But it feels like even more because I’ve had my best friend with me since I was 16 years old.

What was it like returning to Chapel Hill and then raising a family here after the NBA?

I needed this place coming from high school. My mom passed away of cancer two days before my junior year of high school. I was a mama’s boy, and she was the love of my life. To go through that was beyond devastating. How I dealt with that [was] I needed to get out, I needed to go someplace. I needed a place that was going to open its arms up to me and encourage and support me. That’s what I found here, not just from the coaches, not just from the secretaries or from the guys on the team, but this university and this community. They just wrapped their arms around me and took care of me the four years that I was here. So when my wife and I were trying to decide where to raise our three children, we decided here. It was a place where not only I knew that they would be cared for, but [where] they would grow up in an environment where people genuinely cared for them and genuinely were on their side. I wanted my kids around that.

Before our interview, I found the July/August 2012 issue of Chapel Hill Magazine that had an article about you making the transition from ESPN to your role as an assistant coach at UNC. There’s a great photo of you, your wife and your three kids playing basketball in your driveway. 

The oldest one now is a senior. He graduated in June.

Hubert Davis with his family
Hubert Davis, center, with his sons, Micah and Elijah, his wife, Leslie, and his daughter, Bobbie Grace. Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications.

Congratulations! What was it like watching your son’s basketball career at Jordan High School? 

I never wanted any of my kids to play basketball. I just know how people are. My daughter plays lacrosse, and my youngest son loves soccer. But Elijah wanted to play basketball. He’s always loved it. And I always felt horrible for him. Because everywhere he goes, he’s always compared, critiqued, judged. I’ve always wanted people to celebrate him, absent of my career. My life is my life. Elijah, Gracie and Micah – it’s their life. I didn’t want any of my kids to have that added pressure of comparison and instant evaluation in terms of comparing it to me. The only one I think who could have done it is Elijah. He’s the one who played basketball, and I love watching him play. And I’m so proud of him. He’s going to play basketball at the University of Lynchburg. Just like me, he’s going to a place around good people who have their arms open, ready to care for him and encourage him and to support him. He’s going off to college the first week of August. It’s been hard. And I can only imagine as it gets closer and closer, how difficult this is going to be for me. I can’t imagine his personality not being in our house. I have cried tears of joy because I’m so proud of him, but I’m also sad. I don’t want him to go, but he’s ready to go.

That’s so exciting for your family. Congratulations to him! 

It’s pretty cool. He’s only two hours, 15 minutes away, so I could go see him. I’ll be up there a lot.

The Carolina Basketball Museum will soon unveil an exhibit about Hubert Davis.

What are you most looking forward to about your first game as head coach? Have you imagined that moment yet,or are you just going to let it happen? 

I haven’t imagined that. The thing that I love is being around the guys, I’m a relationship guy. I love being around them – not just on the court and off the court. I love practice and individual workouts. I love helping them and supporting them in trying to reach all their personal dreams and goals and get them to understand how fun and how important it is to do it together. I love the idea of different personalities, different backgrounds, different gifts and talents and trying to blend that all together to be the best that we can be. I haven’t really thought about the game. It’s a long time away. We started individual workouts, and they started playing pickup. I just have loved it.

How’s recruiting going? 

Recruiting is great. I love talking about this place because I’ve filtered through my experience of being here. It’s very natural, very easy to be able to talk about it with recruits and families. I love meeting new people. This month will be extremely busy. On June 1, we were allowed to recruit, the first time in over a year.

I haven’t taken a recruiting trip in almost a year and a half. And it’s also opened up so that recruits can visit campus, so we had seven official visits in the month of June, seven different recruits and families coming in. To give you an example of our two incoming freshmen – Dontrez Styles, who I have seen play before, but I haven’t seen him play in person in a year and a half to two years. And D’Marco Dunn, who is the incoming freshmen who’s going to be great for us. His family and him are unbelievably terrific. But I’ve never met or seen him play in person. Laughs. We had to do everything through Zoom calls and film and tape and all kinds of stuff. So getting a chance to speak to somebody face-to-face – which I’ve always said is the best way to communicate – that I’m excited about.

What are your expectations for next year’s team? What is the biggest improvement you’d like for the returners to make? I know you’ve mentioned shooters several times in the off-season. 

Our goals are the same every year: We want to win the ACC regular season and tournament, get to a Final Four, and win a national championship – that will never change. There are areas [where] we need to get better – we need to become more talented, plain and simple, because we didn’t reach any of our goals last year. So to think that you can just run it back with the same cast, that would be negligent on all of our parts. We’ve got to get better, we’ve got to get more talent in, and the guys who are currently here have to get better. And so that’s what we’re doing. We’re relentlessly working on the court to make sure that we’re working on the things we need to improve on and making sure that each one of us are different players next year, compared to what we played this past season. The guys are really working hard. They’re excited about this upcoming season. And you can tell that they’re ready to go.

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Chapel Hill Mag Intern

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