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Every Family Has One: Larry Drew II We Barely Knew Ye

February 5, 2011

"...when the little boy discovered, at four...that only birds and airplanes could fly--he lost interest in himself."       
 --Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

I forget who the game was against. It was early in the season, and the opponent didn't much matter. I felt confident that a North Carolina team that featured Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Ty Lawson, and Wayne Ellington as upper classmen would steam roll to something, and they did: they won a championship. When a group of guys have played together for three or four years, you know what to expect from them. You know who's going to do the scoring, what the passes will look like, and what effort will be given on defense. It's all so familiar that the present is already past tense, which is why those early games in the 2008-2009 championship season were really all about the new guys: Justin Watts, Tyler Zeller, Ed Davis, and Larry Drew. The question of the 2009 season was never really about whether Hansbrough and company would carry on the Carolina legacy, but how would the freshmen handle playing with young men that were already legends. And the early signs were promising.

Zeller and Davis were like yin and yang gazelles. Both could run the floor, catch passes, and dunk the ball, but what Zeller lacked for in defense and rebounding Davis made up for, looking like a young Brad Daugherty; and the rawness with which Davis played the post on offense was polished into something beautiful by Zeller. They complemented one another like literary twins, and the future for this class appeared bright based on the two biggest members of it.

There's not much to say about Justin Watts. He is Justin Watts. He stands 6'4" and plays the four mostly. He tries hard, and he's probably a good teammate. I'm sure Coach Roy Williams would describe him as a "nice young man." Then again, Roy Williams describes every young man as a nice young man, even the ones who do not live up to his expectations, do not accept his guidance, and betray his trust.

I forget who the game was against, but it was early in Larry Drew II's career at North Carolina. It was a blowout, but I distinctly remember a play where he drove from the top of the key to the foul line, pulled up, and drilled jump shot. His shooting form looked perfect from a technical standpoint; it was easy to see why he had won the McDonald's three-point contest. And it was also easy to see that he was not the same point guard as Ty Lawson or Ray Felton: neither of them would have made that shot as a freshman. That's not to say that Larry Drew was any better than them. He wasn't. But they would have taken that ball to the rack and made an acrobatic layup or dished it for a dunk--the play would have been a highlight that got anyone in light blue to jump out of their seat and yell something about Phil Ford's legacy. Larry never did that. Larry pulled up and made a jumpshot, and it went through the net as quietly and invisible as the name of the player who shot it.

Other than Larry Bird, name one Larry who conjures up feelings of excitement. Larry Brown, another member of the Carolina family, is best known for slowing down the game, letting the air out of the ball, and driving his point guards insane. Think of the even keel Bob Newhart and how much more exciting he was than Larry, his brother Darryl, and his other brother Darryl. Larry Drew II's chances at capturing the hearts and minds of the Tar Heel basketball family were doomed from the start. Everybody loves Raymond. Tywon is spelled with the past tense of win, as if the issue isn't even in question, and Larry Drew II came into the family as the other brother, by name and by position.

Larry Drew II was hated. He played nine minutes per game on a national championship team, in the shadows of a couple legends and a couple big men from his own class. He never endeared himself to anyone because nine minutes per game in blowout after blowout really doesn't add up to much other than grainy memories of a young kid who looked like he might wind up being a decent basketball player. Still, it wasn't Larry Drew's fault he was hated, and maybe it wasn't even him that was hated but the fact that he was a starter the year after Lawson led UNC to a national title. As the starting point guard for one of the country's premier basketball programs, Larry Drew II came to physically embody the disappointment of last season's NIT appearance. He was the living, breathing, tangible object at which Carolina message boards could vent their frustrations. He was the perfect scapegoat, and in turn, his parents probably projected their disappointment in his performances onto Roy Williams. Fans can be cruel, and fans can be mean; but Roy had no part in the shaming of Larry Drew II.

The rumors about the circumstances of Larry Drew's departure are abundant and overwhelming, like weeds, and they may all even be true, down to the one about Roy Williams promising Larry Drew I, last summer, that his son would definitely start this year, which he did. Good ol' Roy Williams started Larry Drew II for seventeen games this year, watching the junior point guard put up 4.4 ppg and 3.9 apg. Roy Williams watched his point guard's three point percentage dip from 35% last season to 20% this season. He watched him his point guard fail create opportunities for UNC's talented wing players, Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock. He watched, and he watched, and he watched, until one day North Carolina went to Atlanta, where Larry Drew I coaches the Hawks, and lost 78 to 58, and Roy had seen enough. It was time for a change, especially when the team played better when Kendall Marshall was on the floor, a fact that was on display every UNC game. North Carolina would get off to slow starts with Drew on the floor, and then Marshall would bring the team back at the end of halves. It was impossible to deny, and it was evident in quotes from players like Barnes, who said after a recent win, "Kendall gets us the ball where it's easy to score." Some players are game changers and some are game managers; Larry Drew II is the latter.

 Larry Drew II wasn't hated. North Carolina is on a four game win streak since Roy made the switch to Marshall. Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock are putting the ball in the basket. Ty Zeller is dunking. John Henson is soaring. This team was coming together. Players are showing improvements, smiles were wide on the bench. Basketball was fun and easy, and Larry Drew II was becoming the perfect anecdote for team ball, an individual willing to give up minutes and stats for the good of the group. But it wasn't just that Larry Drew II didn't make a fuss about going to the bench--he played better coming off the bench. He slowed down and quit trying to be Lawson or Felton. He had his best game of the season against Boston College, and Roy Williams praised him in the post game, according to Adam Lucas. Drew was also receiving praise on UNC message boards. Men were going to use him in order to teach their sons about teamwork and chemistry and personal sacrifice. He had found his place as an important contributor off the bench for what was becoming a very good basketball team peaking as the toughest part of their schedule approached. Then he quit. Just. Like. That. A twitter in the wind.

I found out about Larry Drew II's decision to leave Chapel Hill in the grocery store, on my cell phone, which made me feel quite distant from the event, until I realized that Larry's dad had phoned in the decision and Larry had let his teammates know via facebook, which means I basically found out about Larry Drew II's departure in the same personal manner that his roommate Justin Watts did. Larry Drew II treated me as much like family as he did the guy who sleeps just a few feet away from.

Sometimes the place the universe lays out for us isn't the place where we wish to be. Larry Drew I described his son's decision as "tasteful." It wasn't, and it's bizarre to think that an NBA coach and his wife, who have vastly overrated their own sons' abilities, would think that this midseason resignation is in their son's best interests, both from a personal standpoint and a business standpoint. Larry Drew II gave up the moral high ground when he abandoned his teammates. He also took a route that can be described as nothing less than the path of a quitter, but if this move was done because Roy Williams was wasting Larry Drew's talent, then how does leaving now benefit Larry. In an age where players are expected to have a brand name to go along with their game, Larry Drew just burned the word "DESERTER" into his own flesh, and it doesn't make sense.

Larry's father swears it's his son's decision, but he made the call, no pun intended; and the fact that Larry's teammates found out through facebook suggests that Larry did not feel emotionally connected to them, that maybe his whole experience at North Carolina wasn't real. He's from California, and he never worked out with the team during the summer--he always went home, back to mom, back to dad, back to the life he had before the world of college basketball made it painfully obvious to everyone, except his family, that the kid was not an elite point guard. He was a backup and, as his name suggests, a disappointing sequel. He is not Phil Ford, he is not Raymond Felton, and he is not Tywon Lawson. He isn't even his own father, a man who has made his living from basketball, which brings one to the idea that maybe this choice has nothing to do with Roy Williams, North Carolina, Kendall Marshall, or playing time.

Maybe Larry Drew II just doesn't like basketball. He's never played with much passion. He's homesick. He can't handle playing for a coach who time and time again has gone out on a limb in support of him, risking his own coaching legacy, wins, prestige, and future recruits. Larry Drew II, by making this decision at this time, is also forgoing half a year's worth of eligibility, leaving himself with only one more year of competitive basketball, because he will not make it as a professional--he's not good enough to play here in the States and it's hard to imagine him surviving so far from home in another country. A player who truly loves the game wouldn't be able to walk away so easily from the last games of his career.

Is it a crime not to love basketball? No. But when one is clearly more gifted at something than the average person that individual should be prepared for the scrutiny the average person heaps on them. Nothing infuriates us more than wasted talent and unmet expectations.

Larry Drew II was born into a world of basketball, and his parents raised him to be a star in it; but perhaps that's not what he ever wanted. He always played as if burdened by the game itself, that it was a labor of love, not for the game, but for his father and for his mother. Most would probably describe his game as forced and mechanical, as something that had to be rigorously studied because he lacked the instinct for it. And now, he better unlearn everything he was taught since birth because his decision to leave Chapel Hill may wind up being a decision to walk away from the game itself, and, ironically, despite their support for his decision, Larry Drew may also be walking away from the family name and the destiny his parents believed it promised. When the Drew family comes face to face with the fact that their son is not what they want him to be, I am very grateful that I and no message boards will be within shouting distance of that conversation, as young Larry comes to find out that what he thought was his real family may just be a basketball family after all.


Langston said...

Fully acknowledging that I am not the most ardent UNC follower, I still think this may be something else. Maybe he does love basketball, but can't live up to the pressure heaped onto a player of a UNC/historic program. Maybe he never wanted to play there, and his father prodded him into following in his footsteps. And until now, when he fully sees his sons utter lack of joy in the game, he wouldn't give in on this hope. Maybe it's a mixture of all of these things and maybe change will allow him to find happiness in the game. Or maybe he's blaming his bad play on everyone else but him. Either way, good luck Larry.

February 5, 2011 at 9:43 PM
Teach said...

I think there are several things in play:

One, he can't live up to the pressure.

Two, the move seems largely initiated by the father not the son, and I expect the only reason he wanted Larry at UNC was cause he thought it was an easy route to the NBA. The dad has no UNC ties really.

Third, the mom is crazy. Her son had to switched high school teams largely due to her over involvement.

Fourth, it would have been in Larry's best interests to either transfer last summer or at the end of this season. Now, he loses his eligibility for the remainder of this year and has to sit out a year. While he's listening to his parents tell him there's a better future elsewhere--there isn't. His mom's been posting on message boards that he's going to make it to the NBA--he most likely won't. So, in effect, he just lost a chance to play in a third of his career's remaining games and is now viewed as a quitter.

This was terrible parenting by a group of people who are not acting in his best interests, and the same would be true if he had done this at any other program.

February 6, 2011 at 1:51 PM
Russ said...

I think the point of him just playing basketball because of the name and the background of his family is a good one. I can't think of a time when Larry Drew smiled when he was on the court. I see someone who just didn't enjoy the game and was playing because that's what he believed he should do. Coupled that with the pressure of playing point guard at UNC and his unhappiness was evident in the lack of emotion he showed on the court and the inability to provide leadership to a young team craving for it. They way he went about telling the team and Roy his departure doesn't surprise me one bit.

February 6, 2011 at 3:26 PM
Teach said...

Kendall Marshall may have put all this to rest today with his performance against FSU. He's part Ed Cota, part Jason Kidd.

February 6, 2011 at 5:17 PM

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