Desmond Hubert not blocked by a challenge

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After seeing limited playing time during his freshman year, Desmond Hubert has worked his way into the starting lineup.

When North Carolina forward Desmond Hubert tips off tonight against Duke in what will likely be the biggest game in the new starter’s career to date, the atmosphere associated with college basketball’s biggest rivalry will be just one more illustrious tale the sophomore can report to his friends back home in New Jersey. He tells them all the time just how lucky he feels to be where he is today.

Going from averaging just five minutes per game last season to now holding down a starting role for UNC, Hubert feels fortunate for his increased responsibility and the privilege of putting on a Carolina blue jersey. Playing before a packed house of more than 9,000 fans in Cameron Indoor Stadium will soon be just one more reminder that he’s living his dream.

In a seat behind the North Carolina bench tonight will be one fan in particular to whom Hubert owes much of his gratitude.

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Duke rivalry

Read more about the UNC-Duke rivalry from years past.

For almost every UNC basketball game, Hubert’s uncle, Henry Jackson, is in the stands looking on. It’s a seven-hour drive for Jackson to Chapel Hill from Cream Ridge, N.J., where he raised Hubert since his mother passed away in 2007. But Jackson does his best not to miss one, even if it means driving through the night to get back home in time for work the next day.

Having never played organized basketball before moving to New Jersey as a teenager, Hubert has his uncle to thank for his continuously blossoming basketball career and for being the parent he so tragically lost at the age of 14.

“He didn’t have to do that,” Hubert said. “Him taking care of me and raising me like I was his son wasn’t his responsibility.”

But tonight at tipoff, when the buildup is big and the stakes are even bigger, Jackson will be able to look to center-court and see examples of not just the gifts he gave, but also the life-changing one he got in return.

The savior

Having no relationship with his father, Hubert was raised in Winter Park, Fla., by his single mother, Rose. Since it was just the two of them, she and Hubert had a close relationship as he grew up.

But sometimes, he just needed to get away.

Rose was diagnosed with cancer when Hubert was in second grade. Watching his only parent suffer through a serious illness weighed on him. When it became too overwhelming, one thing was sure to help him forget.

“I had to grow up really fast,” Hubert said. “I missed out on a lot of my childhood when I was younger. (Basketball) was always somewhere I could go to escape, take my mind off of things. It was like therapy for me, almost.”

Shortly before Hubert’s 14th birthday, life as he knew it completely changed.

Rose’s health had worsened. Jackson, the man Rose had appointed to be her son’s guardian should anything happen to her, was now faced with the real possibility of one day having to parent the nephew he barely knew. So he persuaded his hesitant sister to leave Florida and move up north so she and Hubert could be closer to him.

In June 2006, Jackson drove down to Winter Park, loaded their belongings in the back of his trailer and moved them into a rental property he owned nearby his home.

“My sister didn’t want to move back up here, because she felt like she was coming home to die,” Jackson said. “But I just told her for Desmond’s sake, since I’m going to be the one taking care of him, that he needs to get to know me.”

Thinking that basketball would be something positive for his young nephew to focus on, Jackson got Hubert on a club team with a family friend once he got to New Jersey.

Later that summer, Jay Corby, coach of the newly established varsity basketball program at New Egypt High School, learned from a friend that Jackson’s nephew had moved to town and was interested in playing basketball.

“Bring him to the gym tomorrow morning around 10,” Corby told the man.

The next day, when then-6-foot-7 Hubert showed up to meet the other kids, Corby was awestruck.

“I remember Desmond ducked to come in the doorway. I squeezed (the assistant coach’s) hand, and I said, ‘There’s got to be a Lord,’” he said. “We pretty much felt like we saw the savior walk through the door at that moment.”

A new way of life

On the court, Hubert was learning how to use his natural athleticism in a sport in which he had no
previous coaching. At home, it was an entirely different learning experience.

In May 2007, less than a year after she and Hubert moved to New Jersey, Rose lost her eight-year battle with cancer. Aside from losing the only parent in his life, now Hubert had to adjust to living with Jackson and no longer being the only man in the house.

Jackson gave Hubert household chores and got him a job pumping gas three days a week after school at his self-owned service station. It was a different way of life, but one Hubert grew to appreciate. After all, they needed each other.

At about the time Hubert moved in with him, Jackson was going through a divorce. Having no kids of his own to help him get through his own personal struggles, Jackson leaned on his nephew.

“We were going through tough times at the same time,” Hubert said. “I guess that was our bonding moment.”

By the time Hubert was ready for high school, he had developed more as a basketball player, and his sheer size made him an attraction to many of the big-name high school programs in New Jersey.

But Jackson, his roots in the Cream Ridge area along with the business he’d owned since 1984, thought it was best that Hubert stay at New Egypt High School, despite the fact that the program had won just six games in its first five years.

As Hubert began to grow into relevance, so did his team. Soon, Corby was no longer looking at the same clumsy kid that walked through his door that summer day.

“(At the beginning) he couldn’t catch a cold,” Corby said. “You’d throw a ball at him, and you’re pretty close to breaking his nose eight out of 10 times.”

In four years on the varsity team at New Egypt, Hubert recorded more than 1,000 points, 1,500 rebounds and 750 blocks. During his senior year, he captained the Warriors and led them to a program-record 24 wins and a spot in the Central Jersey Group 1 Section Championship game with his obtrusive presence under the basket.

“He was just a freak defensively,” said Ron Tortoriello, Hubert’s high school teammate and men’s basketball team manager at N.C. State. “Kids wouldn’t even go in the paint because he was down there. He would just change an entire team’s game plan.”

And those are just the kind of players coach Roy Williams likes to have on his team.

A work in progress

After making a couple of visits to New Jersey to see Hubert in action, Williams invited him and Jackson to Chapel Hill in April 2011 for an official visit. Though it meant a second big move away from home, Hubert signed a couple weeks later.

During his freshman season, Hubert didn’t see a lot of playing time, as current NBA forwards John Henson and Tyler Zeller had a stronghold on the big-man roles.

Hubert struggled going from being the hometown hero to spending so much time on the bench. As a freshman, he scored just 17 points — two fewer than his total in New Egypt’s 49-47 section championship loss.

He saw 10 combined minutes in UNC’s four NCAA Tournament games and less than one minute in the Tar Heels’ last-second loss to Duke last season in the Smith Center.

But the lack of a major presence on the team didn’t cause him to slow down. In fact, it was just the opposite. Once Henson and Zeller were selected in the first round of the NBA Draft last June, Hubert knew it was his time to strike.

Hubert intensified his workouts during the offseason, and when the 2012-13 campaign began on Nov. 9, the sophomore started the first five games.

Still, Williams wouldn’t commit to a permanent starter at the position throughout the first month of the season, giving freshmen Joel James and Brice Johnson a chance to show what they could do.

But in the end, it was the thing at which Hubert has always excelled that forced him to finally make up his mind.

“Desmond is just so much more effective on the defensive end of the floor in rebounding and talking, making our whole team defense a heck of a lot better,” Williams said.

So far this season, Hubert leads the team with 23 blocks. Offensively, he’s still very much a work in progress.

Williams said Hubert has done a much better job at communicating on the court this season. Teammate and roommate James Michael McAdoo revealed that after UNC fell to N.C. State on Jan. 26, nobody on the team took the loss harder than Hubert.

His teammate’s stat lines might not jump off the page, but McAdoo insists his true value is immeasurable.

“I could talk all day about Desmond,” McAdoo said.

“He’s an example of a guy who might not get that much credit, but everybody knows it’s guys like him that make this team successful.”

A gift that keeps giving

Sometimes covered up by a chunky black watch when he’s not on the court, the tattoo of his mother’s death date on his wrist is a daily reminder of the person he lost too early and the lifetime’s worth of storms he’s already weathered.

But for Hubert, who’s used to conquering life’s often unexplainable challenges, there’s always a silver lining.

“When I go through adversity or when I have tough times in life or on the court, I always think back to, ‘This is nothing compared to what I went through,’” he said. “It’s always a pick me up.”

The economy, and recently Hurricane Sandy, have taken a toll on his uncle’s car garage business. But despite his struggles, Jackson refuses to let that keep him away from coming down to watch Hubert play.

Because Hubert’s not just his nephew, he’s his son. And that’s what fathers do.

“He was like a gift from God to me,” Jackson said. “My sister knew exactly what I needed when she gave him to me to raise him. I tell everybody that I think it was more for me than it was for him.”

When talking about basketball and the home into which he was so warmly welcomed, words of gratitude roll right off Hubert’s tongue. He never has to wonder where the evidence of his many blessings lies.

Because win or lose against Duke tonight, Hubert knows Jackson will be right there behind him cheering him on.

And that’s all the proof a thankful Hubert will ever need.

Contact the desk editor at sports@dailytarheel.com.

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