Current Date: Wed, 12 Mar 2014 05:52:39 -0400
The night before the biggest game of his life, Theo Pinson wanted to avoid distractions.
So the basketball standout from Greensboro did something out of the ordinary. He put his cellphone on silent without thinking twice, not expecting to miss out on anything.
But when he awoke the next day to get ready to play in the 2013 state championship for Wesleyan Christian Academy, Pinson immediately knew something was wrong — five missed calls illuminated the screen of his phone.
Before returning them, however, he scrolled down his Instagram feed for answers, where he discovered one of the toughest things he’s had to fathom in his 18-year life.
Fellow Greensboro native and high school basketball prospect Josh Level, Pinson’s beloved cousin and close friend, had died after collapsing during a game the previous night while Pinson was sleeping.
“It was one of the hardest things for me and my teammates because everybody on my team knew Josh very well,” Pinson said. “It was rough for us, but we pulled it together and told ourselves we were going to do it for him … and I was just glad we won the championship — for him.”
But the win wasn’t enough in Pinson’s eyes. Months later, he announced where he would commit to play basketball in college. Before revealing his decision, he opened up his press conference by explaining the significance of the day his announcement happened to fall on.
On May 22, 2013, the day Josh would have turned 18 years old, Pinson committed to play basketball for North Carolina.
“For him to take the biggest day so far of his life … to acknowledge Josh was, for me, an incredible gesture of goodwill,” said Joseph Level, Josh’s father. “I think Theo and Josh, they had a mutual admiration and respect for one another. They just weren’t ready to make a big deal yet because, to them, I think the story was still being written when Josh died.
“The story was still being written.”
Today, Pinson is expected to make his commitment to UNC official by signing a National Letter of Intent, marking the start of a brand-new story dedicated to everything he holds close to his heart — Josh, family, friends and his home state.
The people’s champ
Reflecting on their relationship, Pinson points to one reason why he and his late cousin were so close.
“We are two people that play around a lot, and we’re always laughing,” he said. “You see me and Josh, especially when we’re together, and we always have a smile on our faces.”
Though he is no longer able to grin ear to ear with Josh, that hasn’t stopped Pinson from contagiously spreading joy and connecting with those around him.
And when he touches the hardwood, Pinson’s personality doesn’t change. He still puts others ahead of himself, running on the fuel of a teammate’s excitement after he assists him on a score.
Though Wesleyan basketball coach Keith Gatlin said Pinson, who averaged 13 points during the team’s state championship season last year, is capable of putting the ball in the basket more than he does, he knows that’s not his style.
“He wants to make the pass. He wants other people to be happy,” Gatlin said. “The most defining moment with him was when we played a game last year, and someone was saying to him, ‘Overrated.’
“While he was walking off the court and the guy was still heckling him, Theo was like, ‘Look at the clock. We won and my teammate played well.’”
But Gatlin said, despite his pass-first mentality, Pinson remains Wesleyan’s most reliable scorer, adding that on any given night the small forward can be a scoring machine — the role he took on the game after he was heckled.
“The next night we played in Charlotte and Theo had 30 points,” Gatlin said.
Pinson boasts an overall well-rounded game, which led ESPN to dub him the No. 1 basketball recruit in the state and the nation’s No. 13 overall prospect in the class of 2014.
Former ESPN Recruiting Analyst Dave Telep referred to Pinson as the “high school version of a Swiss army knife.”
But what can Pinson do that the pocket tool can’t? Fly.
And at the Under Armour Elite 24 dunk contest in August, the 6-foot-6, long-armed forward showcased his leaping ability, cruising all the way to the finals and throwing down the game-winning dunk after leaping over an unlikely obstacle — his mother, former UNC-Charlotte basketball player Barbara Pinson.
For Pinson, his mother was never in harm’s way, not even for a second.
“I’ve done it before. I’ve jumped over somebody taller than her, actually,” Pinson said. “But I didn’t really think of the magnitude of me jumping over my mom until after the fact.
“She was the nervous one. So I was like, ‘All right, I’ve done this already,’ and just went ahead and jumped over her.”
For Gatlin, a versatile player is what every college basketball coach wants, and is just what UNC coach Roy Williams has in Pinson.
“Theo can get 30, and some nights he’ll go for 12 — it just depends,” Gatlin said. “Everybody comes to our games wanting to see Theo get 25 or 30, and be just this awesome guy.
“But in a coach’s eyes, he’s doing the same thing when he’s just facilitating, defending — doing the things that’s going to keep him on the court at Carolina.”
‘Ready to work’
Ask the 18-year-old from Greensboro why he picked North Carolina over the likes of Indiana, Duke, Georgetown and Louisville, and he’ll give a few different reasons.
But the common thread among them all revolves around two things — his relationships with and love for those close to him, and the affinity he has for the state he was born and raised in.
Looking back to the first time he had to share these reasons, Pinson again put himself second, jumping at the chance to share the spotlight of his commitment day with his late cousin, who also had dreams of one day playing in Chapel Hill.
“Just knowing that it happened on that day, his birthday, and what he meant to everybody,” he said. “I just wanted to make it about him also.”
Now that he’s a Tar Heel, Pinson cherishes the proximity of the school to his hometown, awaiting the first chance he’ll get to look up into the stands in the Smith Center and see his parents and little sister.
“It changed a whole lot,” Pinson said. “Just being committed to North Carolina, and being from North Carolina, I mean it’s only 45 minutes from my house.
“So the anticipation of playing there now is higher than it’s ever been, and I mean it’s fun to look forward to.”
Add UNC’s other class of 2014 recruits — point guard Joel Berry of Florida and fellow small forward Justin Jackson of Texas — and the deal was sealed. That the trio of UNC’s future players make up the No. 3 recruiting class in all of college basketball is just a bonus.
“Coach Williams himself, he’s the main guy that recruited me, and throughout the whole recruiting process I just felt comfortable with the school and him as a coach,” Pinson said. “The thing with Joel and Justin is they’re really good dudes, team players that just want to win. And I mean that’s the people I want to be around.”
Pinson has all that he could ever ask for in North Carolina — all the pieces to begin his tale as a Tar Heel.
And though it’s nearly a year before he’ll arrive at UNC, he’s already brainstorming where he desires his saga to end.
“I’m ready to work,” Pinson said, “to do my best and try to win a national championship.”
But for now, with the ink of his pen next to the X on the letter of intent, Theo Pinson’s story has only just begun.