McAdoo shuts out the noise

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James Michael McAdoo doesn’t care what you think.

He was crowned by USA Basketball before stepping foot on a college court, heralded as the next savior of North Carolina basketball.

But lust quickly turned to disgust, and just as quickly as he was worshipped, he was scorned by fans and scrutinized by analysts.

Chants of ‘overrated’ echo through hostile arenas, and hushed tones of doubt infiltrate the crowd on his home turf.

Draft experts slashed his worth from a top-three pick to second round at best in three years.

But McAdoo can’t hear any of it.

He blocks it out. He has to.

It’s the only way to stay sane and preserve the fleeting moments of a childhood rapidly evaporating as a professional career looms.

He maintains a private life — no Twitter, private Instagram, restricted Facebook.

People see only the McAdoo that he wants them to see, which, until recently, was a stone-faced, emotionless power forward. He’s transformed beneath their laser-like gaze. From barely averaging six points a game in his freshman year to becoming a leader for UNC on and off the court.

Coming into tonight’s game against Duke, McAdoo has all but left his former self behind. He’s averaging 15 points a game and playing with an intensity that embodies a sense of urgency coach Roy Williams begs from his players.

But there’s more to him than steals and dunks, botched free throws and silky close-range jump shots.

He’s a dog lover who owns a cat. He’s a goofball, known around the team for his corny jokes. He’s a compassionate man, grounded in his faith.

But above all else, he’s a 21-year-old kid just playing a game he loves.

A harsh spotlight

A few weeks before this past Late Night with Roy, McAdoo found a kitten roaming outside the Smith Center.

The self-proclaimed dog person couldn’t leave something so vulnerable to fend for itself, so he took her home to the house he shares with teammates Luke Davis and Desmond Hubert.

After a few visits to the veterinarian, the big man with four names gave the kitten three of her own.

Macy Bernard McAdoo.

“I’ll tell you right now,” he said. “I hate kittens. I hate cats. I’m a dog person until I die, but I have a heart, plus it got me points with my girlfriend.”

There was a rumor once that practice was pushed back 15 minutes so McAdoo could run home and feed Macy. The gentle giant refuted that claim, but promised that the cat was still taken care of.

A dog person with a cat — he’s a walking contradiction and unapologetically different.

He’s been criticized since he first stepped into the Carolina blue limelight, an individual who went from the face of UNC’s future to a scapegoat who couldn’t live up to lofty expectations set by analysts and fans wiling away the hours in front of computers and televisions, running the numbers to project a high schooler’s collegiate fate.

“He’s probably the most highly scrutinized college basketball player,” said his mother, Janet McAdoo, who also played college basketball. “I’m sure other college players are, too, but we just feel like the expectations were set so high for him. And that’s nothing that he asked for.

“He never went out and beat his chest and said ‘I’m this, I’m that.’ He didn’t ask for any of the preseason awards that were awarded to him early on. He didn’t ask for that and the expectations were so extremely high that he would have had to play a flawless season both his freshman and sophomore year to meet those expectations.”

It’s tough to work through the heavy scrutiny, but McAdoo credits his upbringing rooted in the Christian faith with keeping grounded amid his turbulent career.

During dark times, he takes solace in his favorite Bible verse — Isaiah 40: 29-31 — scripture that includes the phrases “Even youths grow tired and weary, young men stumble and fall, but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.”

And after three years of being ceremoniously and routinely built up and torn down by fans and media, McAdoo’s name is slowly being disassociated with ‘overrated’ chants and ‘if only’ statements.

Unfounded expectations

Janet McAdoo still remembers where she was when she heard the news.

She was upstairs in her Norfolk, Va., home when her son got the phone call.

McAdoo was the 2009 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year, and she was upset.

“Because what this does is put a huge target on my precious son’s back,” she said. “Not that he wasn’t deserving, but that is where the expectations started to come in.”

At 16 years old, McAdoo’s name was suddenly in the same sentence with two-time winner Michael Jordan, Sean May and Shaquille O’Neal.

As the top high school prospect in his class, McAdoo was heralded as the next Tar Heel great. This generation’s James Worthy. The savior that UNC needed in order to return to the national title game, just two years removed from an NIT appearance.

But once he arrived on campus, the criticism started, and it didn’t stop.

That scrutiny caused McAdoo — an already self-described private person — to further draw into his shell as a means of self-preservation.

He doesn’t read the message boards or articles. He ignores the talking heads. He deleted his Twitter.

Once after a game, McAdoo jumped in the car with his parents for a ride home. The radio station was turned to a college basketball program and like a reflex, McAdoo punched the presets to a music station.

“I don’t like to let those naysayers or even those people that do write such great things about you,” he said. “You can’t read your own press clippings, positive or negative. But it can be discouraging. I am a human being. When I do read good stuff about me, my head does get bigger and when I do read negative things about me, it does hurt my feelings.”

‘A good upset’

When McAdoo first set foot on the court in the Smith Center in front of nearly 22,000 fans cheering for their team, he was 18 years old.

As he groaned through his growing pains, the country was paying attention.

How could it be possible that the next Tar Heel great was only managing 6.1 points a game and coming off the bench for 16 minutes a game? This wasn’t the future NBA lottery pick James Michael McAdoo advertised in the preseason.

“I have no idea what happened to my confidence, but I didn’t pack it when I came to college,” McAdoo said.

That confidence stayed in Norfolk, Va., through his first two seasons at UNC, but after Christmas break, it looked like he tossed his confidence in with the rest of his washed laundry for the return trip to North Carolina.

Though McAdoo is reluctant to give an exact game where things began to click, both McAdoo’s dad Ronnie McAdoo and assistant coach Hubert Davis agree that the turning point came in the win against Clemson when McAdoo scored 22 points and made nine of 13 field goals.

There was pride on the line, a 56-game home win streak hung ominously over the team’s head. A loss would put the Tar Heels at 1-5 in the ACC, further burying them at the bottom of a dog pile of mediocrity in the conference.

Davis said he saw a change in McAdoo in the practices leading up to the tussle with the Tigers. There was something in his face that Davis hadn’t seen before in his one and half years with the team.

“I said, ‘You have a ticked-off look,’” Davis said. “That’s a great look. That’s the type of look you want to have when you’re competing. You want to be upset. It’s a good upset, it’s not a disruptive upset in terms of team play. It’s an angry competitive look and feeling that you’re going to do whatever it takes to help this team win and get the job done.”

It’s a look that’s fueled the team to five straight wins ahead of the matchup with Duke.

It’s a look that’s rallied his teammates and pulled them out of a spiral of consistency.

It’s a look that brought the crowd at the Smith Center to its feet, and led one fan to reach out and high five McAdoo after a second-half layup en route to a 80-61 drubbing of Clemson.

He was finally comfortable, accepted by the fans clamoring for him to be the player they think he should be.

More importantly, he was finally having fun.

Charity stripe blues

Despite all the talk of a more confident, complete McAdoo, there’s still one glaring problem, and it sits exactly 15 feet from the backboard of every basketball goal.

For McAdoo, a free throw is anything but.

It’s a demon that follows him constantly. Even his field-goal efficiency isn’t enough to distract from his dismal free-throw shooting. Each time McAdoo steps up to the line, the crowd appears to collectively wince, holding their breath and exhaling only when the occasional shot drops through the net.

But his misfires at the stripe aren’t for lack of practice. He puts up hundreds of free throws before and after practice, sometimes shooting as many as 400 in a day but still only averages a smidge more than 50 percent.

His dad, who doubled as his high school assistant coach, doesn’t think his son’s problems stem from poor shooting form. It’s a much simpler diagnosis, yet one that lacks a simple cure.

“I don’t think his confidence is where it needs to be on the free-throw line,” Ronnie McAdoo said. “I think there’s a mental block there because James Michael was a really good free-throw shooter in high school.”

But ask McAdoo about his struggles, and he’ll dart back in his shell.

When recently asked about his confidence at the free-throw line, he answered with a very clipped, “It’s fine. Thanks for asking.”

The game he loves

Tonight, he’ll take the court for the fifth time against Duke. He won’t be playing to silence the critics or rouse the fans.

“I just want to play basketball,” he said. “I don’t play basketball for you. I don’t play basketball for my parents. I play basketball because I enjoy it. And sometimes it’s not that enjoyable. Sometimes it’s a drug that no one else can get.”

So at 9 p.m. when he steps on the court for his fifth meeting with Duke and ‘Jump Around’ swells, he’ll be playing for his team. For himself. For the high.

“They can write what they want to write and say what they want to say,” he said. “Does it affect me? No. Is it unfair to say? I think so, yes.

“Because at the end of the day, I’m just a basketball player.”

sports@dailytarheel.com

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