The man who plays for everyone else: Nate Britt’s life has never been about basketball

britt

It’s late. Quiet. He’d prefer it that way.

Dim the bulbs, those 1,000-watt spotlights that extend past the boundaries of any basketball court. Mute the horns, the hollering, the whole cacophony of cheers raining down from the rafters.

Twenty-one thousand empty seats, all of them staring back at you. The emptiness? The silence? The only thing that echoes in the Smith Center on nights like these is the bum-bum of a basketball on the hardwood.

That, of course, and the man’s thoughts.

Here, in front of an audience of none, is where Nate Britt does his best thinking. And on nights like these — before a big test, a big game, a big moment in his life — it’s the serum for whatever ails him.

“It’s my peaceful alone time,” Nate says ahead of North Carolina's matchup at Duke tonight at 8 p.m. “It takes my mind off of everything.”

But does it? Maybe off the glitz and the chaos and the pressure that come with wearing that North Carolina jersey, but certainly not everything.

Certainly not everyone.

In fact, that’s why the senior point guard comes here at all. Because amidst this shell of a stadium — when he’s free to dribble around his shadow, or jack up imaginary buzzer-beaters, or dot every inch of the court with his size-13 footsteps and the sweat off his brow — Nate remembers why he plays basketball at all. 

It’s because he remembers them.

"I thought that if I could come in and show that I could be a point guard, distribute to these guys, then this could be my show for a couple of years," Nate says. "And then when things don't go how you want them to, you realize how much more is important."

****

There wasn’t always a fence at Mt. Ephraim Baptist Church in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.

It used to be that Nate and his younger sister Natalya could traipse through their backyard untouched and straight onto the church basketball court behind their house. When their mom, Melody, called from the back door, they’d stop dribbling or shooting and race back home as fast as they could.

But eventually Mt. Ephraim put up a fence, a just-too-tall-for-Natalya chain link fence between the court and the Britt house. Nate and Natalya’s days of one-on-one, it seemed, were done.

"He would sit there and push me over, tell me to jump down, do whatever, to help me hop the fence," Natalya says. 

Nate didn’t stop there. Whatever he could do to help his sister, he would: Dribble drills in the basement, late night homework sessions, anything. Basketball was the basis of their relationship, but it was never the bottom line. It bonded them at first — they’ve done the rest themselves.

As the two grew up, basketball scheduling robbed them of time together. Nate’s senior year, he even left home for Oak Hill Academy, hours away from Upper Marlboro. The person he missed most? Not his mom. Not his dad, Nate Britt Sr., either.

He missed Natalya.

"Nate had told little Nate that, 'She's always your responsibility. You're always to look after her," Melody says, "and ever since then, he made her his priority because she was his little sister."

And even though they’re separated again now, with Nate in Chapel Hill and Natalya at Belmont-Abbey outside of Charlotte (knee injuries forced her to retire this summer), he still looks out for his sister from a distance: The text messages, the phone calls Nate always picks up, the nagging to his parents — "When was the last time you saw Tal?" — to visit his sister instead of himself.

Still, they wanted something permanent, something they could take with them as a memento that would outlast any photo or letter or cell phone number.

They settled on matching puzzle pieces on their sides — take that for what it is. And inside their pieces, they’ve only got one thing inked: their same shared initials, NB^2. 

“I always wanted a tattoo, but I wanted it to mean something,” Nate says, “and that was the only thing I cared about enough for me to get one — my relationship with her.”

****

Time for a talk.

Nate nestled into the off-brown leather couch in the family’s living room, across from the caddy-corner TV and the fireplace next to it.

He was 11. His parents gathered him and Natalya in the living room to talk. Before any important decision, the family talked. Before any big move, a talk. And so naturally, this moment — one with obvious ramifications for the rest of Nate's life — demanded one, too.

This talk was about Kris Jenkins. Now he’s the star of the Villanova men’s basketball team, most famous for the buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the 2016 NCAA Championship that earned him a national title over Nate.

Over his brother.

But back then, Kris wasn’t even on their recruiting radar — he was just a kid who needed some help. Kris’ mother worked in South Carolina, and through youth basketball, Nate and Kris had become friends. To avoid the chaos of trekking up and down the East Coast for basketball, Kris stayed with Nate for a few weekends. Those weekends turned into weeks, into months. Eventually the idea floated itself: How about Nate Sr. and Melody become Kris’ legal guardian?

That’s a big ask for 11-year-old Nate — give up half of your everything. Share your soaps, your shampoos, your combs. But more than that: Share your privacy, your dinner table.

Share your family.

"I told him he'd have to give up half of everything he had," Nate Sr., says. "And Nate said, 'I don't have a problem with giving up half. I'd like for Kris to come and live with us.'"

****

Nate’s grandfather Ned was strict. He’d wake Nate Sr. up in the mornings, before Nate was born, just with the flick of a light switch. Nate Sr. had to be on time, all the time, bed made the right way. It wasn’t just because Ned was a hardass — he loved his son, and he didn’t want him to waste his potential. Nate Sr. went on to play college ball himself and coach after that.

It was the same way with Nate. Growing up, Nate’s parents sent him to stay with Ned for a month at a time in La Grange, N.C., about 100 miles southeast of Chapel Hill. They’d talk about basketball or school, sure, but mostly they talked about life. About doing the right thing. About people.

Ned was a Tar Heels fan, and he passed that love along to his grandson. When it came time for Nate to make his college decision, he couldn’t ignore the fandom Ned installed in him from a young age. That, and he wanted his grandpa to be able to watch him play.

And for a year, that dream came true. Ned would come and sit with Nate’s parents near the court, tell him what he’d done well and poorly after each game. Nate was just glad he was there.

Then Ned got sick. Cancer. His health deteriorated quickly — too quickly, like always. By Nate’s sophomore year, Ned had moved to a hospice center in Maryland to be near Melody and Nate Sr.

On Jan. 13, 2015, Nate turned 20.

The next night, Ned passed away.

“When my father first told me,” Nate says, “it didn’t really hit me.”

So Nate retreated, goes where he always does when he needs to clear his mind: the Smith Center. And he shot, for hours and hours, for so long that he missed calls from his parents and his sister and even teammate Kennedy Meeks. It turns out, Nate's parents had called Meeks and told him they couldn’t get in touch with their son.

"This is one of the peace-makers for him, coming to the gym," Meeks says. "I just made sure he was fine, prayed for him, let him know I'm always there for him."

Before every game, head coach Roy Williams gives the team a moment to pray to themselves: for their success, or their health, or whatever it is you pray for in the privacy of your own mind.

Nate didn’t pray for any of that. For the first time, two weeks after Ned’s death — it took him some time to find the right words — he prayed for his grandpa.

He scored a career-high 17 points that night against Syracuse, a number that still stands. He’s prayed for Ned at every game since.

"I don't think that's a coincidence," Nate says. "He was with me that night."

****

Put down the basketball. Untie those laces. The work ethic helps — these weekly late-night shooting sessions, even in an empty gym, don’t go to waste.

They’re good for tweaking his jump shot, perfecting his handle, improving his fitness. But it would be remiss to say these nights matter most because of basketball.

They don’t. Really, that’s true for the rest of Nate’s life, too. Basketball matters, and it always has. It’s given him a foundation, a surrogate family — heck, it’s even grown his real family by one. It gave him excuses  to waste weeknights with his sister, to be near his grandpa. There’s no ignoring the value this game has had on his life.

But look closely. Is it this game Nate loves, or is it what it has given him? Not glory. Not fame. Not a chance to be a high NBA Draft selection once he graduates in May. On the court, especially since he’s been relegated to the role of sixth man at UNC, basketball hasn’t given Nate everything he could dream of.

But outside this arena, away from the cameras, it’s done more than he could have asked for. It’s been a bond between family, one that endures even when they’re not around anymore.

“School, basketball, all those are a means to an end,” Nate says. “To me, they’re just not as important because those things can end at any moment."

“I just mess with the people in my circle, and then I find myself caring about those people … That’s more important.”

That’s why these nights are so crucial. That’s why these nights matter. Not because Nate becomes a world-beater from deep, or because he transforms into an All-American — it’s because in the silence, he remembers he doesn’t have to.

He's already playing for something worth much more.

@BrendanRMarks

sports@dailytarheel.com

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