This is the Theo Pinson most people know, and it’s not something he’s embarrassed about. During the Tar Heels’ NCAA Tournament run last spring, he garnered as much attention crashing postgame press conferences and impersonating UNC football coach Larry Fedora as he did with his play on the court.
But 11 months removed from the tournament, Pinson has changed the monikers associated with him. He’s no longer just “Theo the dancer” or “Theo the energy guy.” Now he’s “Theo the starter.” The game-changer. The “glue guy” for a Tar Heel team on the cusp of its second straight outright ACC regular season title — which it’ll try to clinch with a win Saturday night against No. 17 Duke.
It’s a shift brought on by choice and circumstance. It’s not how he, his teammates or his mother, Barbara Pinson, envisioned it, but maybe that’s OK. Maybe it’s what he needed to show people who he really is.
“Theo has always been a great basketball player ...” Barbara said. “His path is just different. Sometimes things are meant to happen.”
Something didn’t feel right.
Ahead of a scrimmage in Fort Bragg in October, Theo told athletic trainer Doug Halverson about a pain in his right foot. It was bothering him some, but he could still play on it. And he did — at least for a little bit.
After hauling in a rebound and heading upcourt, Theo tried cutting behind teammate Justin Jackson. But when he planted on the hardwood, the feeling returned. X-rays followed, then the news: A broken fifth metatarsal.
Then came a decision. And as much as it hurt to admit, surgery and missing the first two months of the season was the way to go.
“It was (going to be) a good season, the breakout season for me that I thought I could have,” Theo said. “I was playing well, feeling great and the confidence level was at an all-time high.”
“And it just, snap, like that, you’ve gotta start all over again.”
Theo’s teammates knew how much it hurt, too. They saw the work he put in during the offseason and were ready to welcome him into the starting lineup.
They were ready for him to become more than what people assumed he would be.
“I know a lot of people see Theo on social media and in press conferences ... but I don’t think everyone has gotten a chance to see him as a player,” junior guard Joel Berry said back in October. “I know what Theo can do and it just sucks because we were expecting a lot from him.”
But Theo had a plan. After surgery, he met with Williams and the rest of the coaching staff. He told them he didn’t want to sit at the end of the bench. He still wanted to help his teammates.
So when North Carolina came out of the tunnel for its season opener on Nov. 11, there was Theo, acting as a buffer between the roster and the coaching staff. He looked like a coach — the suit, the glasses, the charisma. His voice carried like one, and he made sure to use it.
He did it to show his teammates he wasn’t going anywhere. He was still going to be there for them.
“I’m not trying to have my own pity party ...” Theo said. “I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me. I don’t want to bring anybody down because I’m not out there.”
For the next 15 games, Theo played out his role as a temporary assistant. He’d tell his teammates things they were missing, when to flash off screens and where to cut on inbounds plays. He’d even crouch down in a defensive stance right there on the sidelines.
“I think he was involved in every game he was on the bench,” Williams said. “I had to get him out of my way. The referees, a couple times, had to tell him to get out of the way. But I think that’s just Theo.”
Theo was set to make his return against N.C. State on Jan. 7, but winter weather in Chapel Hill pushed the game to the next afternoon — another delay in a season already filled with setbacks.
But at 1 p.m. on Jan. 8, it was time. The world was about to know who “Theo the player” was.
In his big debut against the Wolfpack, Theo missed all his field goal attempts and was held scoreless on the day. But he pretty much did everything else.
He finished the day with five assists, five rebounds and a team-high four steals. It wasn’t sexy by any means, but it’s the type of performance that showed he could help the team in several different ways.
“Me and Sean (May) talk about it before I go out for the game,” Theo said after UNC’s win over Florida State on Jan. 14. “Every day, make plays. And I try to do that. And that’s just not scoring.”
Over the next few weeks, Theo flashed even more of the potential his teammates saw in the offseason. A double-double against the Seminoles. Seven points, five assists and five rebounds at Syracuse. He was changing perceptions, all while helping UNC to a seven-game winning streak.
But then it happened again. Against Virginia Tech on Jan. 26, Theo rolled his ankle and was forced back to the sidelines. It was frustrating, sure, but he wasn’t about to let that show. When the team took the court against Miami two days later, he was back to leading them from the sidelines.
“That’s just a characteristic — I can’t explain it — he has always had ...” Barbara said. “Some people can easily be down on themselves and not figure out other ways to help the team or help others, but he always seemed to figure that out.”
Theo came back a week and a half later, and when the Tar Heels took on N.C. State the next week, he found his way into the starting lineup for the first time all season.
It’s where he wanted to be, but not how he wanted to get there. The day before, sophomore guard Kenny Williams injured his knee in practice. After the game, Roy Williams announced he would have surgery and likely miss the rest of the season.
The news particularly stuck a chord with Theo, who made sure to check in with him shortly after he got out of surgery.
“I just feel bad for the kid,” he said. “He put so much into it, he gave us so much this year, and (I hate) to see it just taken away from him like that.”
It’s a situation Pinson could relate to, and one he felt compelled to talk about with his teammate. No matter who it was on the bench, Theo was going to be there for each one of his brothers.
Inside the inner-workings of the Smith Center, in a room used primarily for pregame meals and postgame interviews, an image of the 2015-16 UNC men’s basketball team covers one wall. In the center is Theo, a snippet of net tied onto his hat and a grin surfacing on his face, holding the 2016 NCAA East Regional Champion trophy.
It’s a reminder of what Theo and his teammates were able to do last season, but also of what they didn’t. It served as motivation for him during the offseason, when he put in hundreds of hours making sure that if they had a chance to go back and finish the job, he’d help them do so.
Those ambitions were put on hold at the beginning of the season, but instead of derailing everything, the injuries put things into perspective. If UNC ends up winning it all this season, it’d mean that much more to Theo.
“Just all the work I put in to just get back, get back and come back stronger than I did leaving,” he said. “I definitely think I’d break down. It’s been a journey, it’s been a ride.”
For Theo and the rest of the North Carolina men’s basketball team, the ride is far from over. There will be so much more — obstacles, setbacks, nicks and cuts and time toiling on the trainer’s table — en route to their ultimate goal.
But if all goes according to plan, he’ll add one more moniker to the list.
Theo the national champion.