“They’re the loudest ones in the crowd,” Walker said.
Paris scored 22 in her Tar Heel debut, topping the career high from her lone year at Vanderbilt and securing a 30-point win over Alabama State for her new team. After the buzzer, droves of children from hours away stormed the court, demanding hugs and autographs from UNC’s newest star. But it was nothing new to Paris — she’s been doing it since ninth grade.
A year away from family and another from basketball had taken their toll. At last, she's back where she belongs.
"It just feels good having a place to call home,” she said.
Paris’ eyes darted back and forth, studying the players’ tendencies on the court.
She couldn’t leave the sidelines — her carseat made sure of that — but the toddler watched for hours as her dad showcased his vision and versatility, always a step ahead of his church league opposition.
“I wanted to be like him,” Paris said.
Soon, she would be.
Her introduction to the game came against family in the front yard of her Tarboro home and in pick-up games with the boys in the neighborhood. As she matured, she and her parents took on all challengers at local churches and recreation centers: Swanee Kea ran point, Willie Kea patrolled the paint and Paris played off ball.
It didn’t matter who joined — they just wanted to play.
“Everybody considers themselves family in Tarboro,” she said.
In third grade, Paris moved two hours west to Greensboro, where Swanee signed her daughter up for Upward Basketball at Lawndale Baptist Church — a league that interwove sports and scripture. She instantly carved up opposing defenses with spinning left-handed layups and pinpoint passes, but her coaches had a problem: The constant winning interfered with lessons in confidence and perseverance.
"She would be literally under the basket wide open, and (the) coach would tell her not to shoot,” Willie said. “We actually threw one game so the other kids could win and get some more confidence."
In recreation leagues, Paris’ dominance caught the eye of her school bus driver, Kim Odom, whose husband coached a local AAU team.
“She said, ‘This was the best kid you’ve ever seen play basketball,’” Eddie Odom said.
The coach installed Paris as the starting point guard of the Lady Phoenix, and the two formed an almost telepathic understanding of each other's goals during the game. Eddie’s approach? Simply get out of the way and let her showcase the skill set that Upward confined.
She carried her athleticism into high school, where she seized the starting point guard spot for the Page Pirates. Recruiting letters rolled in for both basketball and soccer, the sport she calls her “first love.” Even UNC, the premier soccer program in the nation, showed interest.
But after tearing the labrum in her right shoulder at a Duke basketball camp and requiring surgery, she had to make a sacrifice: leave her Pirate teammates stranded for the season or miss spring soccer.
"I didn't want to sit out basketball season,” she said. “That would have killed me. I had to play."
With her focus solely on basketball, another decision drew near. A few points on her ACT separated her from a spot on Harvard's squad, and UNC — her parents’ childhood favorite school — already had a stacked backcourt led by Allisha Gray and Jessica Washington. Vanderbilt set its sights on the cerebral guard, but the Commodores would have to woo Paris’ parents, who acted as a filter through the recruiting process.
“I wanted her to enjoy her childhood,” Swanee said.
It was academics first, and Vanderbilt passed the test. Paris’ mother felt uneasy in her interactions with head coach Melanie Balcomb, and Eddie was unsure how Paris’ freelance approach would work within the Commodores’ rigid offense. But her father was impressed by the parent-like approach of assistant coach Tom Garrick, and Paris was enamored with the family feel of the athletic department and intimacy of the campus.
Seven hours away, it felt like home.
She was ready to go.
The four-star commit put on a show early in the season, but eventually the Vanderbilt system took hold. Pass here, shoot there. X’s and O’s before all. It was Upward all over again.
"Paris can play any style of basketball,” Eddie said. “But Vanderbilt kind of kept something in her way all the time."
After years of an inseparable connection with Eddie, she couldn’t find the same spark with Balcomb. The Commodores’ all-time wins leader didn’t loosen the reins like Paris’ past coaches had, and the first-year guard looked like a shell of herself.
Nearly 500 miles away, Swanee could see the confidence drain from her daughter’s game. But when she called Balcomb, the coach told her Paris just wasn’t prepared for collegiate ball.
Swanee was shocked.
“Isn’t that what y’all supposed to do?” she said.
The campus camaraderie that initially drew Paris to Vanderbilt was gone. Upperclassmen here, underclassmen there. Outside of the four games her parents attended, there was no one to talk to.
She was alone.
“You can only call Mom or FaceTime Mom,” she said. “And not like lay up under her or snuggle in her bed with her, have her to tell you everything's OK."
Midway through the season, Paris’ grandmother, Yvonne, developed ANCA vasculitis — forcing her into a chemotherapy-like process. Every trip home, Paris would head straight to the hospital and stay all night. But breaks were few and far between, and seven hours was too far away from family.
“I just wanted to be back home,” she said.
After a sour meeting with Balcomb, Paris announced her transfer request and returned to the recruiting scene. She narrowed her search to ACC schools in North Carolina, and fandom dictated Duke was off the table.
Swanee had long dreamed that one of her children — Paris or her 15-year-old brother, Jermani — would wear a UNC jersey, like Michael Jordan and James Worthy once had.
“I didn’t think it was gonna be me,” Paris said.
But after Destinee Walker — who met Paris in Colorado with the 2014 USA U18 National Team and lauded her humor and humility — gave her seal of approval, UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell reached out to the Greensboro product.
“I wish we would have had her from the beginning,” Walker said.
The Tar Heels secured Paris' commitment on April 27, 2015. Two months later, UNC’s three best players had announced their intent to transfer.
But it didn’t deter Paris, who was willing to leave a toxic environment for a tenuous one and spend a year on the sidelines. In her redshirt year, she reworked her wonky jump shot — a symptom of her shoulder surgery from high school — and returned home every weekend. She lifted weights before games and shot for hours after. She studied her teammates’ tendencies and acquainted herself with UNC’s run-and-gun offense.
“We were always like, ‘Oh my gosh, we can’t wait till she can play,’” Hatchell said.
On Nov. 11, 2016, she finally did.
Six minutes in, she drove along the baseline and hit an unsuspecting Alabama State defender with a hesitation move. She followed it with a floater and drew the foul for her fourth bucket of the game.
She soaked in the roar of the audience — her audience. She sprinted to the sideline and smacked hands with her dad, who had a courtside seat for his daughter’s debut. Then, she turned to Walker and let out two years’ worth of frustration in two words.
Every January, Paris sacrifices something she values.
When she was younger, it was TV and soda. Eventually, it’ll be meat and sweets. Now, it’s social media.
“Usually a fast means giving up,” she said. “Like sacrificing for God.”
No more Dirk Nowitzki memes or Joel Osteen retweets or highlight reels of her flashiest passes. But she’s no stranger to sacrifice — she’s been doing it her whole life.
This season, Paris has given everything. She’s played point guard through power forward for the first time in her career, and she’s commanded both fast breaks and jump balls. She’s played off-ball, like she did when her mom would run point in the front yard. She’s posted up, like she did against the neighborhood boys. She’s led her team in points and assists — and at 5-foot-9, she’s second in rebounds.
“She's got the whole package,” Hatchell said. “I tell you, if the kid was 6-foot-2, ain't no doubt she'd be an All-American. She'd be unstoppable."
Tonight at 6:30 p.m., Paris will be expected to shoulder the load once again for the 14th-seeded Tar Heels (14-15, 3-13 ACC) against 11th-seeded Pittsburgh (13-16, 4-12 ACC) in the opening round of the ACC Tournament in Conway, S.C. — a game originally scheduled in Greensboro before getting moved before the season.
But what’s an extra three hours to the North Carolina native? The HTC Center crowd awaits.
“Those are the games I live for,” she said.
Last season, a hobbled UNC squad fell in overtime to the Panthers to end its season. This year, the hamstrung Tar Heels are without three of their preseason starters and aren’t expected to make noise beyond tonight.
But that team was without Paris, the sixth-leading scorer in the ACC and the conference leader in minutes. And with a North Carolina jersey — and team — on her back, she's finally home.