Evergreens and curvy hillsides pass by me, and I realize I’m doing something I almost never do. As this massive white SUV cuts through foggy roads around the base of Grandfather Mountain, I’m sitting in a middle seat.
The general rule for the middle seat is that it goes to the smallest person in the car. For years, I’ve delegated the spot to my younger siblings and short-legged friends. But today, it’s my turn. And the seating arrangement makes total sense, considering the two passengers on either side of me.
A 6-foot-8 national champion sits to my left. Luke Maye’s life has been very different ever since he spotted up just inside the arc, caught a Theo Pinson pass and let go a shot that’s already cemented in North Carolina history. The junior forward’s Elite Eight game-winner against Kentucky in March sent the Tar Heels to the Final Four. In Glendale, Ariz., they redeemed themselves against Gonzaga on the biggest possible stage.
To my right is another national champion. Cole Maye joined the University of Florida’s baseball team in the spring after graduating high school a semester early. Passing on his senior season, spring break and prom proved to be the right choice. The 6-foot-7 lefty pitcher traded all that in for a trip to Omaha, Neb., where the Gators beat Louisiana State in two straight games to win their first-ever College World Series.
Two championships in a three-month period — and the attention that comes with them — haven’t knocked anything off balance, though. During this Fourth of July weekend, the Mayes are visiting Margaret Sockwell, the boys’ grandmother, in her mountainside vacation home. They’re headed to a community cook-out.
On June 8, a gray 2014 Ford Expedition cruised down Interstate 85 South.
Luke was inside, taking his usual route home from UNC’s campus to Huntersville, N.C., at a perfectly legal 70 miles per hour in the middle lane. When he decided to merge to the right, he didn’t see what was next to him.
“I didn’t look in my rear-view mirror, and I hit the tractor trailer on the front left bumper,” Luke said. “And he kind of spun me out.”
Luke’s vehicle hit the shoulder, went airborne and completed a couple of 360s before landing upside down. The car came to rest on its roof in a grassy bank on the side of I-85. It was totaled.
“The door was already popped open,” Luke said. “So I just unbuckled and crawled out. Had a little scratch on my knee, but, besides that, I was fine. Very thankful for that.”
In the state highway patrol report from the scene, Luke was cited for an unsafe lane change and an expired registration. The truck driver, who had promptly pulled off the road to check on Luke after the collision, received no citations.
“He walked back and was very apologetic,” Luke said. “But it wasn’t really his fault.”
Within two hours of the wreck, Luke was back on the road with his father, Mark. He still made it to youngest brother Drake’s eighth-grade graduation and spoke at the fifth-grade graduation at his old elementary school.
The Mayes are there for one another regardless of the circumstances.
Cole took an 11 a.m. flight the day after a Florida weekend series to watch North Carolina’s championship game, and he was back on campus for class the next morning. Luke weaseled around summer school and practices to get to Florida’s College World Series game against Texas Christian in June. He considered leaving after that game, which Florida lost, to avoid being a bad-luck charm. But he ended up staying for the next game, a Gator win that secured their spot in the championship series.
“The most important thing for me is how they pull so hard for each other,” said Aimée, the boys’ mother. “Cole was coming to that game. Same with Luke … there’s just no question about whether they’re going.”
Everyone in Huntersville pulls for the Mayes, too — but sometimes, people aren’t sure which one they’re talking to. After all, Luke and Cole are just 15 months apart in age. Confusion has only grown as Cole has caught up to his brother in height and, to Luke’s strong approval, facial hair. Back at home, Cole has already been congratulated on his basketball success a few times.
“I usually play it off,” he said, laughing. “It’s fun to be back.”
When the Mayes arrived at Grandfather Mountain, they went straight to the golf course. Rising 10th-grader Beau, the third oldest sibling but the confirmed tallest at just under 6-foot-9, describes his golf game as “getting there.” His older brothers are inching closer to stealing Mark’s title of best golfer in the family. On this day, Cole edged out Luke through 18 holes. But Luke insisted that score be taken with a grain of salt, since he had a three-hour car ride and no warm-up.
“I took no practice swings, buddy,” Cole quickly added, denying any advantage of his earlier arrival.
“You walked around,” Luke countered.
Friendly trash talk like this is a given when it comes to any type of competition. Luke kept quiet after his national championship, though, because he knew he might not be the only Maye with that title in a few months. When Cole did end up getting his own ring, there was more joy than anything else.
“I didn’t really think it was bragging rights at all,” Cole said. “We were just so happy for each other.”
“And now,” Luke said, “we’ve got something on every other family.”
As the defense collapsed on Brandon Robinson, Luke was already drifting back toward the line.
He caught the ball and rose up without hesitation. He backpedaled to half court as his shot swished, barely moving the net.
It didn’t beat his Kentucky shot — will anything? — but it secured a victory for his team in the “former versus current” game that’s become a staple at head coach Roy Williams’ summer camps. The 71-58 win came against a squad featuring household names like Marvin Williams, Kendall Marshall and Joel James.
There was a rematch the following week, and the alumni added even more talent — Raymond Felton, Tyler Hansbrough and Isaiah Hicks. But Luke and company held their own, winning, 71-65.
With a mostly empty campus at their disposal, Luke and the rest of the team have found plenty of time to bond. There are bowling trips and movie nights — most recently “Despicable Me 3.” And when Luke moves off-campus this fall, he’ll room with Kenny Williams and new teammate Cam Johnson.
Luke knows he’ll be more involved than ever for UNC this season. He’s penciled in as the starting power forward and will also see time at center in small-ball lineups.
“I think it’ll be a really good year for us,” Luke said, “just because we have a lot of guys who really want to get back and show people that we don’t need to fail at something in order to get back as well.”
With to-go boxes in hand, the family walks around two long tables of food in aluminum-foil trays. The meal is catered and offers plenty of variety — chicken tenders and Caesar salad, jambalaya and a make-your-own-sundae station. As Luke finishes filling his Styrofoam container and steps to the side, an elementary-school boy who’s been eyeing Luke since he walked in decides to make his move.
He’s a little hesitant at first. The boy’s father shakes Luke’s hand and introduces his son, who is mostly hidden behind Dad’s leg in embarrassment. But when Luke starts talking, all of that is gone. The boy gradually steps out into the open, laughing and conversing with Luke like they’re long-time friends. He leaves the encounter with an uncontrollable grin spreading across his face.
“Sometimes I’ll look over, and somebody will be looking at me and then look away real quick,” Luke said. “At the cookout over there, having little kids come over and look up to me and being a role model for them — that was pretty cool.”
If there’s one thing to know about Luke, it’s that he has time for everyone. No historic shot or piece of jewelry has changed that.