As I walked into my poorly lit dorm room Thursday afternoon, I saw the red, blinking No. 1 on my answering machine that would decide my fate.
I already knew what the message was pertaining to. And I had a good idea what it was going to ultimately say.
"Hi, Bret, how are you," the message starts. "This is Coach Q from the basketball office. It's just about 11 o'clock on Thursday. Just wanted to call you and thank you on behalf of the entire staff to take time out of your two nights to work out with us."
The North Carolina basketball program held open tryouts last Tuesday and Wednesday to give students an opportunity to earn a nonscholarship position on the team. My approach was simple - how many people get to say they were cut from the UNC men's basketball squad?
Apparently, at least 20 can now say that. Twenty-one students went to the Smith Center over two days to participate in sessions led by Coach Matt Doherty's three assistants - Fred Quartlebaum, Doug Wojcik and Bob MacKinnon.
But first things first. Everyone who wanted to try out had to pass a physical. There are few things more traumatic than sitting on a cushiony-blue bench covered with rolled paper wondering when the doctor is going to come through the door and ask you to cough at his discretion.
Actually, a different doctor coming in and saying you need to have your blood pressure checked again qualifies.
She tells me to relax. Sure, I'm going to relax after I was just told my blood pressure has to be checked again. She tells me to go to a relaxing place - my happy place, as Happy Gilmore would call it. A scantily clad woman parading around with a pitcher of beer in each hand doesn't exist in my happy place, although it probably should.
In the end, everything turns out fine. No plastic cup touches my hand. No doctor's hand touches my cup.
"It was a great experience for the coaching staff, and we trust that it was a positive experience for you as well," the message continues. "We had a great time. It was a lot of fun."
As I walk onto the court at the Smith Center on Tuesday, I see guys in Carolina blue shoes and "North Carolina" mesh tank tops. I have a feeling they have played here before.
Both nights, we gather at center court and break off into a semicircle to stretch. I hear joints pop that I didn't know I had.
The action starts with a number of fast-break drills. If you miss a layup during a three-on-none break, you run a lap. So on the first night, I softly come in from the left side and lay the ball in with my right hand. Wojcik yells at me to use my left hand.
Minutes later, we try to wrap up the drill by hitting 10 in a row. Luckily, I didn't know nine straight had been made before I glide to the rim, ball in my right hand, for the lay-in.
The up-and-down sprinting gets my heart pumping, but the next set of defensive drills almost makes it stop. An offensive player makes a series of V-cuts on the wing to get open, while a defender does everything in his power to shut him down.
On my first try, I hit a tough runner over my defender from 15 feet out. But when I switch over to defense, the results are disastrous. After a missed shot, my opponent jumps over me for an offensive board. He misses again. And rebounds again. And again. Wojcik is not pleased.
I am already worn out. Surely there's a clock somewhere in the Smith Center. It has to be time to go. It's not even close.
My group doesn't run hard enough to the next station, so we go back and do it again. Quartlebaum probably saw me sucking wind. The pain I feel pales in comparison to what would follow.
When Quartlebaum calls for three minutes to be put on the clock on the second night, we know the time has come.
So we get down in our defensive stance at half court, step and slide. We do this baseline to baseline. For 180 seconds. The drill starts like one of Richard Simmons' "Sweating to the Oldies" videos. Except Tony Robbins is in charge.
We yell into the unoccupied surroundings of the Smith Center in a militaristic fashion. Quartlebaum wants to know if we're feeling any burn. Yeah, I'm feeling it. Three degrees of it.
And two minutes still remain.
The coaches' intensity is refreshing. I don't know what UNC's former coaches were like, but something special is brewing in Chapel Hill. The coaches yell at and encourage students they barely know the names of. They are having a ball.
"We have your information on file. And again, we would just like to thank you for coming out."
My file only says so much. It's got my name and phone number. But it doesn't have my statistics from the shooting drills we go through. I hit 11 of my first 20
3-pointers on the first day before connecting on just 2-of-10 from the left corner. That same corner gives me problems on day two. I hit 1-of-10. But as Quartlebaum approaches my end of the floor, I start heating up. Shot after shot from the top of the key falls through the net as my right arm remains outstretched.
"He's a shooter," Quartlebaum yells.
Only in isolated shooting drills, Coach. Those wide-open 20-footers don't fall as easily in full-court scrimmages. Especially if you don't shoot them, which I soon prove.
But first, I have to get on a team. Twenty people were present the first night, so there should be four teams of five. Pretty simple stuff. Or so it seemed.
As a line from shortest to tallest begins to form on the mid-court line, I squeeze my 6-foot frame into the fifth slot and yell "One" after the player to my right yells "Four." I think I'm right. But no one else does, and we start over. I call out "Five" this time. Something still isn't right. I feel like I'm in the hot seat of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." And Coach Quartlebaum doesn't throw me a lifeline.
Instead, he calls me out, blaming me for the group's inability to number off correctly. "It's him," he says, index finger pointed squarely at me. I must say my chances are starting to look bleak.
As we prepare to line up again the next day, Quartlebaum says he hopes we can flawlessly run through the procedure. I tell him I have learned to count in the last 24 hours. But then he concedes that I was originally right to call "One," because that meant the five shortest players wouldn't be on the same team. I'll take any small victories at this point.
Once the scrimmaging finally starts each day, I try to bury myself into the flow of the game and remain unnoticed. I shoot once in two days and make my only attempt, a baby hook from the left block.
After the first night, we huddle with the coaches at center court. Wojcik says he wishes he could keep all of us. I'm thinking if an entire team could be put together from this small group, I would still be out of luck.
As we huddle after the final session on Wednesday, Quartlebaum says there are no guarantees that anyone will make the team. But for one last time, we get to feel like part of one as each student puts his hand in a circle and chants "Heels."
"If we can be of any assistance to you in the near future, please feel free to give us a call. We look forward to seeing you at the games. Thanks again, Bret. Talk to you soon. Bye."
I'm not sure what Quartlebaum told the other players. But he must have told Jau'Ron Hayes something different - I saw him warm up with the team before the Blue-White game.
I saw you at the game, Coach Q, but I don't think you saw me. I was sitting on press row, right where I belong.
The Sports Editor can be reached