LOS ANGELES — They arrive at the Smith Center 30 minutes early every day to learn of their assignments. They run through the opposing team’s inbound plays, defensive tactics, offensive tendencies and major plays. Then, when the rest of the North Carolina men’s basketball team arrives later, they mimic the opponents as accurately as possible so that the first and second UNC teams know exactly what to expect. Come game time, they’ll rarely — if ever — find their names on a box score. They won’t show up in the postgame notes, either.
Such is the life of the UNC walk-ons, who for a few hours adopt the personalities and playing styles of some of the most dominant players in the country the Tar Heels face. It’s been this way for years, them serving on the scout team. The system isn’t new.
But perhaps what is different this 2014-15 season is how much this Sweet 16 run the Tar Heels have embarked on means to the two active walk-ons, juniors Spenser Dalton and Justin Coleman. One of them wasn’t on the varsity roster when the season opened. The other was told in high school, after three fractured vertebrae and a broken neck, that he might never be able to play basketball again. That’s what makes this run so special.
Dalton remembers the Thursday when Coach Roy Williams delivered him the news. Because of so many injuries, Dalton, a member of the junior varsity team, had been practicing with the varsity squad once or twice a week for about three weeks. That would change.
“On (that) Thursday, Coach Williams talked to me before practice and said that I was going to stay on the varsity team for the rest of the season,” said Dalton on Wednesday, a day before UNC takes on top-seeded Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. “He called me over before practice and I had no idea what he was going to tell me. Then he told me that and I about jumped out of my shorts.”
It was a long time coming for the junior from Asheville, who played high school ball at Christ School — where the three Plumlee brothers played — and then worked relentlessly during his time with the JV team. The very next night after Williams promoted Dalton, he joined the Tar Heels on a flight to Miami for his first game.
“It’s a pretty unreal experience. I’m still almost a little bit shocked that I come in right at the end of the season and ... kind of get dropped into the fun part, you know?” he said. “It’s pretty awesome.”
Beside him sat Coleman, who smiled and nodded his head in agreement as he, too, soaked in the magnitude of being in Los Angeles with the Tar Heels. Coleman, also a JV alum, made the team at the beginning of the season, just a few years removed from an injury that nearly took everything from him.
When Coleman was in high school, he fell face-first onto the floor and slid head-first into a cement wall after he was pushed from behind going up on a dunk. The guard had just registered a steal and was looking to finish. He became immediately unconscious upon impact.
“Everybody said it was loud. As soon as it happened, everybody raced over. But I woke up and I was just looking at a lot of people, and they were asking me questions,” he said. “Apparently I didn’t know the first three questions.
“It was a broken neck. I fractured three vertebrae and I dislocated a disk and then I had a lot of ligaments torn. I dislocated C3 through C5 vertebrae.”
Doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to play for nine months — the news brought Coleman to tears.
“It was devastating, really,” he said. “I never really did get over it.”
Now Coleman credits his faith for having the chance to play again. He and Dalton rarely take off their warmups and when UNC takes on Wisconsin Thursday, they’ll likely be at the end of the bench.
But that doesn’t matter. They’re here, in Los Angeles, in a world-class arena as part of one of the biggest sporting events of the year. And that’s all that matters.
“When God blesses you like this, you can’t just let it sit,” Coleman said. “I can’t pay everybody back ... there’s no way I can do that. No amount of money, nothing can pay anybody back for what they did for me.
“But I can pass it forward and affect other people.”
And in serving on the scout team — where their recognition is small but their purpose is huge — that’s just what Dalton and Coleman do.
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