When Isaiah was a sophomore in high school, several schools came calling for the Oxford native. Each received the same answer: “I’m going to Carolina.”
But despite cementing his status as the top player in the state, Isaiah wasn’t getting attention from UNC. He urged his mother, Regina, to fill out a recruiting questionnaire and send it in, anything to help gain his dream school’s attention.
The Tar Heels eventually discovered him, and on Aug. 8, 2011, Isaiah and his parents sat in Williams’ office as the coach offered him a scholarship.
Williams encouraged Isaiah to take his time before committing. “See who else offers you.” But there was nowhere else Isaiah wanted to be.
On the trip up I-85, the family stopped at a grocery store. Isaiah stayed in the car as his parents went inside. His mind raced, consumed with the idea of following in the footsteps of Tar Heel greats like Vince Carter and Michael Jordan.
He picked up the phone.
“I waited as long as I could, probably like an hour or two,” he said. “I called and said, ‘I’m coming.’”
Regina had planned on talking it over once the family got back to Oxford, but as soon as she got back in the car, Isaiah told them he had already committed.
“You did what?” she remembered asking him.
“He didn’t even talk about it. We didn’t even get a chance to go over it or anything,” she said.
But he didn’t need to talk about it to know North Carolina would be a good fit.
Nearly five years later, nothing has changed. Even after struggling to adjust and produce in his first season in Chapel Hill, even though he could likely be starting at any other college in the country, Isaiah still chooses UNC.
“It’s just everything I had always heard about this university, the team and all of this,” said Hicks on Wednesday, as his eyes wandered toward the banners hanging in the Smith Center rafters.
But to understand Isaiah’s love for UNC and the sacrifices he’s willing to make to play for the Tar Heels, you have to go back a bit farther.
‘Just playing by himself’
No one in Isaiah’s family calls him by his real name. They never have, unless he’s in trouble.
Now, Isaiah has been dubbed “Mank,” for his manly face. Regina says he’s always had “a little man face.” But as a child, his family called him “hip baby.”
The shrimp of the family, Isaiah clung to Regina’s hip until he was 5 years old and often tricked her into carrying him everywhere by acting like he couldn’t walk. He obsessed over Power Rangers and Pokemon, and to this day, he loves video games.
“Even at college, I go to his dorm and he’s sitting there playing video games ...” Regina said. “You can’t talk to him when he’s playing his game, either.”
He started playing organized basketball around the same time, although his height deterred him.
Isaiah frequently accompanied his oldest brother, Allen Mitchell, to pickup games at the local YMCA. But when captains selected teams, Isaiah never heard his name called.
“He would never really play with anybody else,” Mitchell said. “He’d always get picked over and we’d be running a 5-on-5 game, and he would always be in the corner, just playing by himself.”
By middle school, though, Isaiah hovered just above 6 feet tall. In seventh grade, he dunked a basketball for the first time. And as he grew, so did the buzz around him.
First came the triple-double against Chapel Hill High School. Then came the massive crowds and showcase invites. J.F. Webb High School’s junior varsity team warmed up in front of almost a packed house every night, everyone hoping to catch a glimpse of Isaiah, the state’s top talent.
But the attention never changed him.
He sacrificed individual stats for the team’s overall success, finishing third on the team in touches. He stepped in to comfort teammates during TV interviews, helping them respond before slipping out of the spotlight.
“It’s those things when you know you’ve got someone special,” Webb coach Leo Brunelli said.
And if that wasn’t convincing enough, Isaiah’s performance in Webb’s state championship win his senior year solidified it. He led his team to the first state title in school history with 34 points and 30 rebounds, a state championship game record.
As the final buzzer sounded and his teammates piled on top of one another at midcourt, the unassuming MVP stood near the bench, lifting his arms above his head for only a mere second in celebration.
“I was happy,” he said. “But then again, I was just in disbelief that we actually did it.”
He exited high school on top. But at UNC, he started from the bottom.
His mind was made up
Before Isaiah signed with North Carolina, Regina urged him to weigh his options.
With Brice Johnson and James Michael McAdoo already on the Tar Heels’ roster and Kennedy Meeks set to join the team, she hoped her son might consider another school, one that would allow him to see more minutes at his natural power forward position.
But Isaiah wouldn’t listen. His mind was made up.
Shortly after he arrived at UNC, P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald were suspended, leaving the team thin at guard. So Williams moved Isaiah to the small forward spot.
With his speed and strong ball-handling skills, the change didn’t seem like it would significantly affect his play. But the adjustment to his new position and the college game didn’t come easily.
He played limited minutes during his first season with UNC and averaged 1.2 points per game, the fewest by the 24 McDonald’s All-Americans who came in that year.
“I felt like all of the coaches really trusted me,” he said. “I just felt like I probably didn’t trust myself as much.”
Gone was the Isaiah who roamed the halls at Webb his junior and senior years, his shoulders back and his head up. In his place was an Isaiah who second-guessed his every move and attempted to blend in and play mistake-free.
His family watched from afar and attempted to restore his confidence with every text and phone call.
“I was like, ‘Isaiah, look at yourself on some of those mixtapes and how you were,’” Regina said. “‘That person you were is still inside of you, but once you got to college and you were faced with challenges, you’ve kind of forgotten who you are.’”
Starting can wait
Regina still hasn’t seen the Webb version of Isaiah at UNC. Mitchell isn’t sure if he ever will, at least not with the Tar Heels’ playing style.
But entering Saturday’s game between No. 8 UNC and No. 17 Duke, Isaiah has shown glimpses of the player he can be — and in many ways, still is.
The co-recipient of the team’s most improved player award a season ago, he has averaged 9.3 points and 4.7 rebounds in 18.4 minutes per game this season — the seventh-most on the team. He also leads the Tar Heels in offensive efficiency at 125.4 points per 100 possessions.
“We need players like him,” said Meeks, Isaiah’s roommate of three years. “Whether he’s coming off the bench, whether he’s starting, whether he’s getting rebounds, whether he’s not scoring, whatever it may be — anything he does is a big lift for us.”
Isaiah’s adapted to his role as UNC’s sixth man, coming off the bench and playing with the confidence he rarely exhibited two years ago. Despite playing fewer minutes, it’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make.
With his strong play, many fans and reporters have inquired about permanently moving him into the starting lineup. But that can wait.
Isaiah looks back up at the banners and retired numbers hanging in the Smith Center rafters, the ones that originally inspired him to come to UNC. There’s more work to do, more sacrifices to make.
“That would probably be the most honorable thing,” he says, his eyes fixated on the empty space next to the 2009 national championship banner. “That would be just a blessing, because you’re a part of it.”
And for Isaiah Hicks, that’s all that matters.