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Warm welcome greets Marcus Paige in his return to North Carolina

Former UNC guard Marcus Paige (4) returned to the state with the Salt Lake City Stars to take on the Greensboro Swarm. Greensboro defeated Salt Lake City 104-99. Here, Paige talks with former N.C. State guard Cat Barber (7). 

Former UNC guard Marcus Paige (4) returned to the state with the Salt Lake City Stars to take on the Greensboro Swarm. Greensboro defeated Salt Lake City 104-99. Here, Paige talks with former N.C. State guard Cat Barber (7). 

He stepped on the court Thursday night for the 42nd time in the 2016-17 season in a navy Salt Lake City Stars uniform. He wore No. 4, clean white Nike shoes and black leggings. He looked like the Marcus Paige that North Carolina fans know and love, just in a different shade of blue.

Through 41 regular season games in the D-League, Paige has averaged 12.5 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists. There have been highlights, but there haven’t been any phone calls from an NBA team about a 10-day contract.

It’s been a long journey since Paige took the court for the Tar Heels in the 2016 national championship game. A lot of games, a lot of commercial flights, a lot of cities, a lot of basketball.

But tonight? Tonight was different.

***

On June 23, Paige’s dream came true. The Brooklyn Nets selected him with the 55th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

Real life quickly interjected, though, as he was traded to the Utah Jazz for the 42nd pick and “cash considerations” — welcome to the world of professional basketball, young fella.

As nice as it was being drafted, second round picks don’t earn guaranteed contracts. Paige would have to fight his way onto a roster.

Utah liked what they saw in the Summer League and signed Paige on August 22. He went through training camp with the team, was waived on October 13 and finally found himself with the Salt Lake City Stars, the Jazz’s D-League affiliate.

With each transaction, Paige felt further and further away from home. Part of what’s kept him going is the support from friends, family and the Tar Heel faithful.

“It’s been pretty cool this year,” Paige said. “We go to some random cities in the D-League — we’ll be out in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, or Northern Arizona, and wherever we go, there’s always been two or three people after the game who will come up and speak to me.”

***

As Paige ran out from the locker room, fans clad in Carolina blue made a tunnel. At the end, a young girl held up a sign that read “Marcus, you are my favorite Tar Heel!”

Paige’s first 3-pointer came from the right corner with nine minutes left in the first quarter. And the result was the same as it was so many times in Chapel Hill — swish.

He found time to sneak a glance at the crowd. He had plenty of faces to find: friends from Chapel Hill and even his fiancee’s family. Yes, Paige is engaged, but he only shared the details of the wedding when prompted by a reporter.

They’ll be married in August. They picked Chapel Hill for the venue — it had to be. That’s home.

***

On March 7, the Los Angeles Clippers designated Brice Johnson for assignment to the D-League, and because the Clippers don’t have an affiliate, they sent him to Salt Lake City.

Brice and Marcus, teammates, roommates and brothers at North Carolina, were reunited once again.

Paige and Johnson played together three times before the latter was called back up to the Clippers on March 13.

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Joining up in the D-League wasn’t the future Paige and Johnson dreamed of in Chapel Hill, but it was awesome all the same.

“The plan was for us to be on the same NBA team, obviously,” Paige joked. “To get together in the D-League, it was still cool, but down the road we might get another chance.”

***

Paige’s Salt Lake City Stars lost 104-99 to the Greensboro Swarm on Thursday. He finished with 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting.

“He’s improving, and he’s got a chance,” Swarm head coach Noel Gillespie said. “It’s good that he got a chance to start tonight.”

Paige fed off the energy of the friendly, Tar Heel-heavy crowd.

“Place to place in the D-League, you can get a couple empty gyms throughout the 50 games,” Paige said. “So to have this rocking like this, it was pretty cool. You’ve got to appreciate it, because some places are pretty bare.”

After the game, he had a meet and greet with fans. Many of them were young, maybe up past their bedtimes. All of them wore Carolina blue and relished the opportunity to meet their hero.

One asked about Paige’s double-clutch shot in the national championship, and why he leaned so much.

Marcus Paige answered all questions and couldn’t help but smile.

Tonight was different — tonight, he was home.

@bauman_john

sports@dailytarheel.com