In 2015, as he played the final 24 games of his pro basketball career, Sean May surprised himself.
It began in spurts. After practice ended for his French club team, Orléans Loiret Basket, May would convince a young teammate to stay behind and run extra drills. Then, he started explaining to players, mid-game, how to defend guards off pick-and-roll switches. Or how they needed to angle themselves off a screen.
When opponents beat OLB with specific plays, May would watch the film and document those plays for his own team to use. When he wasn’t averaging a team-high 14 points in the top league of French basketball, he was grabbing a clipboard and drawing up a play to get someone else involved.
“We’d be playing a team, and we’re up seven with a minute to go and we lose,” he said. “I would go back, and I would be obsessed. Why did we lose this game? Not a, ‘I didn't do this,’ or an, ‘I didn't do that.’ Like, what did we, as a team, do? And for me, that became a game within itself.”
May was thinking about basketball in a way he never had before. He used those last few months as a final confirmation. He was ready for the next step of his life: coaching.
Almost four years later, that inclination has paid off. May is in his second season as director of operations for the North Carolina men’s basketball team, and his fourth with the team overall. He’s a husband and a father of three. At 34, he is in a new chapter of his life at his alma mater.
And, after years of uncertainty and stints across the Atlantic Ocean, he isn’t afraid to indulge, just a bit, in his newfound stability.
“It doesn't feel like work,” he said. “Yes, I'm providing for my family, but I'm doing what I love to do. And then I get to go home and be with people I love. So, it’s awesome.”
‘They’ve got to move on’
When a Charlotte Bobcats player walked into Phil’s Tavern one night, Grace Vargas couldn’t have been less impressed.
Phil’s was just two blocks from Time Warner Cable Arena, the home of the NBA’s Bobcats. But Vargas, a bartender, had never cared much for sports. If her Costa Rican family from Lincolnton, N.C., kept up with anything, it was soccer.
“He walks in, and everybody’s like, ‘That’s Sean May!’” Vargas said. “I’m like, ‘Who’s Sean May?’”
At that point, May was just a few years removed from an iconic UNC career. In his final game, he dropped 26 points and 10 rebounds to beat Illinois and bring head coach Roy Williams his first national championship.
After being drafted 13th overall by the Bobcats in 2005, May was a well-known figure in North Carolina. The boss of the tavern immediately put May’s first round of drinks on the house. But at that point, May was already distracted by a bartender he hadn’t seen around before.
Eventually, he sent over one of Vargas’ coworkers, Audra, to get her attention.
“She goes, in her Southern accent, ‘Sean May wants to know if you’ll be his girlfriend,’” Vargas said. “And I just busted out laughing.”
They talked that night and eventually began dating. May averaged a career-high 11.9 points in his second year. But, right before training camp started in 2007, he found out he needed microfracture surgery on his right knee. The surgery was season-ending, and he found the rehab process a stark contrast from college, where an entire staff helps players recover.
“They give you absolutely everything you need,” he said of the NBA. “But, at the same time, they've got to move on and win games.”
May and Vargas were engaged, with a new house in Charlotte, when he learned the Bobcats weren’t extending his offer. For the first time in his career, he was a free agent. He signed with the Sacramento Kings for the 2009-10 season. Vargas put a hold on her UNC-Charlotte degree to travel across the country with him.
Sacramento gave May another dose of NBA reality. He became close friends with teammate Kevin Martin, a high scoring guard, only for Martin to get traded during halftime of a game against the Golden State Warriors.
That NBA reality soon hit May, too. The New Jersey Nets cut him from their training camp roster in 2010 after he broke his foot. With career averages of 6.9 points and four rebounds, and the NBA lockout looming, he chose a more stable option.
Layla May, Sean’s first daughter, was a game-changer.
Before children, the Mays were happy to travel wherever. Sean played on one-year deals in Turkey, Croatia and Italy, often with less than a week’s notice beforehand.
But Grace had always planned to have her children in the United States. So, when she learned she was pregnant, she left Paris in April 2013 for her final trimester. Sean, however, had to stay for the rest of his club season. Those two months were the first they’d spent apart since meeting in Charlotte.
Sean came home for the birth of Layla in June, and the whole family moved back to Paris for a season. But when Grace experienced complications with her second pregnancy, the couple thought it best for her to return to the United States with Layla for the 2014-15 season.
“I went over one year without them, and that was just hard,” Sean said. “You feel like you're missing everything … I just wanted to be home.”
He’d been spending every summer in Chapel Hill, playing in alumni pickup games and working toward his degree, which he got in 2009. He’d also been in touch with Williams, his former head coach, about any opportunities with the program.
Everything lined up in 2015. In France, Sean played his 10th and final year of professional basketball. He knew his body was ready for retirement — and so was his coaching-obsessed mind.
“He always said from the start, after professional basketball, he wanted to go back and work for Coach Williams,” Grace said. “So, once that opportunity came about, he was like, ‘I think I’m done.’ And I was like, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s go back home.’”
That summer, Williams let May shadow the staff in meetings and film breakdowns. A week before the 2015 season, athletics department officials formally interviewed May for the director of player personnel position. He got through it fine, even though he was stuttering and admittedly “nervous as hell.”
In the first team meeting of that year, Williams announced May as his newest hire. But May was already familiar with most of the roster from summer ball, so Williams kept it casual.
“Hey,” the head coach told his players, “Sean’s going to be around.”
He spent a few hours cutting up video for the next day’s practice and went to bed around 3:30 a.m. By 6 a.m., he was back awake, getting ready for work. To Grace, it’s emblematic of how much her husband loves his job.
“It can be stressful, but even through the stress, he’s happy to do it,” she said. “He’s eager to do it.”
Per NCAA rules, May is not allowed to provide any on-court instructions in practice or in games. He has a spot on the bench, but any comments must be relayed through an assistant coach. A lot of his duties are administrative, like travel and meal planning. Most of his direct coaching comes through film study with players.
He and Eric Hoots, another younger staff member, encourage the team to think of them as older brothers. When May was at UNC from 2002-05, assistant coaches Jerod Haase and C.B. McGrath were people he could come to, in confidence, with complaints or personal issues. May is proud to offer that same outlet today.
“I think the best staffs have that — somebody that those players can trust and rely on,” he said. “I tell them all the time: ‘You just need to vent to us? I'll be your sounding board.’”
He has nothing but compliments for his coworkers. How Brad Frederick taught him the minutiae of the team’s video software. How he looks up to Hubert “H.D.” Davis for the way he conducts his life.
As for Williams, May raves on the coach’s ability to delegate work to his staff and trust them with it. Working for a Hall of Famer, May often tells his father, is invaluable — something that could propel him “10 years ahead.”
Former players like Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson keep in touch with May constantly. Kendall Marshall, now with UNC as a student coach, sat in on May’s interview for this story, just to mess with him.
“He’s turned the page,” Williams said at ACC media day. “I’ve said this many times: Sean May was one of the five most intelligent guys I’ve ever coached … I’m very, very fortunate to have him back with us.”
After years of moving, the Mays are now comfortably settled in Chapel Hill with three daughters. Layla is 5 and just started kindergarten at Creekside Elementary. Lilianna is 3, and London is 1. Many of their adventures to parks and zoos are documented on May’s Instagram.
As he sits in his Smith Center office, May is surrounded by canvas photos. He prints them as a hobby. They serve as a reminder of his past and his present: a collage of his NBA days, the basketball team’s ring ceremony last fall, a black-and-white of his father, Scott, playing for Indiana in the 1970s, multiple shots of his daughters.
May has no gripes about how his professional career turned out. From Charlotte to Sacramento to overseas, it was one great situation after another, he said. But this job is his focus now. And, with his family beside him, he’s ecstatic for the future.
“I feel like by not being on the court, I can look at basketball from a different perspective and learn a lot,” he said. “I think it teaches you to look at things, so it's fine.
“I don't mind waiting. I love it. I'll continue to do my job until it changes.”