Doug Halverson was at his usual spot near the end of the bench, which means he had a clear view when it happened.
It was Dec. 30, 2019, and North Carolina was on its way to snapping a four-game losing streak with a 70-67 win against Yale. Anthony Harris, his team up seven with three minutes left, exploded past his defender down the baseline and jump-stopped, trying a shot fake at the rim.
Instead, the ball floated harmlessly into the air and Harris, upon landing, crumpled in front of the stanchion favoring his right knee. Instinctively, Halverson stood up and clapped his hands, a mix of sympathy and frustration.
To him and the thousands of other people in the Smith Center, it was eminently clear what had happened.
“You knew in that moment what we lost,” Halverson, UNC basketball’s head athletic trainer since 2013, told the DTH. “We were losing something that was helping us build some momentum.”
It was an all-too-easy metaphor for the Tar Heels’ 2019-20 season: just when something would break right, something else went wrong. Nine days earlier, Harris had put together a 14-point performance against UCLA in just his fourth game in a Tar Heel jersey. Before that, the first-year guard was rehabbing a torn ACL that kept him out all offseason and through the beginning of the year.
Now, against the Bulldogs, Harris had done it again, only in the other knee. He would miss the remainder of the season.
Guard Jeremiah Francis, who rehabbed his own knee injury with Harris over the summer, was in tears after the game. Head coach Roy Williams called the injury “one of the most heartbreaking” his teams have ever had to deal with. One of the only silver linings of the season for UNC evaporated, just like that.
Just as one leak gets patched up for these Tar Heels, two more pop up. Halverson’s job is keeping the proverbial ship airtight; suffice it to say that this year, it hasn’t been easy.
“It’s absolutely been a trying season, as anyone from the outside would expect,” he said. “It’s tough when you have to come into the office every day and deliver some bad news.”
In all, scholarship players have missed 96 games this year due to injury. That includes Harris with 25, forward Sterling Manley, who hasn’t played a minute this season and underwent knee surgery on Dec. 12, and Cole Anthony, who missed time due to a partially torn meniscus and watched the Tar Heels go 4-7 in his absence.
“That was a very tough three, four weeks to go through,” Halverson said. “Every week we’re tackling a big mountain.”
All that turnover makes building any semblance of chemistry or consistency pretty difficult. Halverson’s dealt with a higher volume of injuries in the past — to role players on the basketball team, as well as during his time with the football team — but says there’s “no question” that he’s never had this many injuries to the top of the lineup.
“It’s stressful because I want us to be successful,” he said. “My priority is the health and safety of our players, but after that, it’s to try to help our team be successful.”
For all the turbulence of this year — a virtual lock to end as Williams’ first losing season as a head coach — Halverson’s schedule hasn’t changed much.
He wakes up around 7 a.m. each day and begins his workday an hour later, communicating with injured players and scheduling any necessary treatment sessions. After practice in the afternoon, he typically leaves the office around 6:30 or 7 p.m.
Halverson said this year’s laundry list of injuries sometimes results in longer hours; mainly, though, he just has less time for “the things they don’t tell you about in school:" little stuff like ordering equipment and big stuff like keeping up with developments in exercise science. He sees the latter as a crucial part of his job, especially this year.
“We put our heads together constantly, discussing and re-discussing,” Halverson said. “We talk to professionals around the country: ‘What are you all doing?’ ‘What are we doing differently?’”
The brain trust includes Williams and Jonas Sahratian, the team’s strength and conditioning coordinator. Halverson and Sahratian were the ones who led the summer rehab process for Harris and Francis, guiding and encouraging them during 7 a.m. workouts.
"That's not an easy thing for a freshman to do,” Halverson said.
Therein lies the most difficult part of his job: keeping the spirits of players — injured players, players who may be at one of the lowest points of their lives — high.
“You wake up every day and try to stay positive,” Halverson said. “Players aren’t asking to get hurt. They need help.”
But how do you make sure they get the help they need? While Harris and Francis both attacked rehab, Halverson said others are, understandably, less enthused. And while part of the job of a trainer is becoming part of a player’s support system — “day-to-day,” he notes, “we are the de facto sports psychologists” — he also makes sure the team isn’t afraid to meet with people like Bradley Hack, director of sport psychology at UNC.
“I would say the majority (of basketball players), at some point in their career, take advantage of that service,” Halverson said. “And it could be everything from, ‘I’m missing my free throws, how do I get out of this shooting funk?’ to ‘I’m struggling at home.’ The range is certainly there.”
As for Halverson himself, he noted the importance of not getting “lost” in a “woe is me” mindset. One imagines that a 13-17 campaign lends itself to a certain level of gloom, but it's been, in his eyes, a cause for growth.
“You learn how to work through the adversity," Halverson said. "You learn how to wake up every day and come in with an attitude of positivity.”
And things are trending up at the right time. With a mostly healthy roster outside of Harris and Manley, the Tar Heels have strung together three wins entering a season finale against Duke on Saturday.
It also helps that the confidence Williams and the rest of the staff have in Halverson has never wavered.
“Coach always says he’s not gonna call me to find out what play to run,” he said. “And he doesn’t expect me to call him to find out how to treat an injury.”
“It’s been a major challenge for him,” Williams said, “but he’s been fantastic.”
Halverson knows that vote of confidence isn’t a given. That other trainers at other programs aren't given that luxury. That it’d be easy for the coaching staff to start pointing fingers “when the chips are down.” It’s precisely that faith that’s led, in part, to the recent highs of North Carolina basketball. The wins. The ACC crowns. The national titles.
For the most part, this season has been a decidedly different story. Even in the lowest of lows, though, Halverson will be in his spot on the bench, with a watchful eye and more support behind him than he could have expected or anticipated.
“A lot of people have reached out to say, ‘I know it’s hard,’” Halverson said. “That’s a good thing to know that people care just as much in this moment as when you’re hanging a banner.”