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Hoop Dreams Realized, Sort Of

Big-time college basketball is a way of life in North Carolina. It brings excitement and millions of dollars to the Triangle, and gives the region much of its identity. But actually playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference is out of reach for everyone but the most elite athletes. Except at UNC-Chapel Hill, where a Junior Varsity basketball team continues to prosper. It’s a one-of-a-kind opportunity for “regular” students.

Dave DeWitt: 11 players in Carolina Blue uniforms. 1 coach. About 2 dozen fans. And 21-thousand empty blue seats. That’s the scene for every North Carolina Junior varsity basketball game.

Jerod Haase: Send it all the way over there. Go. Go. Go. Go. Go. Look. He’s holding him. He’s holding him!

Three hours before the Real Tar Heels play in a nationally-televised ACC game, the loudest noise during the JV game is the squeaking of shoes and the periodic shouts of Coach Jerod Haase. Today, the JV Heels are taking on a military school named Massanutten. And things aren’t going well.

Haase: Run it, pivot, flex cut. FLEX. Get wide, get wide, get wide. Find the ball. MATT, find the ball!

Matt Van Hoy is fighting hard to score and rebound against Massanutten’s several division one prospects. Van Hoy is a 6-4 forward from tiny Mocksville. The fact that he’s here, on this court, is unlikely, but it’s the culmination of a dream.

Matt Van Hoy: I’ve wanted to do it since I was a little kid playing in the driveway and I was playing, you know, hopefully, I can make the JV team. You know, to wear the Carolina uniform regardless of whether it’s varsity or JV, it’s still a life-changing experience in my opinion.

DeWitt: So let me get this straight, when you were dreaming of playing basketball for Carolina, you actually dreamed of the JV team?

Van Hoy: I did. I guess I was realistic at a young age, knowing my abilities weren’t up to a higher level.

Van Hoy’s dream was hard-won. He tried out twice for the JV team as a freshman and sophomore, and was cut both times. But he came back as a junior, and made the team. Now, he’s the only senior on the squad.

 The Carolina Basketball we all know produced Michael Jordan and has won 5 national titles. But it also has another distinction: the only major program to field a JV team.

In 1972, when freshmen were first allowed to play varsity basketball, most schools stopped fielding a second team. But North Carolina has kept it going for 40 years.

Roy Williams: Coach Smith always thought that everybody who comes to the university should have a chance to try out for the basketball team.

“Coach Smith” is, of course, Dean Smith, and the man continuing his legacy is Roy Williams, the current head coach. Williams played on the freshman team in the 1960s, and later coached the J-V squad. He tried to start a JV program when he became the head coach at Kansas, but the Big 12 conference told him he couldn’t, because of Title Nine concerns.

When he came back to Carolina nine years ago, Williams happily embraced the JV team. He says it will be here as long as he is.

Williams: For me, it’s something I want to continue doing. I saw my own son go through the program. I’ve known kids who have gone through the program who still speak so highly of that whole experience.

Coaching the JV team is a task taken on willingly by Jerod Haase, who is also an assistant coach with the varsity. In between constant recruiting and preparing scouting reports for the likes of Duke and Kentucky, he also arranges a JV schedule that includes games against Central Carolina Community College and Greensboro Day School. After coaching the varsity for a couple hours every afternoon, he runs the JV practices at night.

Haase: On a personal level, I want them to learn something about themselves. It’s not going to be every day, make their life miserable, by any means. But it is something, I want to push them, put them against good competition, and when they leave here say, ‘I learned something about basketball, I learned something about life,’ and go away with a positive experience.

70 to 80 kids show up every fall to try out for the JV team – about 15 are selected. They can play for two seasons, and for a select few, an even bigger prize awaits. Every year, a walk-on slot or two opens up on the varsity, and a JV player fills it.

Because he’s a senior, that won’t happen for Matt Van Hoy. And he’s fine with that. And being a JV player does have some perks.

Van Hoy: We don’t get to keep the jersey and shorts, unfortunately, but we get a few pairs of these shoes, Carolina sweats. The best thing is we get a team plaque with the team picture, the entire schedule, the scores on it. So that’s a nice keepsake I’ve got in my room right now.

And each player also gets a ticket to the varsity game, sitting right behind the bench, the envy of 21-thousand fans who now fill all those blue seats. An hour and a half after their game ended, the JV players are the happiest cheerleaders in the building.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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