The revelations inside Hubert Davis’ North Carolina office

7:00 AM ETThe revelations inside Hubert Davis’ North Carolina office

Tonya Simpson

CloseTonya Simpson is an award-winning writer for ESPN. She is based in Raleigh, N.C. and can be reached at Tonya.M.Simpson@espn.com.

HUBERT DAVIS RISES from his desk, all 6-foot-5 of him, and greets me with a smile that reaches his eyes. I had been told before I arrived that he didn’t like to be called Coach, because that title was reserved for somebody else. So I ask what he goes by.

He looks briefly puzzled before laughing, “Just call me Hubert.”

He — Hubert — settles into a Carolina blue armchair in the sitting area of his spacious, sunny office in the Dean E. Smith Center. He’s relaxed in a blue quarter-zip, and leans back as if he has all the time in the world to chat. We talk about our families, our favorite local fishing holes and the blue classic pickup truck he drives around town.

Behind him, jerseys and photos from his UNC and NBA playing career hang in matching black frames. In front of him, oversized prints fill a wall and showcase the best moments from last year’s NCAA tournament run — including, of course, North Carolina’s victory over Duke in the Final Four. From where he sits while we talk, he is positioned right in the middle of his basketball past and present.

It is a fitting place for Davis, who visits often with his nostalgia for the program and his beloved coach Dean Smith, but who also knows that he must keep the 112-year-old program and its players moving forward, which in this moment means distancing himself and the team from the high expectations coming off last year’s successes.

In his first season as head coach, following nine seasons as an assistant under Roy Williams, Davis led the Tar Heels from the bubble to a national championship appearance. The run surprised everyone except Davis, who had taken a page out of the book of Smith and taped a photo of the New Orleans Superdome, the site of the 2022 Final Four, inside the players’ lockers before their very first practice in September.

This year, however, has been a different story for Davis and the Tar Heels, who suffered four tough losses in a row bridging November and December and dropped entirely out of the AP rankings after starting the season at No. 1. Victories over Georgia Tech, The Citadel and Ohio State have put some wind back in the sails of the team, but some critics are speculating if a sophomore slump is taking place for Davis, or even if he was the right person to succeed Williams in the first place.

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I’m here to talk to Davis about this particular point on the long timeline of his relationship with the university, which he’s been a part of in some way since he was 4 years old. The conversation turns quickly to Smith, whose legacy is an ever-present specter not only inside UNC basketball lore but also inside Davis’ personal and professional life.

Smith, who died three weeks before his 84th birthday in 2015, coached at the university for 36 years and retired with 879 wins, a Division I record at the time. Davis still hears Smith’s voice in difficult moments, a gentle encouragement or a reminder to keep going, always.

In his office, Davis doesn’t mention Smith’s winning tradition. Instead, he mentions the love and respect Smith showed for his players, the investment in their character and service to the community, the interest in their families and their academics.

As you walk down the hall to Davis’ office, you notice his attempts to give UNC basketball a more modern hue extend to the administrative facility. The walls have a fresh coat of bright white paint with Carolina blue accents, an update from the yellow-beige from years past. But neither a change as small as a paint color nor as large as redefining offensive strategy mean severing the ties to Smith.

While Davis is looking ahead toward the immediate future, he is also tethered indelibly to the past — suspending him, perhaps ideally, in the present.

“Everything that I do is filtered through what I think he would want me to do or what he did for me while I was here,” Davis says of Smith, his voice full of reverence. “I want to walk the same road as Coach Smith, but I’ve got to do it with my own personality. And that’s what I want to do. I want to do this with my own personality.”

It is, after all, where he sits.

Davis grew into a star at North Carolina and still embraces the environment that allowed him to blossom. John Biever /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

HUBERT DAVIS WAS 6 years old when his uncle and a friend brought him along on a road trip. Thirteen hours in the car would be torture for most kindergarten-aged kids, but this was not an average trip. To Hubert, his uncle was just Walter, and Walter’s friend was just Phil. But to the rest of the world, they were Walter Davis and Phil Ford — two of the greatest college ball players of their era and newly minted Olympic gold medalists.

It was 1976, and the three were driving home to Chapel Hill, North Carolina — a straight shot 860 miles southbound from Montreal, where Smith had just led Team USA to their place atop the Olympic podium and the globe after settling for a controversial silver to the Soviet Union’s gold at the 1972 Olympics. Hubert bounced and slid around the backseat since it was before anyone thought too much about seatbelts, both gold medals clanking around his neck.

Walter and Ford chatted about the games and about Smith, their beloved Olympic and college coach. Hubert didn’t know it then, but in 12 years he’d be playing under Coach Smith, too. In 45, he’d come to work every day inside a stadium facility that bears Smith’s name.

“I’ve known Hubert since he was 5 or 6 years old,” Ford says. “And now that kid right there is the head coach at the University of North Carolina.”

Although he’d been watching his uncle play since he was a toddler, Davis’ own journey to wearing the uniform wasn’t guaranteed. Smith paid a recruiting visit to Davis as a favor to his uncle Walter, but encouraged him to go somewhere he’d get more playing time, like George Mason.

Davis was undeterred. He knew, if given the chance, he could be one of the Tar Heels’ best players. To this day, Davis holds the school record for career 3-point percentage.

“Coach Smith gave me a chance,” Davis says. “I wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American like all these guys. He gave me a chance. I would like to be somebody that gives people chances.”

Dean Smith remains a guiding force in Davis’ life, on the bench and beyond. “Everything that I do is filtered through what I think he would want me to do,” Davis says. AP Photo/Susan Ragan

If you ask former Tar Heels who played with Davis what he was like as a teammate, most of them mention his kindness and unselfish nature, his dedication and hard work. They describe him as having a competitive edge, but, seemingly incongruous to what we know of competitiveness, never using any profanity. Unless you count “fart.”

Davis played for Coach Smith’s Tar Heels from 1988 to 1992. He started zero games his freshman season and 30 his senior season. His scoring average rose from 3.3 points per game to 21.4. Three of his four years, the team was knocked out in the Sweet 16, but when Davis was a junior, they made it to the Final Four.

George Lynch, who overlapped three seasons with Davis, remembers joking around with his old teammate — but only to a point.

“There were times where the competitive side would come out and he wouldn’t say any cuss words, but he would let you know that he got the best of you in practice that day,” Lynch says.

There was no “locker room talk” from Davis then and never has been. To this day.

“He was kind of like the choir boy out of all of us,” Lynch says. “Instead of saying the ‘f—,’ he would say ‘fart.’ We would all crack up and make jokes in the locker room saying ‘fart.'”

Though it is a reflection of his nature and his Christian faith, it’s also another part of his homage to the Carolina tradition.

“I knew Coach Smith since I was a junior in high school. And until the day he died, I never heard him swear one time,” Ford says. “And trust me, we have been in some situations together that if he was going to swear, he probably would have.”

Davis’ avoidance of profanity doesn’t really even seem conscious. There is no pause as he searches for a replacement for what he really wants to say in order to maintain a squeaky-clean persona, it’s more so as if curse words simply don’t exist in his lexicon and never have.

As coach, Davis brought back a Smith-era policy around the team’s use of profanity: If he hears an unsavory word from a player, everyone gets on the line and runs sprints. His policy for clean language also extends to any music the team plays during practice. If it comes out of the speakers at the Smith Center, it has to be a clean version.

Today in his office, he tells me he is quick to tears and quick to laughter. He tells everyone. He doesn’t hide it. It’s a trait perhaps no more evident than when he wept with joy and pride last season after the Tar Heels defeated Saint Peter’s to advance to face Duke in the Final Four.

“I was just really excited for them, seeing them happy and seeing them have smiles on their faces, anticipating what they were going to see and experience at the Final Four. I was just really, really excited for them,” he says. “I tell the guys all the time, I’m just an emotional guy. And I feel like when you’re doing something that you love, you have to show emotion. And emotion to me signifies that something is important and that you care about it.”

Chapel Hill has always felt like home to Davis, who returned even during his professional playing career to surround himself with familiar coaches and players. Grant Halverson/Getty Images

THE WINDOWS IN Hubert Davis’ office provide a breathtaking view of trees. The oaks, the maples, the pines are still green on this September day in Chapel Hill. Students bustle across the sprawling campus of the nation’s oldest public university. Among them stands the Davie Poplar, more than 100 feet tall, which greeted the university’s first students when they arrived in 1795. It is another giant that has always called Davis back.

After accomplishing his dream of playing for Carolina, Davis was selected by the New York Knicks as the 20th overall pick of the 1992 NBA Draft. Despite being born in Winston-Salem and growing up in Northern Virginia, he wasn’t ready to leave the place he loved most and had come to call home.

“I had training camp with the Knicks and normally people get up there a week or two before, I went the last day possible to go up there,” Davis says. “You know how you feel around your parents, and you feel like you could do anything because you got your parents right there and you just feel safe? That’s what I felt like here. I just felt like I was covered. I was safe with [Dean Smith] and Coach [Bill] Guthridge.”

The Knicks were the first of six teams Davis would play for over his 12-year career at the pro level, but no matter where basketball took him, he always had the same routine the day after the season ended: take the first flight back home to Chapel Hill and come straight to campus to see Smith.

“As soon as we were done with the playoffs, the next day I was flying back here,” Davis says. “I spent the whole summer here. I would still every day come back to the office, talk to Coach Smith, talk to Coach Guthridge, play pickup with the guys. I spent the whole summer here for 12 years in the NBA.”

Davis, who met his wife in high school, talked with Smith about everything from marriage to kids to career decisions. Smith’s words and advice were seeds planted in Davis’ mind, some of which are still just now germinating today as he parents three teenagers.

So it was only fitting that Davis wanted to visit Smith once again during one of life’s turning points. He had just accepted the head coach position to succeed Roy Williams and his 18 seasons at the helm, and had seemingly infinite calls and texts of congratulations to answer. Instead, he took a walk. He headed to the east side of campus where, under the sprawling cover of an oak tree, he sat by Smith’s headstone.

There is a book carved from stone atop the site’s marker. Open for eternity, a page includes a verse from Micah and the words, “Reflect gracefully on those who went before you. Embrace those loved ones among you, and honor those who contribute to a better future for those who follow.”

“I just wanted to spend time with him at his gravesite,” Davis told media in April 2021. “I just wanted to listen to him, talk to him and tell him thank you for believing in me and giving me a chance and an opportunity. I wanted to thank him for the example he set for me.”

Davis spent nine years as an assistant under Roy Williams before becoming the first Black head coach in North Carolina men’s basketball history. AP Photo/Gerry Broome

FROM A SOCIALLY DISTANCED, banner-draped table on the floor of an empty Dean E. Smith Center on April 5, 2021, athletic director Bubba Cunningham introduced Davis as the head coach of the Tar Heels. North Carolina was coming off an 18-11 season and a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament. The year before that, the team had gone 14-19.

In accepting the position, Davis became the first Black head coach in the program’s 111-year history and only the fourth Black head coach in all of UNC athletics. In the 2020-21 season, only 24% of Division I men’s basketball head coaches were Black, compared to 53% of the players, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

“I think it’s very significant,” Davis says. “My dad grew up right outside of Charlotte in Pineville, North Carolina, and he was the first group of students that integrated schools in the Charlotte Mecklenburg County area. And to think that one generation removed, his son is now the head coach at the University of North Carolina. There’s major significance.”

Smith is remembered as a civil rights advocate and ally, recruiting Charlie Scott, the first Black scholarship athlete to Carolina in 1967 when the ACC was still a largely segregated conference. He was dedicated to efforts toward desegregation across North Carolina, which President Obama noted in his speech awarding Smith the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

Diversity and inclusion are important topics for Davis and his team, and something he talks about with them often. He talks about them with me now.

“For all of our players, I tell them that I think it’s very important to have a voice,” Davis says. “One of the things that we talk about a lot is having a voice and then thinking about how to use your voice in a way that brings people together. Especially with all the stuff that has happened in our country, specifically over the last two or three years. That’s been an ongoing conversation with all of our players is to have a voice, make sure your voice is positive and your voice generates a positive solution to where we want everything to be. And that’s something that I talk to the guys, not just the African American players, everybody.”

Davis has installed a new offense at North Carolina, but at its foundation is still a personal relationship between coach and players. AP Photo/Chris Szagola

THE WALLS OF Hubert Davis’ office are lined with sneakers — almost exclusively Nikes in some combination of Carolina blue, white and black. They’re pristine on display in protective, clear acrylic boxes, ready to be picked out for the walk upstairs to practice or a home game — a distinct change in formality from Smith’s suit and brogues.

“I try to get a pair every couple of weeks,” Davis says, beaming over his collection.

I was wondering what it takes to amass such an impressive collection of baby blue, so I asked Phil Ford what he thought.

“I think he knows somebody that he could get them from,” Ford says. “So I don’t think that it’s as difficult for him as it is for some other people.”

“Oh, he has a dealer?” I reply, mostly joking.

“Well, Michael Jordan.”

It’s more than the shoes, or a coat of paint, that are different in 2022 than they were in 1982 when Jordan hit the shot to send the Tar Heels to the national title, or than they were in 1961 when Smith became coach. Perhaps the most dramatic change Davis has made as head coach is modernizing the UNC offense. He’s given his players space, freedom, movement.

“I think Hubert knew immediately; this is what we’re going to have to do,” says Ron Smith, UNC basketball historian and author of “The Tar Heels.” “This is the offense we’re going to have to run because this is what you do now. You’ve got to be more geared towards an NBA style if you’re going to be able to recruit these guys.”

It was a big shake-up to immediately move away from what former players call “The System” that has always used two traditional bigs, to a style of play that allows post players to step out and encourages them to shoot 3s.

“He quickly identified that he needed to make some changes, and I think that’s one wonderful example that takes a lot of guts, is not to just fall into familiar waters but be willing to try to swim in the deep end from the very get-go,” says Eric Montross, Davis’ teammate from 1990 to 1992 and current basketball color commentator on Tar Heel Sports Network.

It could have been a difficult transition for the players without an opportunity to get to know Davis and see his investment in them as people. He knew he needed to shake up how the team played, but also that their enthusiasm and dedication would not be born out of practice alone, but also quality time away from the court.

“Right now I require the guys to stop by the office at least three times a week … just say hello. We can’t talk about basketball,” Davis says. “And the reason why I do that, Coach Smith didn’t need to do that. After class we’d hang out, whatever, and then we’d come over here and I mean, we would play video games, take naps, have lunch, in all the coaches’ offices and we’d just be hanging out with them.”

When Davis’ players drop by, they might look behind his desk. A small shadow box hangs on the wall. Inside sits a slip of paper.

When Smith died in 2015, he instructed his estate to send out $200 checks to all his lettermen with instructions to have a nice dinner out with their wives or friends.

“It’s right there,” Davis says when I ask him what he did with his.

“I told Mrs. Smith, I said, ‘I apologize, this will be the first time that I purposely ever disobeyed Coach.’ And I said that when you balance the checkbook, you’re going to be short $200,” he says. “I can’t cash this. It just can’t happen.”

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