UNC’s Williams back to work after cancer scare

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The pink tie Roy Williams wore to media day Thursday may or may not have had anything to do with a recent cancer scare the Hall of Fame basketball coach experienced.

If it was for that reason, it certainly wasn’t all the North Carolina coach would express about a 24-day period that caused him to reflect as well as look forward, not exactly knowing what his future held.

The folksy and usually affable coach opened up about tumors found on his kidneys, later determined to be benign. One was removed, and the coach was given a clean bill of health, even though at one point the doctors believed the vascular masses were 95 percent cancerous. He’ll get checked every six months moving forward as a precaution.

“I was a lucky guy …” Williams said at the Dean Smith Center. “I told him (the doctor) I’d known that for quite a while because I’ve lived a charmed life. But from Sept. 10 until that moment, those 24 days were pretty emotional, were pretty tough.”

Williams, 62, was concerned about heartburn and indigestion that didn’t seem normal. He told his doctor about it during his annual physical, which always takes place about a month before practice begins.

The blood work came back fine, but the doctor wanted to do an ultrasound and then a CT scan after the doctors “saw something they didn’t like.”

The coach was informed of this waiting at an airport on a recruiting trip. Always the competitor, Williams finished the trip, and a few days later learned that tumor was probably cancerous.

Last week, however, Williams found out the second tumor was also benign. Needless to say, Tar Heels smiles were broad.

“We are a family, so any time we have a person in the family that is sick, we stand by them …” junior wing Leslie McDonald said. “And once we found out the other one was benign, we were happy that he’s able to be our coach. He was happy, too. Everybody was giving hugs and shaking hands.”

The euphoria of relief balanced out the intensity of the fear that filled Williams’ thoughts.

“I was off the charts in every direction you can possibly be,” said Williams, who lost both of his parents to cancer. “You always hear people say when they hear that word that it just knocks you for a loop, and it does. But I told my team I was going to coach this team and I felt that way.”

Nobody in the profession outworks Williams. He’s a ridiculously passionate recruiter and a tireless worker with every aspect of his program. There’s a reason the man has won two national championships, taken seven teams to the Final Four, never lost an opening-round game in the NCAA tournament and owns a 675-169 all-time record at Kansas and now in his 10th year at UNC.

But Williams’ workload has been cut considerably, at least until he’s fully healed from having one of the tumors removed on Sept. 19. He’s home in the morning and is working just four or five hours a day. And while he wants to be out there with his team, Williams has time to reflect on just how precious life is.

“I had so much care and people contacting me and calling and writing letters, it was off the charts,” he said. “My team was great, my family was great.”

The other 11 ACC basketball coaches called him, and he heard from many coaches around the country. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski called three times, and Wake Forest head man Jeff Bzdelik sent ice cream.

Williams also received numerous emails and letters, many from people who had similar conditions and just cancer survivors in general. The letters offered hope, and it’s clear the coach remains touched by the outpouring of affection.

Has this changed his personal outlook on the future? Might Williams choose to do something else with his life instead of coaching?

“I’m going to smell the roses a heck of a lot more every day, I think,” he said. “It does change you. Anybody says it doesn’t, they’re a lot stronger or more whacko than I am. I really want to coach this team. And you know what’s going to happen next year? I’m really going to want to coach that team, too.”

The coach later said he stands by previous statements that he wants to coach another six to 10 years. But he is finally making a bucket list, something he hadn’t thought of previously. The items in there right now are to play more golf, naturally, and to see his kids and grandchildren more.

He also wants to win more basketball games.

Senior guard Dexter Strickland said his coach never made it about himself. He didn’t want his health concerns to weigh on the players.

“He said we needed to stay focused on our goals as people and as a team,” Strickland said. “He wanted us to continue working hard in class, on the court and by representing the school. His courage is inspiring.”

For the most part, Williams was his usual self Thursday. But it was also quite evident that sitting there discussing the last month of his life was a form of relief, as well.

Williams is a man who takes every missed rebound quite seriously, as if the rotation of the Earth depended on it. He’s a fierce competitor and demands excellence from his teams.

This experience won’t soften him in practice or games, and it shouldn’t. Legends don’t change their stripes, even when wearing pink ties.