The famous summer pickup games in Chapel Hill between the current players and pros and why they’re so important.

Summer in Chapel Hill is a destination hotspot for many former players each year and it is known for the famous pickup games that happen in the Dean Smith Center. It’s when the pros come back to campus and take to the court to play against the current players. There are myths about what has happened in these games and Tar Heel International has spoken to many former players about their experiences of a summer in Chapel Hill.

Tar Heel International hears from Kennedy Meeks, Brandon Robinson, Justin Watts, Kenny Williams, Nate Britt and Deon Thompson about their experiences of the summer pickup games in Chapel Hill.

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The pickup games that happen in the Dean Smith Center over the summer are when the campus starts talking and getting excited for the season ahead. Rumours travel through Chapel Hill about who dunked on who, and the former players don’t take it easy, because the guys before them never did either.

A veteran pro always on campus is Justin Watts (2008-2012), and he understands the bragging rights you have among other pros if you’re a National Champion.

“When the boys won in 2017 and Theo and Joel could now come back during the summer and point at a banner on toss up calls… it’s a thing at Carolina where if the call is questionable you can win the call if you won a ship by just pointing at the banner. They pointed at the banner on almost every call that summer!”

Justin Watts speaking to Tar Heel International

Kennedy Meeks (2013-2017) has been playing professionally for the past five seasons, but he makes sure he comes back to Chapel Hill every summer to work out and play some pick-up.

“The games are important because we showcase the past and the present. We see how the game has changed and we evaluate how to make it better. Now I think as a pro, we use it to our advantage.

Kennedy Meeks speaking to Tar Heel International

It is widely known that the pickup games are not just a friendly battle and the coaches want to see their current players working hard. Kennedy remembers when Coach Roy Williams was not happy with his team’s performance.

“A favourite memory would be when my team was playing bad and coach cussing us out after on how embarrassing we played.”

Kennedy Meeks on Coach Roy Williams attitude towards the games

The pros returning to campus is not a recent occurrence. Kenny ‘The Jet’ Smith (1983-1987) recently spoke on All The Smoke Podcast about when Michael Jordan came back for the summer after joining the Chicago Bulls.

“He (Michael Jordan) would call all our rooms and say ‘schools in sessions’ and we would know Mike’s here. We would have 4,000 people come into the gym and watch our pickup games.”

Kenny Smith speaking on All The Smoke Podcast

The famous pickup games are sometimes played in front of the kids who are attending the Carolina Basketball Camps, as well as the games played behind closed doors too. The camp games are obviously filled with a lot more atmosphere from the children. Brandon Robinson (2017-2021) is relatively new to the former players team this summer, but is certainly not a stranger to these games.

“The camp games are important because it’s great now that the kids at camp get to see their favourite players up close and personal, who may not be able to see a game during the season. It’s giving back to those kids and for them to enjoy and look forward to.”

Brandon Robinson speaking to Tar Heel International

It isn’t just memories for the kids who are watching, the players will have moments they will talk back on for years to come.

“I didn’t enjoy it at the time, but now it’s funny looking back at it. KJ (Smith) was talking trash to Justin (Jackson) and Marcus (Paige) and then the pros just turned it up another level and beat us by like 13.

One time Sheed (Rasheed Wallace) was on my team, we had game point and a guy was talking trash to him, I threw him the ball for game point at top of the key and he swished it for three and started running around the court going crazy.”

Brandon Robinson’s favourite memories of the Current vs Former Games

It’s a great time for the Carolina Family to get together and have friendly banter on which era is the better era, and which team would beat who. Players who never played with each other, become the best of friends, look at Marvin Williams (2004-2005) and Deon Thompson (2006-2010).

“It is always fun to get out there with former UNC players. Like our last game, we started Marcus Paige, Kenny Williams, Jawad Williams, Luke Maye and me. What’s so cool about that is the range of age groups and different generations that never played together. But you put us out there and we played like we have been together for years.”

Deon Thompson speaking to Tar Heel International

Kenny Williams (2015-2019) is also a big advocate of the family aspect of the summer pickup games

“The summer pickup games are so important because that really is when you get a full glimpse of what the Carolina family is all about. You have guys who have been in your position and played where you aspire to play and they are willing to help and guide you in your journey as a player and as a person. You’re able to build camaraderie with guys that in some cases extends beyond Chapel Hill in the summer. I know from personal experience there’s been plenty of guys to this day who check in with me and just extend their support and that’s what the whole program has been built on.”

Kenny Williams speaking to Tar Heel International

It is such an advantage for the current players to have professional players around to challenge themselves, and that is one of the greatest advantages of having the summer pickup games in Chapel Hill. The pros also love the team and want to see them become the best they can be too.

“It gives you a chance for you to improve on the things the coaches want you to improve on in a game-setting and going against pros who are essentially better than you and the advice the pros give you is really important, because they’ve been through what we’ve been through, and they know where we’re trying to go.

Now that I’m a former player, I try to give the advice and pointers for what they can work on. I also like to talk trash, so I will do anything to get the game going and get the competition level up.”

Brandon Robinson on why the game is so important

“But as a pro, you’re just on the other side of the pros taking advantage of being pros and getting more calls… but no really as players we wanted to beat the pros so badly, and now we just want to get the better of the current guys, because at the end of the day we want them to be the best they can be and playing against guys who are currently pros all summer, only makes you better and I know that from experience.”

Kenny Williams on what it’s like being a pro in Chapel Hill

With the talented teams the University of North Carolina has produced, you would think the wins could be shared, but according to Nate Britt (2013-2017), that isn’t the case.

“It’s important for the current players to see and learn how to win. I’m not sure there’s even been a current team to beat the former team. Obviously, former players have more experience, but they don’t always have more talent. The former players always winning, no matter the talent, it’s been a subtle reminder that it takes a lot more than talent to succeed at the next level. Now that I’m a pro, it’s a bit odd. It feels good to be on the winning side.”

Nate Britt speaking to Tar Heel International

It’s not just the kids at camp who find it surreal. Freshmen coming in, getting to play against the likes of Tyler Hansbrough and Marcus Paige, guys they have grown up supporting for the players who were Tar Heel fans as kids, it’s an amazing experience for them.

“I remember my first night on campus and we played pickup and as freshmen you rarely get to play but you walk in and you’ve got guys that, as a fan growing up, I watched on TV and guys that I had cheered for as a kid and suddenly I would be the one suiting up, it was just surreal. But, that night I got to play the last game of the night and I guess I shot a lot that game and after Kennedy came up to me and goes “Make sure you put some ice on your shoulder” because of how many shots I took.

Kenny Williams remembers his first pickup game as a freshman

As soon as you return to campus after graduating, or even attending the summer classes if you left school early, the pros come back to Chapel Hill with a different role now and there is a lot of respect between all players.

“Games are so important because they allow the current players to compete against pros which will be the best competition they face in the in upcoming year. Also always former players to build a bond with the current players and bridge the gap in relationships.

As a pro you are more of the advisor now, trying to set a standard and show them how to win, letting them hear different perspectives so they can understand their mistakes, more of a teacher.”

Justin Watts speaking to Tar Heel International

I was lucky enough to experience a current players vs pro pickup game when I spent a summer in Chapel Hill in 2015, when I was there to work the basketball camps.

I had just arrived from flying from England to North Carolina, and I walked into the Dean Smith Center as soon as I arrived on campus. It was the current players vs pros game, Rasheed was talking trash, Tyler dunked on some guy and I was in awe that all my favourite players were in the same place. Hopefully, you’ll get to experience a game like this soon too.

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