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June 25, 2011If Hollywood ever comes calling for the rights to the script behind the 2011-12 North Carolina Tar Heels, they'll certainly have a compelling opening scene.
It will come in the form of a three-man gathering in a house in Chapel Hill with plenty of dramatic tension and the direction of the Tar Heel program hanging in the balance.
It was there, inside Tyler Zeller's pad, that UNC's three best players - Zeller plus Harrison Barnes and John Henson - met to discuss their futures.
Yes, futures. Plural. Because there was no promise the trio would remain united.
It was early April when the uncertainty climbed toward its peak.
Only weeks before, the three friends had been instrumental in successfully steering the UNC program back in the right direction, erasing the frustration of the maddening 2009-10 season with a 2010-11 campaign that produced 29 wins, an ACC regular season championship and an energized run to the Elite Eight.
The prospect of Barnes, Zeller and Henson all returning for another season had Tar Heel fans dreaming of bonfire blazes on Franklin Street.
Yet the possibility that all three players might be pulled out of school by the NBA's magnetism had even the head Heel suffering pronounced bouts of anxiety.
"There was one point where I really thought we could have lost all three," Roy Williams said earlier this week.
On the night of the summit at Zeller's house, the path of Carolina's future began being charted.
Barnes, Zeller and Henson were all widely figured as likely first-round selections in this year's NBA Draft, often a lure for standout college players to chase their professional dreams immediately.
Yet Zeller and Henson were confident they wanted to stay in Chapel Hill. Zeller, a devoted business administration major, is hell-bent on earning his college degree and finishing out his college experience.
Henson, despite incredible pro potential, recognized his immediate reality and instead felt his decision being steered by the valuable growth he still felt he could make at UNC.
Barnes? Well, his situation was far more complicated.
If he decided to head for the NBA, he would have easily been a top three pick. So even as Henson and Zeller began detailing their mindsets and ever so slightly exerting a bit of peer pressure, Barnes could not commit to following their lead.
The mood at Zeller's grew somewhat anxious, but never tense.
"Z and John both had definitive answers," Barnes said. "But for me, I just wanted to tell them that I wasn't trying to go behind their backs or anything. It was all up in the air for me. Ultimately we talked about, if we all came back, what would be our goal. What would be the focus? How we would go about that?"
Zeller and Henson rubber-stamped their decisions to return to Chapel Hill a few days later, the official release being put out by the Carolina sports information office on April 6. Barnes' conclusion didn't come for another 11 days.
"Harrison is a really unique individual," Williams said. "He thought of everything you could possibly think of looked at it from every angle you could possibly look at it."
And even when Barnes was ready to finalize his decision, on a Sunday evening on April 17, his call to Williams experienced complications.
Williams had just pulled into his driveway with his wife, Wanda, when Barnes called. Anxiously, Williams asked for a verdict.
"Alright big fella," he said. "What do you think?"
Replied Barnes: "Coach, I loved playing for you. Coach, I loved my teammates. And I loved being a student at the University of North Carolina. And "
The past tense heightened Williams' worry. Then there was a crackle. Then silence.
And as Barnes delivered his landmark decision, Williams' cell phone lost reception.
When the coach and his star reconnected, Williams apologized and made a request.
"Harrison," he said. "I'm going to have to ask you to repeat that last part," he said.
At which point Barnes delivered the news that could ultimately spark another North Carolina Final Four run in 2012, which would be the Tar Heels' fourth such stampede in nine seasons under Williams.
"Harrison stated that he wanted to accomplish some great things here and he didn't feel like he had done that yet," Williams said.
That summit at Zeller's place may not have immediately produced a resolution. But in the million things that crossed through Barnes' mind during his decision-making process, it was at least in some small way assured him that the friendships he has at UNC and the bond he feels with his teammates has great value.
On top of that, just like Henson, Barnes recognized the opportunity he had to get even better in college so that he will be even more NBA ready when his days as a rookie arrive.
"Ultimately it came down to that I felt I needed to develop my game a little bit more before I go professional," Barnes said this week.
That kind of maturity from all three of his players has put Williams in a very settled state of mind this summer, understanding that he will go to battle next season with star leaders who seem to understand their need for growth and are ready to walk a challenging tightrope with heavy expectations on their shoulders.
On top of all that, Williams takes added comfort knowing that members of his 2005 and 2009 national championship teams are once again in Chapel Hill, playing pick-up with his current players and imparting wisdom on what it takes to chase down a national title.
The first step, according to the Hall of Fame coach, is understanding what it truly means to have the chance to win it all, something the key players at UNC had in the summers of 2004 and 2008.
"They understood what their possibilities were," Williams said. "So in the offseason they prepared that way. They didn't want to just take things for granted. And once the season starts, I think we have to do the same things as a staff to make sure that we don't just assume things. I'm going to be a little more demanding. And I think they expect that."
Expectations both internally and externally will play a huge role at Carolina next season. Yet the lines of communication, as evidenced by that summit, have proven strong for the Tar Heels, giving them a built-in trust and camaraderie that will be a valuable resource.