CLEMSON, S.C. – For the second time in four years, a sharp turn and the accompanying vertigo assault brought Roy Williams to his knees and then to the locker room to watch assistant coach Steve Robinson rally North Carolina past an ACC opponent on the road.
Williams, who suffers from benign positional vertigo, has long been known for his momentary dizzy spells on the sideline, needing only a few moments to recalibrate and return to fiery self. On a rare occasion, such as Saturday, the Hall of Fame head coach is smacked with a dose of excruciating pain that he’s unable to overcome.
The last time vertigo hit this hard was in Boston in February 2016. Early in the second half, while arguing an officiating call during a media timeout, Williams collapsed on the sideline. He watched from the tunnel, out of view, as his longtime assistant directed the Tar Heels from an eight-point deficit to secure a 68-65 victory over Boston College.
On Saturday, in the closing minute of the first half, Williams whipped around to send Seventh Woods in for Kenny Williams and encountered a mental explosion of sorts instead. While he managed a wave to the crowd as he left the court, it was clear he needed the guiding hands of head athletic trainer Doug Halverson and Director of Player Development Eric Hoots to reach the locker room.
The lasting memory from both occurrences was not the vertigo or the come-from-behind victories or the veteran assistant stepping into the spotlight. Instead, it was the postgame press conference and the emotion boiling beneath the surface, seeping through just enough to make its presence known.
There was no reason for Williams to join Robinson at the postgame press conference. Media, as well as the fan base, understand his condition. And while Williams did offer that he wasn’t going to croak on anybody, it wasn’t until he started to praise Robinson that his voice cracked and he grabbed onto his assistant’s shoulder for support.
“I started feeling a heck of a lot better, but he was up six or seven and I didn’t want to jinx it,” Williams said. “If we had lost, I would have gone out there with them.”
Basketball has been the bond between these two men for 31 years, although there’s far more to this relationship than sneakers, hardwood and a couple different shades of blue.
“He’s been like a brother to me,” Williams said. “He’s been like a best friend. He’s been a guy that I couldn’t be more proud of and I want him to have this feeling because he got them through with our players and I’m really proud.”
Robinson, as reserved as his boss is expressive, joked about having preferred more advance notice. It’s not as though this type of moment is too big for the man the Tar Heels call Coach Rob. He spent two years as Tulsa’s head coach before parlaying that job into a five-year stint as Florida State’s head coach at the turn of the millennium.
Even so, Robinson acknowledged his concern for his friend upon dropping to his knee in front of the UNC bench.
“When something like that happens, it kind of shocks you a little bit, but I’ve been around him and I know that I’ve got to spring into action,” Robinson said. “… You’ve got to step right in and take command and try to direct them because if I waffle, then what do you think they’re going to do? They’re going to fall apart.
“So, it wasn’t about that. It’s just try to treat it like we do every day and try to go do the best job and just try to put them in the proper position so that they could make plays and give us the best chance to have success at the end of the game.”
The Tar Heels made just enough plays to escape Littlejohn Coliseum with an 81-79 victory, overcoming a 41.3 percent shooting performance, 14 turnovers and shaky defense to win for the 12th time in 13 games and improve to 8-0 on the road in the ACC.
Kenny Williams, who made three critical free throws in the final 12.7 seconds, was a freshman on that UNC team that won at Boston College four years ago.
“It was déjà vu,” the senior guard said. “And I knew as soon as it happened Coach Rob was going to come through. I knew we were going to get something big from Coach Rob and we did.”
Williams was able to talk to his players at halftime, thereby alleviating their concerns. The Tar Heels spoke of their respect for Robinson after the game, the recognition of his voice on the sideline and the desire to win maybe even a little more with him at the reins in a unique situation.
Yet what stood out in the locker room was no different than what stood out in the postgame press conference, which was the significance of the relationship between head coach and longtime assistant, possibly a modern day version of Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge.
“They’re brothers,” Kenny Williams said. “They are brothers. You can see it. If you were with them every day, you would be able to see it. You’d be able to recognize it. They’ve been at it together for 24 years. I think I’m old and I’m 22, so they’ve been at it since before I was born. You can see the brotherhood that’s there. They’re really close.”
Sometimes it takes a trivial game for the true value of sports to shine through.