Just hours before the North Carolina Tar Heels’ December 18 non-conference clash with the Texas Longhorns in Chapel Hill, Roy Williams summoned 6-5, 229-pound junior guard PJ Hairston into his office.
After a breakout sophomore campaign in which he led the Tar Heels in scoring at 14.6 points per game, Hairston and the rest of Williams’ program believed they were poised for a memorable 2013-14 season. UNC ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press’ pre-season poll, solidifying the Tar Heels as a nationally considered second-tier contender for the NCAA crown.
“I thought we had a chance to win a National Championship and I wanted to be the player to lead them to that,” Hairston told SLAM. “And not only just lead with my game, but make sure that my teammates had a leader and had somebody on the court at all times that has the ability to win. I felt like that’s what I brought to the team: That will to win, that eagerness.”
But Hairston had been suspended for UNC’s first 10 games of the regular season as the NCAA conducted an extensive investigation of his relationship with a Durham-based party promoter Hayden “Fats” Thomas.
The man had ties with numerous North Carolina players as they’ve frequently attended his parties, something not considered an NCAA violation. But on May 13, Hairston was cited for speeding while driving a 2012 Chevrolet Camaro SS that was linked to Thomas. On June 5, Hairston was stopped at a checkpoint in Durham while driving a 2013 GMC Yukon that was rented by Thomas. The full extent of the benefits he may have received from Thomas have not been disclosed to the public.
“If I knew it was wrong, I wouldn’t have done it,” Hairston now says.
That winter afternoon, Williams told Hairston that North Carolina would not be seeking his reinstatement from the NCAA, effectively ending his college career. Frankly, the athletic program believed it didn’t have enough of a case to argue Hairston deserved eligibility.
“It’s probably the most difficult and saddest thing I’ve ever gone through as a head coach,” Williams told reporters that month. “All of us in life pay for our actions and these are some very difficult consequences that he’s paid for his actions.”
Hairston remembers crying as Williams broke the news. Still, that evening, he threw on a jet-black suit, a white dress shirt and wore a black and white, paisley tie in a Windsor knot on the Tar Heels’ bench. The 21, 750 spectators in the Dean Smith Center and the thousands watching on TV were shielded from the emotions bubbling in Hairston’s gut.
He was the first to pop off UNC’s bench as the Tar Heels jogged back to the sidelines for the under-16 media timeout, cheering on his teammates despite Texas’ 16-8 run to open the contest.
“I couldn’t sit and show that I was hurt on the bench, I still had to cheer my teammates on,” Hairston said. “I still tried to be positive about it even though I knew almost already that I wasn’t going to become eligible.”
The Tar Heels fell to Texas 86-83 that night. The team’s greatest loss of the season came two days later when UNC officially announced it would not contest his indefinite suspension. Hairston had never truly imagined a scenario where he wouldn’t suit up for North Carolina this year.
In the fall of 2001, the NCAA suspended 6-10 Fresno State senior center Melvin Ely for five games. His roommate received a hotel room paid for by a sports agency. Ely says he had no knowledge of the incident and was baffled by the NCAA’s ruling. To him, his roommate was merely an acquaintance, why would an agent even be trying to court him to get to Ely anyway?
“He was a college roommate: Not my family, not my brother, not my teammate, not my best friend—my college roommate,” he told SLAM over a decade later. “It was the craziest thing ever. He had nothing to do with basketball. The only thing was he was an associate of mine and we shared an apartment. But do you know how many guys share an apartment in college? Sheesh.”
On the doorstep of the NBA, it was a learning experience for Ely.
“My mother told me your friends are going to separate themselves from everybody else,” he says. “A real friend wouldn’t have asked that. I wouldn’t put myself in that situation again.”
After serving his suspension and being reinstated, Ely exploded on the court. He averaged 23.3 points (a year after posting 16.0 per night), 9.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game during the 2001-02 campaign. He led Jerry Tarkanian’s club to an 18-13 regular season that ended with an NIT appearance.
He burst onto the NBA’s radar despite playing in the smaller Western Athletic Conference. He was invited to the green room and the Los Angeles Clippers made him the No. 12 overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft.
Ely embarked on a career as an NBA journeyman role player, his best season coming in 2005-06 with the Charlotte Bobcats. He contributed 9.8 points and 4.9 rebounds in just over 23 minutes per game. He was traded twice, played for five teams and made over $10 million before the Sacramento Kings waived him prior the start of the 2009-10 season.
After taking a year off from hoops, Ely returned to the League with the Denver Nuggets and made 30 appearances for George Karl’s club in 2010-11. But a Grade III calf strain prevented him from partaking in the Nuggets’ 2011 training camp and, at 33 years old, he found himself on the outside of the NBA looking in.
Ely took the 2011-12 season off to recuperate. In the fall of 2012, he swallowed his pride and joined a former friend with the D-League’s Texas Legends, desperate for another shot at the League.
Eduardo Nájera was a member of the Charlotte Bobcats in 2011 when Ely practiced with the team for a week and a half following his stint in Puerto Rico during the NBA lockout. Nájera retired after a 14-year career in 2012 and became the head coach of the Texas Legends in August of 2012.
“The fact that I played with Coach Nájera made Texas stand out,” Ely says. “I got to know him a little bit better when I was in training camp with the Bobcats. We actually had the same agent at the same point, so me and him have stayed in contact throughout our careers.”
The Legends’ direct affiliation with the Dallas Mavericks also attracted Ely. He was intrigued by the organization’s proximity to its NBA big brother and the fact that multiple Dallas scouts would attend all of their games. That’s why, after the Grizzlies declined signing Ely past their 2013-14 training camp, he happily returned to Nájera and company.
“It was a no-brainer to go there and then a no-brainer to come back,” he says.
Texas started this past season 4-3, but lost their leading scorer Chris Douglas-Roberts to the NBA and the Charlotte Bobcats on December 11. While the Legends attempted to play with a gaping hole in their offensive attack, Hairston was mulling over his next step in is basketball career.
Hairston discussed all his options with his mother.
“She was really the only person I could trust at the time,” Hairston says. “To me, it was a big help from her. I didn’t really have to worry about her not being there because I knew she was going to be there regardless.”
Transferring wasn’t an option. Going overseas would be impossible if he were to take online classes toward fulfilling his Communications major. One day, his mother called and suggested he join the D-League. With no other feasible option to get on the court any time soon, Hairston figured at worst, he could give it the old college try. He didn’t care which team he played for as long as he was doing just that: playing.
Hairston, 21, was only 14 when Ely, now 36, won a Championship with the San Antonio Spurs in 2007, but the two forged a unique relationship after Texas claimed Hairston off the D-League’s waivers.
“It was easy for me to relate with him,” Ely says, remembering his run-in with NCAA violations. “He opened up a little bit, just to kinda say that there was some stuff, some decisions that if he had to make over again, he just wouldn’t make. That’s all we had to hear from him.”
The entire Legends team was immediately taken by Hairston’s work ethic and energy.
“I dove on the floor for a loose ball one of the first plays into practice and from then on, they knew I just had a knack for the ball,” Hairston says.
Nájera used an extensive playbook, running a fluid offensive scheme predicated on constant motion similar to that of Rick Carlisle’s with the Mavericks. Ely admits he was hesitant Hairston would be able to make a seamless transition and fill the void Douglas-Roberts had left.
“He came in, he was humble, but we were going over plays and I’m thinking, There’s no way this guy’s going to get this shit this fast. Man, he was here one day,” Ely said. “And I was wrong. I was definitely wrong. He came out and had a hell of a game.”
Hairston scored 22 points in his Legends debut. He followed up that performance with a 40-point effort and then scored 45 points three games after that.
Yet, even after seeing his name dragged through the dirt on social media during his NCAA suspension, after taking criticisms from national pundits left and right, Hairston felt no sense of redemption.
“I didn’t really have a feeling at all. It was just, Ok next game. That’s all,” Hairston says. “I felt like I was there for business. I didn’t have a reason to be too emotional. I had a job to do and I wanted to get it done. And I wanted to show people that I’m just a basketball player.”
With Ely’s guidance and his now-heralded work ethic, Hairston learned how to be a true professional.
“In talking to him, it was like a learning experience because he just has a great knowledge for the game and he made it a lot easier on me to have him to talk to before and after games,” Hairston says.
While Hairston came along learning the Legends’ playbook, he torched Ely and the starters in practice scrimmages playing with the back-up squad. Eventually, Ely was relieved when Hairston finally got the call to the starting lineup.
“He was tearing us up,” Ely says. “When they moved him to the starting lineup, I was so happy he was on my team because I got tired of getting yelled at.”
Ely seemingly can’t stop talking about how impressed he was with Hairston’s focus and approach to the game.
“People will think it’s a kid’s game and what people don’t realize is the passion that you have for it kind of outweighs the actual reality of the game. You can go out and think basketball is just a game, but some people take it different and he takes it different,” Ely says. “He takes it serious. He was a workout machine. He made no excuses. He has the focus that not too many players his age do. It would’ve been so easy for him to take the easy way out—just focusing on scoring during games and coast until the Draft—but he took the hard way.
“He played ball, he made sure he practiced his craft, because sitting out a year and then trying to pick up where you left off is tough.”
Hairston finished the season averaging 21.8 points per game on 35.8 percent shooting from three-point land despite the adverse conditions. While his old running mates at UNC traveled to games on a university-owned charter plane, he flew commercial with the Legends just like every other D-League squad. During layovers, Hairston would try to find a corner by the team’s gate, pull his hoodie over his face and nap while lying on his stomach across the floor. In those moments, he realized just how far he had to go in realizing his NBA dream.
“I commend him for that because nobody knew he was going to come out and do the things that he did,” Ely says. “For him to play as good and consistent was amazing. It was a joy to watch. I was there mostly the nights the shots didn’t fall. Just to tell him the little things he needed to hear just to keep his head on right.”
Hairston’s standout play in the D-League kept him at the top of NBA big boards during a bumpy transition period that could have tossed him off the map all together. Against professional competition, Hairston displayed his smooth game, his buttery shot and his ability to glide through the lane and finish at the rim. He played with rhythm and fluidity only natural-born scorers possess.
“He grew up as a person. He put all that behind. What he was then, there’s no way that could be the person that I know now,” Ely says. “The attitude he has, the work ethic, the willingness, to play through pain, he has everything a person wants. To be able to contribute at that level right out the gate, I don’t know why his value doesn’t go up any higher.”
Hairston parlayed his D-League stint into an invite to the NBA Combine in Chicago. When teams interviewed him about his background, they came away impressed with how much Hairston matured and appreciated the process of learning from his mistakes.
Combine that with an elite NBA skill, Hairston is primed to be a first-round pick on June 26. He’s been one of the most active prospects during the pre-draft workout process.
“Of course the first thing they want you to do is be able to score and I feel like scoring is my best ability, then shooting next and then being able to finish,” Hairston says. “I’m also a great team defender and I feel like I can be a great individual defender.”
He’s craving an opportunity to provide the on-court leadership he wanted to display at UNC this season.
“I want to come in and show them early that I can be a leader and a vocal leader at that,” he says. “They can trust me right away to make good decisions on and off the court despite my past.”
Ely ultimately signed a 10-day contract with the New Orleans Pelicans and finished the season with the team, which now owns his rights heading into next season. He has no doubt Hairston will make an immediate splash in the NBA just like he did in Texas.
“If there’s anybody in this Draft that has proven they’re more NBA-ready than anybody, it’s him,” Ely says. “When you see him, it’s just a bowl of talent. It’s amazing, the sky’s the limit for him. I’m so proud of him. I can’t wait to see what he does and the impact that he has because he will be one of the early players that can contribute from day one and he will prove it.”