Carolina Conversations with N.C. Sports Hall of Famer Antawn Jamison

by Thad Mumau | Photography by Diana Matthews

Antawn Jamison-2614Former University of North Carolina and NBA star Antawn Jamison is one of nine new members of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. He joins Rod Brind’Amour, Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, David Fox, James “Rabbit” Fulghum, Haywood Jeffires, Freddy Johnson, Susan Yow and the late Ray Price.

Jamison averaged 19 points and 9.9 rebounds per game over his three-year career at UNC. He won both the Naismith and Wooden awards as the National College Player of the Year in 1998. That same year, he was the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year as well as a consensus first-team All-American, averaging 22.2 points and 10.5 rebounds.

His jersey No. 33 has been retired by the Tar Heels and hangs from the rafters of the Dean E. Smith Center.

Jamison played 16 years in the National Basketball Association, averaging 18.5 points and 7.5 rebounds. He was the NBA Sixth Man of the Year in 2004. He averaged over 20 points per game six seasons as a pro and twice scored 51 points in a single game.

Jamison currently lives in Charlotte and serves as a TV analyst for some of the games played by the Los Angeles Lakers and Washington Wizards.

ONC: Tell the story behind your first name.
AJ: (laughing) Yeah, I get asked that a lot. This is a true story, and it’s kind of funny. I was born in Louisiana, and my mother named me Antwan. At least, that was her intention. But, somehow, they got it wrong on the birth certificate, switching the W and the A. So it’s spelled A-N-T-A-W-N, but pronounced Antwan. My mom never thought I’d be playing pro basketball or anything that would get my name said so often. Some people mispronounce it—AntAWn, some are afraid to say it because they think they will say it wrong and many just go ahead and say Antwan, thinking that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Our son is named after me, but we spell it A-N-T-W-A-N. Don’t want him to go through the same confusion.

You grew up in Charlotte, right?
Yep, and I’m back living there now. My whole family … my wife, Ashley, and I have four children: daughters Alexis, 15, and Kathryn, 10, and sons Antwan Jr., 9, and Rucker, 6. My mom and dad live about eight minutes away, and my brother and sister are within a few miles of our house. We are a very close family, and I like that we live close to one another.

Was basketball something you were always good at and felt might take you somewhere?
When I was in high school, I was taller than everybody else. And, then, I was blessed with some athletic ability. I was usually quicker than most other players, and that would be a gift that would carry me a long way. But I didn’t grow up thinking NBA. In fact, I was on up in my high school years when I even thought I might have a chance to play college basketball. And it was like a dream when that happened.

The decision—and colleges from all over the country were recruiting you—to attend the University of North Carolina was very important, wasn’t it?
Oh, without a doubt. The main reason I chose Carolina was Dean Smith, and he is the main reason the decision was such a good one. That man has meant so much to me.

Antawn Jamison-2503Following an outstanding sophomore season at UNC, many people thought you would leave school early for the NBA. Why did you stay?
Two reasons: again Coach Smith was one of them, and the second was that I wanted to help win a national championship. I thought we had the team to do it. Yes, some people said I was crazy not to turn pro. People who follow the ACC, and particularly Carolina, know that Dean Smith always did extensive research on how his players would project in the NBA Draft. He told me he felt I would be picked much higher if I would wait a year. So that is what I did.

And, then, as a junior, you were named the National College Player of the Year. Wow! What an honor.
Wow is kind of what I thought, too … what I still think when that is mentioned. I was overwhelmed. Being Player of the Year was not even on my radar. To tell you truth, I still can’t believe it.

That was a pretty big season, with Carolina reaching the Final Four. But again, the Tar Heels came up short. And that time, you did leave early.
Yes. Once more, though, I really was thinking of coming back for my senior year because I thought we could win it all. Surprisingly —to many people but not to anyone who knew Dean Smith—my coach talked me out of it.

Out of returning to school?
Yes. He had done all that checking around … Coach Smith knew everyone in basketball, and he made calls to a lot of those people. He had all the facts, and he put them out there to me. He told me, based on what he had been told, that I could be chosen as high as fourth in the NBA Draft. He also reminded me that winning a national championship required that many things go right. He mentioned that I could get hurt and lose a whole lot of money by not going ahead to the pros. He pointed out that we attend college to better ourselves, and that by signing a professional contract, I would be doing that. Coach Smith said, “I would love to have you playing for Carolina next season, but I would be wrong to tell you that would be the best thing for you personally.”

So you entered the NBA Draft?
And was the fourth pick, just like Coach Smith had said I was likely to be.

Dean Smith was very special to you in many ways, wasn’t he?
He was my white dad. Now, I love my own dad, and I have learned so much from him. Coach Smith changed my whole life. It had been all about basketball. He showed me it really wasn’t, that it was about family and other people – doing something to help others. He changed my entire thought process. He was honest, he was genuine. He was always supporting each player, each individual, and what was best for him. He even stayed in touch with ALL of his players, long after we had played for him. Listen, Dean Smith cared much, much more about the kind of men we all became than he did about winning a game or a championship. He guided me and put me in the right frame of mind to be a good person. Coach Smith taught me to be humble. One thing I remember is that he had a Thought of the Day he shared with us every day after practice, and only about one out of 10 of those was about basketball. They were more about being a good person. Coach Smith had so much of an impact on me.

Dean Smith made playing basketball at Carolina a family thing. All of you guys love that, don’t you?
Oh, yeah. And, believe me, it isn’t that way anywhere else. We go back to Chapel Hill every summer and get together. No matter where I’ve been, when I get on 15-501 heading down to the Smith Center, and then see that dome with the Carolina blue everywhere, I know I’m home again. Every time I walk on that floor, it takes me back.

Is there one game you played that you remember most?
My favorite is from my junior season. I scored 35 points in a win over Duke, and I had the ball in my hands only 40-something seconds the whole game. That blew my mind, to have a dominant-type game without dominating the basketball. (In that game, second-ranked Carolina defeated nationally top-ranked Duke, 97-73.)

You had a great NBA career. Now that your playing days are over, what is it like?
I never dreamed I would have the success in the pros that I had. I was blessed with God-given talent, and I used it. I was also blessed to be coached by Dean Smith, and he is the reason I was prepared for the NBA. I had been doing this – playing basketball – since middle school, and I thought not playing would be difficult. But it hasn’t been. For me, it’s so great being around my family so much. I do commentary for some of the Lakers’ and Wizards’ games, so I’m still around the game … enough, but not too much.

Being inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame is such a terrific honor. How does that make you feel?
Man, when they told me about this, you cannot imagine how exciting it was for me. To be raised up in this state and see all of the great athletes whose names are in the Hall of Fame, and now to have my name up there with theirs … I haven’t stopped smiling.