Marcus Paige brings more to Greensboro than sports

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Louder than the pregame ovation for Marcus Paige — a six-foot guard formerly of the University of North Carolina — came the cheer for Owen, an 8-year-old in a kids’ dance contest, whose juju on that beat earned him a victory over two other young competitors at halftime.

As he jitterbugged on center court, Owen sported a Tar Heel jersey, the back of which displayed no name — just a familiar No. 5.

Paige’s Salt Lake City Stars faced the Greensboro Swarm in an NBA Development League showdown on March 23. Though it’s been almost a year since Paige graduated from UNC, and longer still since he has taken a court in Greensboro, he remembers his Gate City contests fondly.

“Playing in Greensboro was awesome,” Paige said before the game. “The ACC Tournament, that was my favorite; the crowd was unbelievable.”

As tip off approached this time around, the announcer roared out the starting lineup; Paige walked onto the court in an unfamiliar navy-blue uniform. He now wore No. 4. None of his fans in the stands did.

It looked as though half of the sellout crowd had arrived in Carolina blue. Like Owen, many of them wore Paige’s old No. 5, but more often than not, the back of their jerseys bore no name.

For the past 25 years, almost all of the celebrated point guards who played in Chapel Hill wore No. 5. Jeff McInnis donned it in the mid-90s, then Ed Cota claimed it in the years that closed the century. Ty Lawson wore it while winning the national championship in 2009, and Kendall Marshall chose it, too, during his days of wizardry at the helm of the Tar Heel offense a couple of seasons later. Finally, Paige took his turn, his outstanding years in No. 5 extending the lore of that number into Tar Heel hearts and record books.

Maybe Owen got that jersey this Christmas. Maybe he’ll celebrate Marcus Paige for the rest of his life. Or perhaps his parents scrambled for something for him to wear and were glad to find the decade-old jersey of Owen’s older sibling. It could even be the jersey his father wore when he was younger, when McInnis ran the offense in Chapel Hill.

The names aren’t forgotten, but the uniforms are recycled. The athletes join ranks and traditions, remembered for their important part in something greater. When the curtain falls on a college basketball career, the bright lights stay dim for many. When his run ends, out onto a windy, unfamiliar street steps the college athlete who removes his jersey for the last time. He moves toward his future like a now un-costumed actor who had performed in Macbeth, a percussionist who once joined the orchestra for Beethoven’s Fifth.

In the first half in Greensboro, Paige complimented an early three-pointer with an outstretched layup — his kind that UNC fans know and love — and a steal. The stadium’s emcee started a Tar Heels chant. The Stars led by 16.

Chloe Kinton awaits her favorite Tar Heel, Marcus Paige, outside of the locker room.

No banners hang from the rafters of the Greensboro Coliseum Fieldhouse — a height a good throw could hit with a tennis ball — at least none resembling what Paige got used to in the Dean Smith Center, or Swarm player Cat Barber remembers from his time at NC State, or his teammate Rasheed Sulaimon could recall from Duke and Maryland, where he used to play. The US flag hangs, and the Canadian one, as do Swarm emblems and advertisements.

The sellout crowd at the Fieldhouse numbered 2,118 only the fifth sellout of this inaugural season, and one-tenth the size of a full Dean Dome in Chapel Hill.

“Place to place in the D-League, you can get a couple empty gyms throughout the 50 games,” Paige said after the contest. “So to have [the Fieldhouse] rocking like this, it was pretty cool. You’ve got to appreciate it because some places are pretty bare.”

When thinking about Marcus Paige now, it’s hard not to consider how his life has changed, the relentless confrontation he faces from a world he has left behind.

A couple of times, almost subconsciously, a hard reality of his departure from the UNC team seemed to show itself.

“You know, I’d like to have a ring, but I don’t get that opportunity,” Paige said when discussing this year’s Tar Heel team’s run in the NCAA Tournament. “So why not have some of my best friends get that chance?”

Paige assured that the UNC players were having fun with the tournament’s intense environment. But he paused to correct his description, from “Our open practices,” to “Their open practices not me anymore.” He made the change with a smile, but it must be difficult.

This year, Paige’s NCAA bracket, too, reveals a confrontation with the past. Not surprisingly, he picked the Tar Heels to win it all. But the way he wanted them to win was telling: “I had [UNC] beating Villanova, 77-74.”

Last year, in heartbreaking and haunting fashion, Villanova defeated the Tar Heels by this same score.

In Greensboro, the Swarm made a furious second-half comeback to take the lead. With time running down, the Stars rushed up the court, facing a 102-99 deficit with 14.3 seconds remaining. Paige got the ball on the left side. He leapt for a three-pointer, hanging, leaning in for a foul, a prayer. It looked so alike his heroic shot at the end of the 2016 national championship game against Villanova, only this time from the other side of the court.

He missed. The clock showed only 2.7 seconds left. With 2.3 remaining, Paige fell to the court after fouling a Swarm player. He paused there on the hardwood for a moment. Fans began to file out of the Fieldhouse, knowing the contest was as good as done.

As do all former student athletes, Paige knows better than any supporter the challenges of life after the attention wanes, after the lights dim from shining so bright.

But you should have seen the kids avalanche down from their seats to the edge of the court, when after the game the Q&A time with Paige had ended and autographs began. Adults, too, lined up giddily, some a little bashful. And the previous day, Paige had the chance to spend time with the Tar Heels during their last practice in Chapel Hill.

“Some of my best friends,” he called them.

Some of Paige’s best friends from off the court in Chapel Hill came to the game in Greensboro.

Indeed, Paige’s off-court life — including his double-major in journalism & mass communication and history, as well as Academic All-American First Team honors — serves as a reminder that his distinguished college basketball career may very well not be his greatest achievement.

Before the game in Greensboro, Paige didn’t shy away from the important political issues that have put Greensboro and the entire state in national headlines. He confidently addressed the effects of HB 2.

“It’d be nice to see the state of North Carolina get a chance to host these events again,” Paige began — a familiar lament on HB 2 and the college tournaments removed from their familiar Greensboro home.

But he continued: “More importantly, because of changes they’ll make, hopefully, to allow inclusion for everybody, and to have everybody have a chance to feel safe and feel comfortable… There’s more important things than sports and a little bit of lost revenue.”

It wasn’t a lengthy statement, or a brand new response to the law. But his words step away from the world of sports and money in a way that many others’ don’t. Despite the challenge of departing from such great heights, Paige moves toward his future as a person whose achievements and influence may be just beginning.

His number has changed, but his name isn’t forgotten. One day he may play an important part in something even greater, something that extends beyond sports and the bright lights of March.

Marcus Paige joins Tar Heel fans after his game in Greensboro.