Think St. Louis next month.

The road to the Final Four does not go through an ACC team, or through UNC specifically. It goes through him. Son of Jimmy and Brenda. Brother of Rashanda, a high school All-American who will attend Chapel Hill next year. All season long, Rashad McCants has carried the weight, the weight of a season on his shoulders. On Saturday -- 22 minutes, 17 points. In the game before -- his first game back after being cleared by doctors to practice -- he played less. And scored less.

In every mirror he passes, he sees a player he doesn't know, a player very different from the one that once was. He's been relegated to jump shots, his movement gone. He no longer attacks the basket. What Will Bynum and J.J. Redick were doing Saturday (each scoring 35) was supposed to be him. His fire cut to a flame, a shell of what he was only 30 days earlier. His reaction to loose balls, his movement with the ball, his interaction with the ball -- all different. All gone.

Still, he's the most important player left in college basketball.

Of the 780 players who will begin playing for the shining moment, none is he. None can do what he's about to do. None could carry the load he carries. None -- not Redick, not Dee Brown, not Nate Robinson, not Salim Stoudamire, not Hakim Warrick, not Wayne Simien, not Joey Graham or John Lucas -- will be the difference he will be in his team's success or failure. None will suffer like he will if his last shot finds Hell again. None will feel the emancipation McCants will feel when his last shot finds Heaven.

Rashad McCants
Only March will tell if the critics were right about Rashad.

But somehow, no one will mention the word "courage" when he plays. Just as they didn't mention it this past weekend. None of the inspirational adjectives that precede the names of March Madness heroes will be heard during broadcasts. "Brave." "Valorous." "Heroic." Not even "heavyhearted." McCants will not get that total "benefit of understanding" for what he must be going through. They won't see a halo hovering above his dome. A coach loses his mother and coaches through it; a player finds out his mother has cancer and plays through it. Do the math. Why will the Nile not cry for the latter?

In his own words -- as etched on both 'ceps -- Rashad will tell you it's because he was born to be hated while he's dying to be loved. But that isn't enough. Too empty. Everything goes back to his moms. Her situation, her health. His existence.

Cancer has a funny way of never escaping your mind once you hear the word. It has a funnier way of affecting your purpose once you find out it's your mother who might die from it. Instantly, basketball is not that important. For a month, basketball takes a backseat to the life that gave you life. Then that month is over. And you have to play basketball to live.

Heaven. Hell. Six games. His mother's life. Born to be hated. Dying to be loved ... or just understood. Or just given another shot -- at life. All Rashad McCants needs is one minute. Or 4.6 seconds, so that "You know that was supposed to go in" has a whole 'nother meaning.

Scoop Jackson is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years. He is a former editor of Slam, XXL, Hoop and Inside Stuff magazines; and the author of "Sole Provider: 30 Years of NIKE Basketball," "Battlegrounds: America's Street Poets Called Ballers" and "LeBron James: the Chambers of Fear." He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids. You can e-mail Scoop here.


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