- C.L. Brown, College Basketball Reporter
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During the summer it seemed as if a bad news delivery arrived in Chapel Hill at a regularly scheduled time every month.
There was P.J. Hairston, suspended indefinitely by North Carolina coach Roy Williams. There was Leslie McDonald, who was involved in a dispute with a company that makes designer mouthpieces. It got to the point the university had to issue a cease-and-desist letter. There was Reggie Bullock, who surprised many when he bolted for the NBA. There was Andrew Wiggins. Yes that Andrew Wiggins, who crushed visions of a preseason top-five team by choosing Kansas instead of North Carolina.
Despite all that, the Tar Heels won't allow the drama -- and there has been plenty -- to take away their fun, which comes in earnest Friday when the team has its annual "Late Night With Roy" festivities at the Dean E. Smith Center. The team takes that fun seriously, taking off practice Wednesday in order to rehearse their skits.
"Late Night," Carolina's version of Midnight Madness, officially signals the start of a new season. The Heels, ranked No. 11 in the USA Today/Coaches Top 25, are ready to start fresh. They could use a few laughs following an offseason that didn't produce many smiles.
Junior forward James Michael McAdoo emerged as one of the team's captains in wake of the trouble incurred by Hairston. McAdoo said the team has already moved past its offseason.
"We all navigated it all well," McAdoo said. "I know for myself I didn't really pay it much mind. I just tried to be there for P.J. and tried to just support him."
Williams has stated Hairston will be suspended multiple games and that the exact terms will be announced before the season officially begins Nov. 8 against Oakland. In the interim, the Heels aren't letting his punishment sidetrack their fun as they prepare for the 2013-14 season.
"If you were to ask Marcus and Brice has it been a distraction, my guess is not a one said yes," Williams said.
Hairston earned reinstatement to begin practice with the team last month by enduring extra conditioning drills. Williams said during ACC media day last week that the NCAA will have a say in the number of games.
McDonald, the lone scholarship senior on the roster, said the team already has moved forward. They all know Hairston's punishment is coming, but he said they're trying not to dwell on it.
"We have a scrimmage coming up and 'Late Night' coming up and next thing you know the season is starting," McDonald said. "So my main focus right now is to go hard in practice, make my teammates better and we regroup and come together for this upcoming season. All the other stuff doesn't bother me."
McDonald's issue came in July when a company that makes designer mouthpieces used his image on its website to promote its brand. That's when the university had to step in.
It was near the end of a timeline of bad news that began shortly after UNC's loss to Kansas in the NCAA tournament. Williams gathered information on the pro draft potential for Bullock, Hairston and McAdoo. But Bullock, the team's third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, was the only one to announce he was headed to the NBA draft. Had he returned, Bullock probably would have bolstered Carolina into being one of the favorites to contend for the national title.
Wiggins certainly could have helped too. But in May the all-everything recruit from Canada -- considered by many as the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft -- lumped Carolina with Kentucky and Florida State. Those were the three schools from his final list he turned down in order to sign with the Jayhawks.
Neither disappointment compared to what was to come the night of June 5. That's when word of Hairston's arrest on charges of marijuana possession and driving without a license spread fast across college basketball.
Misinformation traveled swiftly too, when it was reported a 9mm handgun and 41 grams of marijuana were found outside of the vehicle during the stop. While two passengers also were charged, speculation and rumors focused on Hairston during the slow summer news cycle.
Reports surfaced that the truck Hairston was driving was rented by convicted felon Haydn "Fats" Thomas only added to his troubles. It was no longer just a matter of a young adult making bad decisions. Hairston's actions possibly fell into the NCAA violations category for receiving impermissible benefits.
As the leading returning scorer and arguably the most offensively gifted player on the roster, Hairston's playing status will have an impact on how Carolina is perceived as a team. That's why sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto said he still can't escape questions about Hairston now even though Hairston is practicing with the team.
"You go out in public," Tokoto said, "and everybody wants to know about P.J."
The inquiries increased again when July came and another arrest for Hairston followed. This time he received a charge of reckless driving and speeding after being clocked driving 93 mph in a 65 zone.
The murmurs started that Hairston should be dismissed, which Williams clearly didn't agree was necessary.
"It's a different world than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago," Williams said. "Social media, the culture that we're in, media period. Because there has been -- it's been almost a hatred kind of thing at some points. I'm not saying he didn't do anything wrong. There's no question, I've said that since day one, but the intensity of the disagreement of every maneuver has been hard to handle."
Williams later said his use of the word "hatred" was too strong and "intensity" was a better fit. Nevertheless, he suspended Hairston after his second incident although the charges from his June arrest were dismissed after he produced a driver's license and completed a drug assessment.
Hairston pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of speeding and an unsafe movement violation for his reckless driving charge last month.
He's back practicing with the team as he has every October since arriving two years ago on campus. He's even keeping his role as a team jokester, teaming with Brice Johnson to pull a prank on sophomore guard Marcus Paige.
Hairston hid in a locker and after Paige opened it, he tumbled over backward as Hairston surprised him -- all while Johnson captured it on video. The prank went viral, which was just another sign to McAdoo that, despite all the rumblings from the summer, the team has not been distracted.
"I've seen the same P.J. before he got in trouble," said McAdoo, who added he has known Hairston going back to the eighth grade. "P.J. is a great guy; he's one of my best friends. He's part of this basketball team. He just made some mistakes. We all make mistakes."
And the Tar Heels believe they're ready to bounce back from their offseason to forget -- with Hairston leading the way.
"He's toughed it out, dealt with Coach's consequences and been a great guy with everybody else," Tokoto said. "It's so easy for guys to just mope around and be miserable because of what happened, but he's the same old P.J., just fiery and bubbly with everybody."
North Carolina had a busy offseason -- and a not a good busy -- but now the time to put that all behind it and focus on the season has arrived. And the Tar Heels cannot be more relieved.