The hashtags started flying like PJ Hairston’s jump shots in Chestnut Hill on Tuesday night.
Hairston was finally blossoming into the player Roy Williams called “the best shooter he has ever recruited” in the first half against Boston College, and seemingly every UNC student with a Twitter was taking notice. Igniting the team with fourteen points in just twelve minutes of action, Hairston was making a strong case to replace Dexter Strickland in the starting lineup at shooting guard as an offensive catalyst. Then, disaster struck.
It was an incredibly odd scene to watch unfold. At UNC, we consider the basketball players to be demigods. They are stronger, faster, and more athletic than is seemingly imaginable. To steal a line from Austin Powers, women want to be with them, and men want to be them. Seeing one of these superheroes hurt so badly, unable to walk without support, was jarring. If you aren’t reminded every once in awhile, you can sometimes forget that basketball players are human, too. That reality, that athletes are also vulnerable, was all too apparent on Tuesday.
Tasteless jokes that Strickland hit PJ on purpose to save his job aside, the outpouring of support for Hairston was tremendous. Everyone quickly grasped the severity of the injury and the implications for the team. Without Hairston, our bench is reduced to Leslie McDonald (coming off injury and suspension), freshman forwards, and Blue Steel. For this team to finish strong and make a run in the NCAA Tournament, Hairston’s return will be key. Without him, Carolina will struggle, as they demonstrated with a lackluster effort in the second half against a weak Boston College team. Even with McDonald returning against Virginia Tech, the UNC bench managed just thirteen points, one fewer than Hairston alone had in his limited action at BC. That it took the best performances to date by James Michael McAdoo and Marcus Paige to beat the middling Hokies (at home, in overtime, no less) is both troubling and promising. While McAdoo and Paige are unlikely to play at such a high level on a consistent basis for the remainder of the season, the knowledge that they might is what UNC fans can hold onto until Hairston is back.
As someone who suffered a mild concussion earlier this year (intramural soccer is a dangerous business), the after-effects can linger for a long time after the injury. Physical ability may not be hindered after the first few minutes, but mental thought processes are often slower and reaction time to new information can suffer markedly. While everyone responds differently to brain injuries, the trauma that Hairston suffered is very serious. He probably doesn’t have the most beautiful countenance on the team to begin with, but his vacant stares from the bench are indicative of a player that won’t be fully recovered for some period of time. Even if he does recover quickly, there is an increased risk for a more severe concussion if he is hit again.
The trainers at campus health recommended that I not resume physical activity for at least three weeks following my concussion, though I get the feeling that PJ may be pressured to play sooner. The mysterious and somewhat subjective nature of brain injuries makes it possible that Hairston’s own evaluation of his injury and his desire to play will partially dictate when he returns to action, a potentially dangerous proposition.
For everyone’s sake, I just hope that #PJBeHealing.