Travis and David Wear gang up on Wake Forest's Tony Woods; Larry Drew… (Jim R. Bounds, Mary Ann Chastain…)
Larry Drew II thought he had found basketball heaven. So did David and Travis Wear.
It is a place where nearly 22,000 fans show up for Midnight Madness. Names of visiting recruits are chanted as if they are rock stars, and it's hard not to be wowed by the names on the jerseys hanging from the rafters: Jordan … Worthy …
"You kind of get caught up with the whole tradition that is Carolina," Drew said.
For the three Southern California natives, nothing could be finer than to play for North Carolina — except leaving to come home to play for UCLA.
The Wear twins, who played at Santa Ana Mater Dei High, left Chapel Hill last spring after only one season. Drew, who starred at Woodland Hills Taft, left in February after 21/2 years, though the point guard often contemplated leaving before that.
All three said playing time wasn't the primary issue. There were several factors, including fickle fans, a breakdown in communication with the coaching staff and a failure of the Carolina experience to meet expectations.
Drew's emotionally charged departure came after he lost his spot in the starting lineup to freshman Kendall Marshall. But there was much more to his unhappiness.
"I was there for 21/2 years and I didn't play my whole freshman year, so it's not if I'm playing or not playing," Drew said. "It was just a buildup of things since I first got there."
The Wears didn't wait nearly as long to make a change. Their freshman season came on the heels of Carolina's 2009 national title, and after losing five of their top seven players from that team the Tar Heels went 5-11 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and were relegated to the National Invitation Tournament.
"The energy just wasn't there as in the years prior, it seemed like," said Travis Wear, a 6-foot-10 forward who averaged 3.5 points in 10.1 minutes a game. "It just wasn't that fun of a year."
The Wears also endured what David described as the "shock" of a different culture in Chapel Hill, and they missed being around family and friends who had supported them since childhood. They couldn't always count on encouragement from Tar Heels fans, especially when the team struggled.
"When you're winning, everything's good. When you're losing, it's opposite," Drew said. "Going to a school like that, I was aware of the potential for how things could be. I wasn't aware to the extent."
Drew alluded to the way he was used during a birthday rap he performed in March at the Conga Room in Los Angeles, saying, "They tried to tell me just to play my role, but who's really trying to stick to a script full of typos?"
More recently, Drew explained that he had written the rap "to vent," and didn't intend it as a parting shot at the Tar Heels. "I didn't mean it as a diss or anything like that," Drew said. "It was just something I had to get off my chest."
North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said he tried to shield Drew from criticism he faced during his sophomore season, when the team's fortunes plummeted.
"I explained to everyone he wasn't throwing the ball to Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green and Wayne Ellington," Williams said, referring to the stars from the national championship team.
Drew's troubles transcended the fans. Larry Drew Sr., the Atlanta Hawks coach, said his son contemplated leaving after a freshman year in which he barely played. As a sophomore, playing alongside the Wear twins, Drew started 36 of 37 games and averaged six assists, tied for second in the ACC.
But Drew never felt completely comfortable, his father said. And the family became upset about the way the change in the starting lineup was handled.
"Nothing was said to Larry, nothing was said to me," Drew Sr. said. "That was a little hard to swallow."
Williams disputed Drew's claim, saying he talked about the lineup change "openly in front of the team before it happened. It was not a surprise to Larry. In fact, the day before the [next] game I talked about making three changes in the starting lineup."
Another former Carolina player said communication issues between Drew and Williams were a running theme.
"Coach Williams wanted to put a lot of trust in Larry because he has a special relationship with all his point guards, but they bumped heads at times," said Deon Thompson, a former Torrance High star who was a teammate of Drew's for two seasons with the Tar Heels. "He was just a laid-back kid, so it was hard for Coach Williams to light that fire in him at times."
What surprised Williams most wasn't that Drew left, but the timing of the decision —in the middle of a season and after a 32-point victory over Boston College in which Drew had nine assists and only one turnover.
Drew Sr., who informed Williams of his son's decision in a telephone call, described the situation as "not salvageable."