Paige averaged fewer points (14.1) and shot a worse field goal percentage (41.3 percent) than he did the previous season, his breakout sophomore year at North Carolina. Though Paige piloted the Tar Heels to the Sweet 16 in March, he did so under duress.
“You could just really tell that he was in pain,” senior forward Brice Johnson says. “I live with him, so I saw him walking around, he was constantly limping. It was just a sad sight to see. You don’t want your teammate to be hurting like that.”
At the same time, Paige’s determination to play through the relentless pain inspired his teammates and the UNC coaching staff.
“I called him a tough little nut,” coach Roy Williams says. “His feet were hurting, and you can’t play basketball if your feet are hurting. I’ve gone through plantar fasciitis myself, twice, and it is one of the most painful things I’ve ever gone through. … He played nice basketball, but he played hurt the entire year. So you love that toughness.”
Williams says he’d go into the team’s strength and conditioning room three times a week at 8 a.m. to work on his own weight training, stretching and agility. He’d always see Paige there with a trainer. He’d always see Paige there after practices. “He’s getting three treatments a day and still practicing and not complaining,” Williams says.
Williams called Paige’s season a successful one. But he’s hopeful the upcoming one will be fantastic.
Itching to play
After last season, in April, Paige had surgery on his right ankle.
“The thought was that the problems with my ankle kind of made my foot act differently and that’s why I ended up with plantar fasciitis, just because of different stresses on my foot,” Paige says. “They removed two or three bone spurs from my right ankle.”
Paige spent six weeks recovering and trying to fit in core and upper-body workouts. He waited and waited until he could get out of a boot. He watched teammates play pickup, itching to be out there with them.
When he was off his crutches, Paige and Johnson began shooting jumpers at a little hoop they hung on the back of a door inside their place.
“He’s like, ‘I wish I could really shoot a jumper,’” Johnson says. “You could just tell that he really wanted to get back out there. He’s a gym rat; he loves the game of basketball. You could tell he was hurt, not hurt physically but mentally, because he wanted to get back out there. And he couldn’t get out there.”
After his mandated period of rest and plenty of precautionary time spent in the training room, Paige eventually started doing low-impact activities. Eventually, he began to run again — and felt good.
“It was awesome,” Paige says. “It hit me probably (in August). We were playing pickup, and I was just playing and not even thinking about my foot. I would drive to the basket and finish above the rim, and then I would feel like, ‘Wow. I feel like the old me.’ … I could cut, land on it, do anything I want, jump off of it. I felt like there was nothing wrong with it.”
Williams got a glimpse of Paige during summer workouts, too. He says he hadn’t seen Paige play that way since the midpoint of Paige’s sophomore season.
“He does appear to be — I’m knocking on wood and I’m hitting myself in the head when I’m saying this because I want it to stay that way — but he appears to be pain-free,” Williams says. “It’s given him more pep in his step.”
The team, too. These Tar Heels — who open co-No. 1, with Kentucky, in the USA TODAY Sports preseason coaches poll — return just about everybody from last season (J.P. Tokoto left for the NBA), a veteran team in an era of one-and-done stardom. North Carolina likely will be a team with national championship aspirations, a bright spot after years spent under a dark cloud of NCAA inquiries into all UNC athletics programs and academic improprieties. Williams and players say the cloud seems to be lifting, finally. They’re excited that the main story line this preseason is basketball.
‘Old’ man on campus
Paige will be the linchpin of this UNC team, a cerebral 6-1 senior guard who admits to feeling old in the game’s current climate.
“I mean, I’m not old, but I feel like I’m old sometimes for college basketball,” Paige says. “I’m definitely old. … I’m a senior in college basketball. I’ve had some pretty good success.
“Early in my career I played, and I had a great sophomore year and played last year. If you play a lot your freshman year, by the time you’re a senior, they’re like, ‘That guy’s been in college forever, hasn’t he?’ That’s me now.”
Paige smiles. He’ll take it, as long as he’s healthy. He’ll try to savor every last moment of his senior season.
“(My perspective) has definitely changed,” Paige says. “I appreciate the little things, like just having this facility to work out in and being a part of this program. We talked to Marvin Williams and Sean May, David Noel. Guys like that are around all summer. They played in the NBA. They always talk about how they would just kill to come back and play here. That kind of stuck with me.
“These guys who have done everything basketball-related — they won a national championship, played in the NBA, played overseas — if they would do anything to come back and play here, I really need to appreciate the opportunity that I have to play
for Coach here and just let it all soak in.
“I’m going to blink, and it’s all going to be over.”