CHAPEL HILL A little more than three minutes into No. 14 North Carolina’s 86-83 loss Wednesday night against Texas, coach Roy Williams turned to the Tar Heels bench and pointed to Leslie McDonald. For the first time this season, McDonald stood up, peeled off his pullover and headed to center court.
There was a smattering of applause at the Smith Center then. It turned into a roar when McDonald checked into the game with 16 minutes, 14 seconds to play in the half. The NCAA had ruled McDonald eligible earlier in the day, after he sat out the first nine games amid an investigation into impermissible benefits he received.
The NCAA determined McDonald, who finished with 15 points, must repay $1,783 to a charity of his choice “for receiving numerous impermissible extra benefits.” They included the use of luxury cars, lodging, the payment of parking tickets and a cell phone.
“Overwhelming,” McDonald said of his emotions when he learned he’d be able to play. “I’ll tell you one thing – I didn’t believe it at first. But once I knew it was real, I just had this, it’s kind of hard to change that mentality from knowing that you’re going to be on the sideline in a suit and knowing you’re going to have your jersey on. You know, you’ve just got to click it on.”
McDonald’s NCAA issues are in the past. P.J. Hairston’s though, continue to linger. Hairston, like McDonald, had missed UNC’s first nine games of the season. Hairston missed his 10th Wednesday night, and sat and watched from the bench wearing a suit and tie – his usual attire this season.
Hairston’s name was absent from the NCAA’s statement, which said McDonald’s reinstatement request “is the only one the NCAA has received from North Carolina.”
That might not bode well for the possibility of Hairston’s return. In impermissible benefits cases, it’s up to schools to declare athletes ineligible and then file a reinstatement request.
UNC, according to the NCAA, discovered McDonald’s rule violations Oct. 24 – about two weeks before opening the season Nov. 8. The university submitted a reinstatement request to the NCAA for McDonald on Dec. 11. The NCAA and UNC then worked together “to finalize the facts.”
It’s unclear where Hairston’s case might stand – and whether UNC submitted a reinstatement request and was denied, or whether it simply chose not to submit a reinstatement request. Asked if he expected to learn a resolution at the same time about Hairston and McDonald, Williams said “I have no idea.”
“I mean, come on,” he said. “I’ve been sitting here since June. When they tell me something, I’m going to play the people.”
After the defeat against Texas, UNC athletics director Bubba Cunningham released a statement through a school spokesman.
“The University of North Carolina is working with P.J. and his family to settle a few unresolved issues that remain,” Cunningham said in the statement. “We expect to have this matter resolved by the end of the week.”
If it is resolved, that would bring an end to a long, murky saga that clearly has frustrated Williams, who expressed confidence before the season that UNC would know Hairston’s fate before the season opener against Oakland (Mich.).
Instead, the case has continued to drag on. McDonald’s return leaves Hairston as the only UNC player wearing a suit. It was bittersweet, McDonald said, returning while Hairston continued to sit, watching and waiting.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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