Sports career

Ex-UNC basketball star King Rice talks about the future of his athletic career


Monmouth Head Coach King Rice, a former North Carolina player, applauds his team’s performance during the first half against North Carolina on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, Carolina North

File photo

King Rice knew he had messed up.

In May 1990, the morning after an alcohol-fueled night led to charges of assaulting a woman, resisting arrest and destroying public property, he sat down at home, leaving his answering machine to answer the parade of phone calls from his teammates and coaches.

He even tried to ignore the voice that mattered most.

“King, don’t leave this town until you come see me,” Rice recalled, telling UNC coach Dean Smith.

If Rice didn’t show up at Smith’s office, he knew he would be kicked off the team.

Rick Fox, Rice’s teammate at the time, knew that too. Instead of just calling, he drove to Rice’s house, picked up his teammate, and brought him to the Smith Center. Rice said it was the biggest of “four or five major jams” and Smith backed him up every time.

As Rice sat in Smith’s office for the last of his bad decisions, the way he remembers the conversation laid the groundwork for what Rice would be as a head coach:

“What’s wrong? You think I’m with you only because of basketball? Is that what you think?” Rice remembers telling Smith. “At that time, I was crying. He’s like, ‘I told you it was forever, King. Not just when you help me win games. This is when you need me the most. And you don’t want to come here? And I was sitting there like, man, this man is amazing. Because everyone has turned their backs.

Later that summer, a Chapel Hill judge ordered Rice to perform 75 hours of community service stemming from the charges that night, in addition to court costs and returning property to the city. damaged.

Looking back, Rice said Smith must have known he was an alcoholic. Smith would give him the Serenity Prayer, which is used in Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step recovery program. Rice didn’t think he had a problem. And to prove he wasn’t drinking anymore, he agreed to take Antabuse every day during his senior season. The drug is used in recovery programs because it causes the user to have an unpleasant reaction if they consume alcohol.

Rice played the season alongside Fox and current UNC head coach Hubert Davis and helped the Tar Heels advance to the 1991 Final Four. On the surface, it looked like Rice had conquered his demons. , but they were only getting worse.

“I’m telling you, I didn’t think I was an alcoholic,” Rice said. “I just thought, ‘I’m going to do this just to get them to leave me alone,’ because I didn’t need the booze. I proved that I didn’t have to have it, but I came right back to it. They have been very patient with me and I constantly thank Coach Smith.

Rice, in his 11th season as head coach at Monmouth University, has tried to show the same patience and investment in his players that Smith once had in him.

JR Reid rode Rice for two seasons at Carolina, although the two first met at Five Star Basketball Camp while still in high school. Reid, who considers Rice one of his best friends, is in his fourth season on Rice’s staff as an assistant coach at Monmouth.

Reid called Rice a “special trainer” because of how his players love him.

“We’ve had players doing things where other staff were saying, ‘Man, get him out of here,'” Reid said. “Coach (Kevin) Stallings hasn’t given up on him. Coach Smith did not give up on him. It is therefore difficult for him to turn his back on a player. You know, and that’s one of the things that makes him such a great coach.

UNC’s King Rice (21), right, gets tough on NC State’s Chhris Corchiani as he takes the ball downfield during a 1989 game. File photo

King Rice’s Second Chance

After his Monmouth team beat Pittsburgh last month, he gave an impassioned speech about the status of Panthers guard Ithiel Horton, who was suspended in November for assault, public drunkenness and resisting arrest. Horton had his criminal charges dismissed and joined the team last week.

Rice’s support for Horton goes beyond just knowing him since he was 11 years old. Rice said he wouldn’t be where he is today without those who saw the good in him even as alcohol drove him to make bad decisions.

Former Vanderbilt and Pittsburgh coach Kevin Stallings was one of those people.

Stallings hired Rice, then just 23, as an assistant coach at Illinois State. And in October 1996, Stallings’ phone rang, as did Smith’s at UNC: Rice had been arrested for drunk driving.

Stallings said he picked up Rice at the police station around 3:30 a.m. and they drove for “three or four hours” to talk about what happened and what Rice needed to do to get on. ‘before. Rice knew he had committed a dismissable offense and Stallings could — maybe even should — fire him.

Stallings said it was the last chance he could give him. One more misstep, and he’d have to let Rice go. Stallings also believed in a philosophy passed on to him by his mentor, former Purdue coach Gene Keady: If he’s a good person, it’s worth trying to save him.

Rice told Stallings on October 27, 1996 that he would never drink again. And he didn’t. Rice has been sober for 25 years. Every year on the anniversary of that decision, he calls Stallings to say thank you.

“I’m not going to lie, this call every year warms my soul,” Stallings said. “He was more than I ever expected to come out of that night in 1996.

“He’s just been a remarkable story, and I couldn’t be more proud of who he is and what he’s done with his life. And the impacts he continues to have on the lives of other young people. men.

Rice is candid with players and parents about her past; it helped shape who he is as a coach. He constantly works on his relationship with his players to the point that he gets emotional when he tries to steer them in the right direction by discussing his mistakes and the people who supported him.

“I start crying almost every time,” Rice said. “I’m so thankful that so many people – you know, if one of them does it differently, I’m not there. I just am not.

That’s why Rice is so outspoken in telling her story. He never knows who might need to hear him.

In Pitt, Rice thought he might have offended one of the police escorting him through the building after his postgame speech. Horton was filmed punching an officer. But the police officer had been sober for two years and thanked Rice for his words.

There was also a man in Buffalo who had quit drinking shortly before Rice. He brings Rice a coin acknowledging another year of sobriety — for 25 years it will be a keychain — every time Monmouth plays Niagara.

“We didn’t know each other, but he heard my story, so he came to the game just to congratulate me and stay strong,” Rice said. “We’re going out and telling the story because it’s a powerful story and a lot of people are struggling with alcoholism.”

Monmouth head coach King Rice, a former North Carolina player, reacts after being called for a technical foul in the second half against North Carolina on Wednesday, December 28, 2016 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, NC Robert Willett File photo

Keep life in perspective

Walker Miller is a transfer graduate who averages 14.9 points per game and leads Monmouth in rebounding with an average of 6.8 per game. Miller is the younger brother of former UNC guard and current Cincinnati head coach Wes Miller, who played for Roy Williams at UNC.

Walker Miller said he knew Rice from his brother and when he traveled to Chapel Hill in the summer. It wasn’t until Miller decided to transfer that he really got to know Rice and “that made the decision easier for me.”

“He’s one of the most honest, open, and sincere people I’ve ever met in my life,” Miller said. “He won’t hide anything and he will be extremely honest. That’s maybe what I appreciate the most about him.

Due to the real problems Rice has endured, he continues to win and lose perspective.

Rice never took Monmouth to the NCAA Tournament, though his teams won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in 2016 and 2017. That could change this year: The Hawks are off to their best start in program history, including victories over Pitt and Cincinnati.

“I would love nothing more than to have Coach Rice and this program and what he’s built here for the NCAA Tournament,” Walker Miller said. “I did it in Carolina, and I think it would be an even more special experience in the sense that it’s something we haven’t done in a long time here.”

Rice would like that to happen, but says it has little to do with the kind of coach he is. He is most proud of the fact that 36 of the 37 players who remained at Monmouth have graduated, and the one exception, Micah Seaborn, is currently a staff volunteer and is set to graduate this year. Add two more seniors who are on track to graduate in the spring, and Rice’s total will be 39 out of 39.

“Maybe the Lord thought I had won enough championships already and now I’m supposed to lead these young men to have a better life,” Rice said. “Maybe that’s the call. You know what I mean? The guy who kept getting into trouble sent 39 graduates around the world to have a better life.

This story was originally published January 9, 2022 5:45 a.m.

CL Brown covers the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer. Brown brings more than two decades of reporting experience, including stints as a beat writer at Indiana University and the University of Louisville. After a long stint at the Louisville Courier-Journal, where he won an APSE award, he stopped by, The Athletic and even tried his hand at running his own website,