FRISCO, Texas — As P.J. Hairston steps to the free-throw line, a sea of children jump on mini trampolines and twirl hula hoops just beyond the baseline.
The Britney Spears song “Toxic” booms throughout the arena as he hoists his shot, and when Hairston looks into the stands, he sees a few thousand fans.
This isn’t North Carolina’s Dean Smith Center—and it sure as heck isn’t college basketball. But Hairston isn’t complaining.
One month into what should be his only stint in the NBA D-League, Hairston is focused on the future instead of pouting about the past.
And he’s owning up to his mistakes.
After his playing career at North Carolina ended prematurely in December, Hairston told Bleacher Report he was upset with only one person.
“I deserve all the blame,” Hairston said. “It was totally my fault. I regret everything that happened.”
Hairston’s comments came during his first interview with a major media outlet since last summer, when the NCAA began investigating his use of rental cars linked to Durham-based party promoter Haydn “Fats” Thomas, who has ties to North Carolina athletes because they attend his parties.
When questioned, Hairston didn’t deny having a relationship with Thomas or that he drove the rental cars.
“But I don’t want to comment on either of those things,” Hairston said. “They were mistakes I made in life that aren’t going to happen again, because I won’t put myself in that situation.”
Even as he awaited the NCAA’s ruling throughout the fall, Hairston said he never envisioned a scenario where he wouldn’t be playing for the Tar Heels this season. He said athletic director Bubba Cunningham and coach Roy Williams warned him that he’d have to miss some games, but both felt good about Hairston’s chances of eventually being reinstated.
Hairston said he was crushed when Williams summoned him into his office before a Dec. 18 game against Texas to tell him the school would not seek his reinstatement from the NCAA, apparently because they weren’t confident it would be granted.
“I never had any doubt that I was going to play,” Hairston said, “so yeah, I was surprised. I was hurt at first. Coach said it was one of the saddest things that ever happened to him. That was the mood around the whole locker room."
There was also a period—mostly before his dismissal—when Hairston would become annoyed by tweets or posts on Internet message boards attacking his character.
“It pissed me off at first,” Hairston said. “It’s not like P.J. Hairston went out and killed someone. I made mistakes a lot of young kids could make. It felt like I was on America’s Most Wanted because I got a speeding ticket.”
On June 5, Hairston was stopped at a checkpoint in Durham while driving a 2013 GMC Yukon that was rented by Thomas. And in May, he was cited for speeding while driving a 2012 Chevrolet Camaro SS that was linked to Thomas.
“I stopped paying attention to social media,” Hairston said. “If you’re not brave enough to say it to my face, then I don’t care what you have to say on social media. People can believe what they want to believe. I just had to move on.”
Hairston is doing just that in the D-League, where he’s almost always the best player on the court. Hairston—who averaged 14.8 points last season at North Carolina—scored 40 points in his second D-League game on Jan. 24. Less than a week later, he erupted for 45 points.
Legends assistant coach Hollis Price said Hairston’s hunger has been noticeable through his work ethic. On the very first play of his very first practice, Hairston dove onto the floor for a loose ball.
“That’s a credit to Roy Williams and the things he instilled in him,” said Price, laughing. “But I told him, ‘P.J., you’re not in college anymore. You’ve got to protect your money, especially in practice.’”
Price said Hairston has never mentioned his problems at North Carolina.
“What happened there is a blessing and a curse,” Price said. “He’s getting to play against professionals that are faster than college guys and stronger than college guys. It shows that he belongs not just on this level, but the next level, too.”
Indeed, even though he’s no longer in the North Carolina spotlight, Hairston has hardly been forgotten.
NBA scouts are at almost every one of his games. One of them was wowed last week week when Hairston weaved through three defenders and into the lane for a dunk.
“It almost looks too easy for him out there,” said a scout, adding that Hairston could be a lottery pick in this summer’s draft. He said he’d be shocked if Hairston dropped out of the first round.
“I think him being in the D-League right now is the best thing for him,” the scout said. “He’s got more freedom to show us what he can do.”
Game days in the D-League—or at least at the Dr. Pepper Arena in Frisco—hardly resemble what you’d see in college. Children bounce in inflatable houses just 20 yards from the hardwood while their parents watch from the stands. Music sometimes plays during the game, and interviews are often conducted during stoppages in play.
It’s a fun environment, though, and Hairston seems right at home.
Hairston said he still considers North Carolina home too, though. He keeps in touch with Williams and sends text messages to his former teammates after each of their games.
Asked if it’s been difficult to watch the Tar Heels struggle without him, Hairston said, "It has, but I know what they can do, because they did it when I was there and not playing. I know what they’re capable of doing. They just have to put their minds to it and do it.”
Hairston said he plans to attend North Carolina’s Feb. 15 game against Pittsburgh in Chapel Hill. When he informed Williams of his plans, the coach said he’d be happy to see him. Hairston wonders if Tar Heels fans will, too.
“I apologize for what happened,” he said. “I hope people will accept that apology."
This Week's Grades
A: Virginia - The Cavaliers are 8-1 in league play—and they may be 15-1 by the time Syracuse visits on March 1. Tony Bennett’s squad has a favorable schedule the rest of the way. But that shouldn’t take any of the luster away from how much this team has improved. It’s a mistake to say the ACC is a two-team league with Syracuse and Duke. The Cavaliers should be included in that mix, too.
B: Isaiah Taylor - The Texas point guard put a whipping on Kansas with a 23-point performance in Saturday’s 81-69 win. Not bad for a freshman who was unranked coming out of high school. Taylor is Texas’ second-leading scorer with 12.2 points per game.
C: Big Ten depth - I’m not saying teams such as Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa are bad, but none of them strike me as particularly good, either. Iowa lost at home to a Michigan State team that was playing without Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson. Ohio State had a stretch where it dropped five of six, with the only win coming against downtrodden Illinois. Wisconsin has also lost five of its last six games, with three of the setbacks coming at home. Good teams don’t let that happen.
D: Freshmen focus - I love tracking the progress of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Joel Embiid as much as anyone. But in some ways I feel like we—”we” meaning myself and fellow reporters—are being too hard on these guys. We’re overreacting to mediocre performances. We’re too quick to judge, and so are fans. The oversaturation of freshmen coverage has also caused us to underplay the great seasons being enjoyed by upperclassmen such as Doug McDermott, Nick Johnson and others.
F: Stevie Clark - Oklahoma State booted its talented and troubled guard from the team Monday following Clark’s arrest for urinating out of the window from a moving car. Clark was also arrested on New Year’s Day on suspicion of possessing marijuana. Classy. Things are going south in a hurry for the Cowboys. That’s a shame for a team that had so much potential.
Starting 5: The Best Players Who Are Out for the Season with an Injury
Brandon Ashley, Arizona - The forward ranked third on the team in scoring (11.5 points) and also contributed 5.8 rebounds before injuring his knee in Saturday’s loss to Cal.
Michael Cobbins, Oklahoma State - Cobbins didn’t post gaudy stats, but his toughness and work ethic in the paint are sorely missed by a Cowboys squad that lacks size.
Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado - An NBA prospect at guard, Dinwiddie tore his ACL against UCLA on Jan. 12. He was averaging team highs in points (14.7) and assists (3.8).
Kris Dunn, Providence - The 6’3” guard was averaging five assists per game when he was lost in late November.
Mitch McGary, Michigan - One of the stars of last year’s Final Four run, McGary played in just eight games before opting for season-ending back surgery. The center was averaging a team-high 8.3 rebounds.
A Dozen Words About My Top 12 Teams
- Syracuse - Trevor Cooney bailed the Orange out with nine threes against Notre Dame.
- Arizona - Sean Miller’s Wildcats will have to rely on defense more than ever.
- Florida - Coach Billy Donovan appears to have a Final Four-caliber team again.
- Wichita State - Tekele Cotton doesn’t receive nearly enough credit for his outstanding defensive play.
- San Diego State - Seven of the Aztecs’ last eight wins have been by single digits.
- Kansas - Naadir Tharpe is one of the most underrated players in college basketball.
- Duke - Little separated the Blue Devils from the nation’s top-ranked team Saturday.
- Michigan State - Welcome back, Adreian Payne. College basketball fans—and your teammates—missed you.
- Cincinnati - The Bearcats are undefeated in a tough conference. Impressive job by Mick Cronin.
- Villanova - Wildcats are hungry for their rematch with Creighton Feb. 16 in Omaha.
- Virginia - A second-place ACC finish would be huge for Tony Bennett’s squad.
- Creighton - Forward Doug McDermott is rising up NBA draft boards, and rightfully so.
Love his toughness: Ricardo Gathers, Baylor
Needs some toughness: James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina
Hasn’t lost at home: SMU
Can’t win at home: Oklahoma State
Hotter than donut grease: Mila Kunis
Hotter than donut grease (basketball version): Jabari Brown, Missouri
Gaining confidence in: St. John’s and LSU
Losing faith in: Oklahoma State and Arkansas
Still can’t figure out: Memphis and UCLA
No longer a pushover: Nebraska and Oregon State
Draft stock rising: Xavier Thames, San Diego State
Draft stock falling: Andrew Harrison, Kentucky
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.