NEW ORLEANS — What had gotten into Leaky Black? It was an innocuous question, asked after Black, a once-reluctant shooter whose place in the North Carolina lineup is owed to so many other tasks done well, scored a season-high 13 points and knocked in all three 3-pointers he attempted — including one that put the Tar Heels ahead to stay — in an overtime win at Louisville.
As it turned out, a lot had gotten into Leaky Black.
Black, his eyes darting at the camera during a video news conference after that early-February game, said that he had been coping with “really bad anxiety,” had been seeing a therapist, and that meditation and prayer had been helpful.
“I spoke from the heart,” said Black, who on Monday night will play for the Division I men’s national championship with his Tar Heels teammates against Kansas.
It is a basketball game, yes, but it is also a spectacle. The 94-by-50-foot court may as well be a large pedestal the way it is placed, raised four feet above the floor, in the center of an enormous dome that will host more than 70,000 spectators and draw a national television audience.
For some players, it will be the culmination of a dream. Kansas guard Christian Braun fell asleep in front of the TV as a 6-year-old when the Jayhawks last won a national title and as a teenager camped out to get into Allen Fieldhouse for the midnight practice that kicks off the season.
Few players, though, will appreciate it more than Black.
He committed to North Carolina as a sophomore in high school, back when he was a point guard, and has lived through a fallow period in the Tar Heels’ otherwise rich history. North Carolina was bumped from the N.C.A.A. tournament early as a No. 1 seed his freshman year, an injury-plagued sophomore season ended with a losing record and last year’s tournament-opening rout pushed Coach Roy Williams into retirement. The Tar Heels had to play their way into the tournament late this season after several ugly losses blemished their résumé.
“I could never imagine being here from the lowest of the lows,” Black said on Sunday, at peace with the path he has taken to arrive here.
Black grew up in Mount Pleasant, N.C., a country town east of Charlotte where kids learn the best fishing holes and everybody has a nickname — Leaky was given to him by his grandmother and derives from his middle name, Malik. His father, Chon, took Leaky to the basketball court out back and taught him and his two older sisters, Mariah and Jada, how to play the game.
When a young player shows a particular talent for the game, he is pulled onto a track and the system — travel ball, prep schools, rankings and recruiting — stamps him with labels that are hard for an adolescent to separate from their self-worth.
So, when Black left as a junior in high school for Montverde Academy, a basketball-centric prep school in Florida, it was a uneasy experience. Mariah had enlisted in the Navy, Jada was off at college and an introverted country boy who was away from home wasn’t about to advocate for himself when he was moved to a new position, playing off the ball.
And when his freshman classmates at North Carolina, Nassir Little and Coby White, jumped to the N.B.A. and he was playing on a bum ankle that would require surgery, he felt every slight on social media. (Black hasn’t posted anything on Twitter in nearly two years.)
At every turn, including when his parents separated when he was in high school or when he was at home, his surgically repaired ankle propped up on a bed while he took online classes during the pandemic, Black was the tough guy — holding it all in.
Carla Black, his mother, said she sees this often in her job as a high school principal.
“I’ve seen so many kids put on this face of, ‘I’ve got to make straight As, got to keep it together,’ and then you get them in the office, talk over some food, and they remove this mask and see this vulnerability,” she said on Sunday.
“We have to remember to give them permission to be human,” she added, noting the recent death by suicide of Katie Meyer, a Stanford soccer player. “Somewhere along the line this got labeled mollycoddling, but I hope we can remember that we’re not only the resource brokers, but we affirm who you are. Be real about life — yes that was tough, but how are we going to respond?”
Still, it wasn’t until last summer that Leaky Black found somebody who could feel how it was to live in his shoes. His father, Chon, had played college ball, but not at a place like North Carolina. His sisters understood his generation, but what did they know of his basketball life? And his mother might be wise, but she would fire back at criticism on social media.
Then last summer he began conversations with Jackie Manuel.
Manuel, who was hired last summer as North Carolina’s director of player development by its new head coach, Hubert Davis, began as a player on the worst team in school history, ended his run with a national championship and saw a broken foot derail his career.
As Manuel started telling Black about himself, how he was so depressed after getting cut by the Boston Celtics in training camp that he didn’t leave his home for two weeks, Black slowly softened. Manuel told him about his anxiety, the fear of failure, the fear of making mistakes, of crowds and social anxiety.
The Championship Games in the N.C.A.A. Tournaments
The national finals. March Madness is coming to an end, and the tournaments will culminate with the women’s and men’s national championship games on April 3 and April 4, respectively. Here’s a closer look at the matchups:
Women’s: South Carolina vs. Connecticut. The top-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks, which beat Louisville in the Final Four, will face perennial favorite UConn in the championship game. The Huskies defeated Stanford in the semifinals to earn their chance at a 12th national title.
Men’s: North Carolina vs. Kansas. After outlasting rival Duke in Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final game, the North Carolina Tar Heels will play Kansas for the national title. The Jayhawks fended off Villanova in the Final Four, avenging their 2018 semifinal loss to the Wildcats.
“He started to realize ‘I’m not the only one going through this journey,’” Manuel said. Black, who was not a regular churchgoer, began to pray with Manuel. He also learned to meditate and then was introduced to a therapist. He also shares more with his sisters.
“Our male egos say no, we shouldn’t show emotion,” Manuel said. “The strength is asking for help, being vulnerable. I think he said, ‘Oh, that’s what that looks like.’”
Sitting across the court on Saturday night, watching Duke and North Carolina pour so much into their national semifinal game, was Bill Walton, the star player-turned-broadcaster/evangelist who more than a decade ago admitted he contemplated suicide because of severe back pain.
Now, it is not so rare for athletes to discuss anxiety or depression. N.B.A. players like Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan and Paul George have all opened up about their struggles.
Walton described it thusly: there is good all around the world — far more than evil — but you have to work to find it. Evil, on the other hand, will find you.
“The challenge for Leaky and all of us who suffer from mental health challenges is to find that bright light, that beacon of hope, that reason to believe that the effort to get to tomorrow is worth it no matter the obstacles,” Walton said.
On Monday night, Black will be back on the court, playing lockdown defense — like he did against Duke’s A.J. Griffin on Saturday — snatching rebounds, moving the ball and perhaps even making a few buckets. He’ll likely do it quietly, on the margins.
“I couldn’t be more proud of him,” his mother said of his willingness to help others, especially during the trying times of the pandemic. “I mean, we’re all people. We all go through it — especially the last 24 months: Honey, if you’re not talking to your dog, what are you doing with your life?”