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Julius Peppers' hoop dreams
Before he was a Hall of Fame defensive end for the Panthers, he was an aspiring basketball player at UNC, taking part in a Final Four run and making people wonder how good he could have been in another sport.
By Darin Gantt Apr 05, 2024

CANTON, Ohio — Even in the holy shrine of football, where they celebrate the very best the sport has to offer, that other sport is never far away from any discussion of Julius Peppers.

But that makes sense if you know anything about Julius Peppers.

Because basketball is never more than a breath away from any discussion, or a step away from any history of his incredible athletic career.

Partially, that's because he loves it so much — but not so much that he wasn't willing to step away from it for a moment. But also, because he was so good at it that it became a bit of a metaphor for who he was. It just looked so easy for him, but there was nothing easy about it. Even when it was never televised, it became legendary. The myth of Peppers the basketball player grew in small high school gyms, AAU tournaments where he was just another guy except he wasn't, and eventually in pickup games among undergrads where the only sounds are squeaking shoes, when five-star recruits from a Final Four team saw a guy they knew they needed but would have to lobby for.

As incredible as Julius Peppers was at football, basketball was his passion and something he was nearly as good at. And while he worked at it—his coaches described his commitment to practice in reverent and meticulous terms—it also looked natural for him.

For most people, it's impossible. But for Julius Peppers, the impossible was always just a step away.

During his first trip to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this spring, the former Panthers defensive end was being introduced at a luncheon alongside former 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, and staffers had a few questions.

So, while it might seem unusual to ask a Pro Football Hall of Famer, one of the first questions he received from the crowd that day had nothing to do with football.

"What's it like to dunk a basketball?"

Peppers just grinned one of those Peppers grins and downplayed it at first because that's his nature.

"I mean, I haven't done it in a while," he said with a shrug. "But when I used to be able to do it, ... it was pretty cool."

Yeah, it was pretty cool. Or, one of the most incredible things anyone has ever witnessed. With Julius Peppers, the line between those two was always microscopic and easy for him to cross.

Jason Capel has been around the world and seen a lot of things in his basketball career as a player and a coach, but get him talking about that one night at the Dean Smith Center 23 years ago against Wake Forest, and it's like it was yesterday, and it sounds like he's describing someone in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

And the sound is the thing he remembers the most.

UNC point guard Ronald Curry took a long rebound, brought it upcourt, and lost the ball momentarily. He gathered it back when he saw the thing you couldn't really miss because it was so large — a wide-open Julius Peppers at the elbow. So he threw the lob, and Peppers did something that was pretty cool, even if you only heard it.

"I'm on the bench at the time, so I have a perfect view of what's happening," Capel began. "And all of a sudden this 6-7, 295-pound specimen just gets off the ground, goes up really, really high, catches it and dunks it so hard. And it is by far, I mean, I can say a Duke game or whatever; it's by far the loudest I've ever heard the Dean Dome.

"Then Wake Forest calls timeout, and we're in the huddle, and (coach) Matt Doherty's trying to talk to us. But we're not listening to a damn thing he says because they're playing the replay on the Jumbotron, and we're watching it. And every time he dunks it, the crowd goes boom. I don't think any of us knows what he said in that huddle because nobody was listening, nobody was paying attention. We were all watching that highlight over and over."

When it happened on the ESPN broadcast, Dick Vitale just started yelling, "Ohhhhhhhhh, Ohhhhhhhhh." (And so did a lot of people.) That tended to happen to even the most polished of broadcasters.

Before he became the voice of the Carolina Panthers, Mick Mixon worked alongside the legendary Woody Durham on Tar Heels basketball broadcasts. And when he thinks about Peppers as a basketball player, he thinks about the night of Dec. 7, 1999, when, for some reason, they were playing at the University of Buffalo, where they'd win easily. The game was out of hand late, so all the reserves, including a walk-on from the football team, were on the floor, and the guys calling the game were just trying to get to the end of the night.

"And there's a loose ball, and there's a pitch ahead, and Julius Peppers has the ball on a fast break along about midcourt, and he takes a couple of dribbles," Mixon begins, loosening up into a story he's told dozens of not hundreds of times in his life. "I'm sitting at courtside with Woody, and of course, the first law of physics working with Woody Durham is that you don't ever try to out-Woody Woody. You let him yell and hoot and howl and carry on, and then you just try to provide some analysis in a word economy the best way you can.

"But Julius Peppers jumps just inside the free throw line with the ball cuffed in this left arm and wrist. This arm looks like a cable that would hold a bridge up over a bay, and he's got that thing cuffed, and I guarantee you the top of his head is about even with the rim, and he goes, 'boom' and he jams the ball into the basket and two or three Buffalo players go sprawling and I could not contain myself. I jumped, grabbed Woody, and jumped up, and I went, 'Ohhhhhhhhh,' and I just made this guttural utterance that I did not even recognize as the sound of my own voice. And I still cannot believe that girth, that amount of muscle and connective tissue and skin, and just the spring he had, just how high off the ground he was.

"And to him it was just a dunk. It was probably an unremarkable. He probably wouldn't even remember the play. But that was the moment that I remember thinking this guy is not like normal elite athletes. He could be the heavyweight champion of the world if he wanted to, he could play ... pick a sport."

Picking a sport is a whole other story because, for a guy who'd make two All-Decade teams in the NFL, collect the fourth-most sacks of all time, and end up in Canton where they asked him about basketball, football wasn't necessarily his first choice. He had to be talked into it, though it was immediately obvious he was great at it when he started at Southern Nash High (and we'll get to that story another day).

But he always thought of himself as a basketball player first, and would do things that other people couldn't believe because there was no context for what they were seeing.

Like Peppers, Panthers head athletic trainer Kevin King grew up in Eastern North Carolina, but he was a small-to-normal-sized human being, so he was managing and keeping score for the Wilson Beddingfield varsity basketball team. King is very careful with his equipment, but he remembered dropping his scorebook when he saw the monstrous kid from Southern Nash throw one down in a way you weren't able to witness all the time in those pre-smartphone days of the '90s.

"I've never seen anything like it," King said, grinning and shaking his head at the memory. "The first human being I ever saw do a 360 dunk."

That's one of a million stories of the time they saw Peppers do the thing, which is the easiest story to gather because everyone has a version of it, and they're all remarkable.

In those days when he and King were in high school, Peppers wasn't necessarily dreaming about the NFL. He remembers making the short drive to Rocky Mount and seeing names like Buck Williams and Phil Ford on banners in the gym, and wondering if he could be like them.

But as much as he had hoop dreams, the world kept telling him in unsubtle ways that another sport was calling.

Everyone wanted him to come play football, and he had narrowed his choices to either nearby North Carolina (Mack Brown was a constant part of his life for a while), Florida State (where Deion Sanders became a star but also showed at the possibility of being a two-sport guy), or Michigan (where he idolized Charles Woodson, but even before then the Fab Five, who changed basketball and fashion in a way that will become important in a moment). Even Duke was a possibility at one point, because he loved Grant Hill, and it felt like then-Blue Devils assistant Quin Snyder was always at his practices.

But a few schools made him offers based on just basketball, figuring they'd shoot their shot, as unlikely as it was to land.

"The ones that offered me early for basketball were a lot of smaller schools, like I can't even remember all of them, " Peppers recalled as he stood in his new home in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There were tons of them, like here, Ohio, Ohio University, the green one, James Madison, Radford, schools like that."

The thought of Julius Peppers suiting up for the Bobcats or Dukes or Highlanders boggles the mind when you think about it now, and no one really expected it then.

But he did make it clear during his recruitment that he wanted to play basketball if he could. Brown was willing to promise him anything to get him to Chapel Hill, so that was fine with him. But Brown also left for the money at Texas before Peppers got to campus, which threw everything into flux. New Tar Heels football coach Carl Torbush would have probably offered Peppers a baseball scholarship if he could have, so he wasn't going to stand in the way, either.

But Peppers' road to the Dean Dome and playing basketball for the Heels wasn't as straightforward as it seemed.


Dean Smith had retired after the 1997 season, but UNC basketball was still a very traditional program under coach Bill Guthridge, who kept assistants Phil Ford and Dave Hanners alongside. They did things the way they had for a long time and in a way that worked. They went to the Final Four in Smith's last season and again in Guthridge's first in 1998.

They also had their pick of McDonald's All-Americans every year, so indulging a football player's hobby wasn't at the top of their priority list.

So when Peppers got to campus in Chapel Hill, and was redshirting from football his freshman year, his intention was to play basketball immediately, and he thought he was going to. Guthridge and Ford were also regulars at the gym in Bailey, N.C., so Peppers wasn't expecting what he felt was a cold shoulder at first.

Instead of walking into the gym where idols like Rasheed Wallace and Vince Carter and Jerry Stackhouse and Antawn Jamison had been playing, Peppers was sent to tryouts for the JV team.

He did not appreciate this at first.

"It was a little bit of a run-around," Peppers said. "So they were like used to NBA-level type players coming through there and making impact and stuff like that. With my situation, I think they were just trying to see if I really was going to put the work in and how bad I wanted it. That's what I'll say about it."

He did this for a few days, but at a certain point, he walked away from the structure of the JV team, which Hanners was in charge of.

Now retired and enjoying a fishing trip, Hanners laughed when he remembered the big one that got away, if only for a moment.

"You have to understand coach Smith; he told Phil Ford that he might have to play JV basketball for a year," Hanners recalled of one of the greatest players in program history. "He told Antawn Jamison and his parents that he might have to play JVs or he could redshirt a year. I mean, coach Smith was always, he didn't want anybody to feel like they were getting special treatment, like, oh, it's automatic. It was more of a thing to see if he was serious and to make sure everyone was going through the proper channels."

No one doubted Peppers' ability to help the basketball team. But he was still a football player walking on, so when he walked away from those JV workouts, they kept it moving because Carolina basketball was bigger than even someone as big as Julius Peppers.

Of course, there may be more to this story than simply hurt feelings. Capel recalls another component that may have played a part in Peppers stepping away from the JV team, a part Peppers didn't offer up himself, but considering how much of an impact the Fab Five made on him; maybe it shouldn't.

"It's a really, really funny story that he probably doesn't want out there, but he's going to the Hall of Fame, why not?" Capel began. "So, his freshman year, he got red-shirted football, and he's supposed to be on the team with us, but they still do the JV thing. So he does that for a while, and then it's picture day for the JV team, and they break out the 1975 Phil Ford North Carolina uniforms. So I know short shorts are in style now, but they weren't in style back in 1998-99.

"And Pep walks out with this tiny uniform on, and we all bust out laughing, and that was it. He never came back. He was like, 'I'm not doing it.'"

Whatever the reason, hurt feelings or bad shorts, Peppers was a man without a team for a moment. That left Peppers going to class and working out during his football redshirt year, but with a lot of hours to fill.

So he did what a lot of UNC undergrads did: he played in pickup games in Woollen Gym, steps away from Kenan Stadium, but at once a mile and a world away from the Smith Center.

Julius Peppers stands out in crowds, even among crowds of elite athletes. So you could imagine what he looked like playing alongside a bunch of freshman business majors and wannabe JV players.

In short, he dominated, and his peers could see it.

The varsity players would roll past Woollen from time to time, and real recognized real.

Point guard Ed Cota was another one of those McDonald's All-Americans the Tar Heels collected, the ACC rookie of the year as a freshman, and good enough to break the conference record for assists as a sophomore. So he could spot an opportunity to help.

And it took one to get Peppers where he wanted to go.

Cota watched some of these pickup games, saw the big man dominate the guys who thought they were ballers and told his friends. Then they came to watch and realized they could use someone with that kind of size and grace.

So Cota went to assistant coach Pat Sullivan first and then to Guthridge to make their pitch for Peppers. And it's not like he was a complete unknown (he was an AAU teammate of varsity starters like Brendan Haywood and Kris Lang with the Carolina Warriors), but Cota wanted to make sure they had the best collection of talent possible.

"The first person I went to was Patrick Sullivan, and he went to coach Gut, and then, coach Gut had a conversation with me about it, and then we got him in there," Cota said of his efforts on behalf of Peppers. "Number one, he was a team player but he had a high IQ on top of being very skilled. So, I mean, he was a complete player at a young age. He could have been an NBA player.

"So, I thought he had a lot of potential, but when I got him to play with us, I knew that we thought he could help us immediately. He was exactly what we were missing at the time."

Cota's recruiting pitch to coaches was something that resonated with Peppers (he mentioned it specifically when he was inducted to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame), but it wasn't just a goodwill mission. Cota saw a player who could help any team, even one of the best.

"Once I got him on the court, basically, I knew the rest was going to take care of itself," Cota said. "I felt he could help us immediately. They were a little surprised about that, but I said, just take a look, just look at it, and then the rest was history."

Getting a spot on the team was one thing. Getting minutes was something different.

When you looked at his stat line, it doesn't jump off the page the way it did in football. In two seasons, he averaged 5.7 points and 3.7 rebounds a game. But those numbers came when he was a temp, while he was busy stacking up All-American honors and awards named after legends (Nagurski, Lombardi, Willis) in football.

So as they watched Peppers grind at practice when he didn't have to — he was there simply because he wanted desperately to be there — they kept seeing reasons to involve him.

Phil Ford was a legend at UNC before Peppers was even born, so he's seen plenty of players. But there were things he remembers about Peppers to this day beyond the obvious.

"He had all the things that you can't teach: size, strength, agility, touch," Ford began. "But he also had a great understanding of the game, what I call savvy. He understood. I mean to play in North Carolina, you know, we do a lot of different things offensively and defensively."

Ford then went into granular detail about all the options on a particular play, a laundry list of basketball terms that a layman can easily get lost in. But as he discussed back cuts and defensive assignments, the unspoken language of out-of-bounds plays, he said that it never seemed like a new language for a football player.

"He was able to pick up on all of that, and very fast," Ford said. And when one of the greatest point guards in the history of the game says that, it means something. "I know it usually takes kids a little while to pick up on that, but Julius picked up on it right away."

At UNC, the practices are intense because a high level is expected. That's the way Dean Smith built the program, so there was a very specific way players were expected to prepare. Even guys who were only basketball players would sometimes struggle with the level of precision coaches demanded, particularly in defensive drills.

Hanners, who coached hundreds of players in thousands of games in college and the NBA (coaching champions on both levels), remembered being amazed by how graceful Peppers was in those early practices in a way that few full-time basketball players were.

"I think what surprised me the most, what really just knocked me off my feet from the very first time I watched him, was how well he defended everyone," Hanners said. "I mean, he defended the post players like you would think because he's so strong. But we used to do these shadowing drills where there would be two screens on each side of the lane. And a guy would start in the corner, and take off and run over a double screen and then come back, and nobody on the team could shake Julius.

"We used to laugh. We said, you know, we can't wait to play somebody who's got a 6-3 or 6-4 guy that's really quick and is scoring a lot. We'll just put Julius on him and say, don't let him touch the ball. It was just incredible how quick his feet were, and I think that served him well in football.

"We were just in shock because, I mean, Vince Carter was really, really good at that, but I don't think he was a lot better than Julius Peppers, which is just bizarre."

That kind of defensive presence showed up in big spots, like the three blocked shots against Stanford in the Sweet 16 his first season, or the dozens of little things that you don't expect a part-timer to do during a run to the Final Four.

Those kind of amazed recollections are common when you get basketball guys talking about Peppers, because defensive ends aren't supposed to be able to do these things.

Phil Ford, of all people, commending someone's vision and grasp of the game is not something that just happens.

"He is something else," Ford said simply.

You could fill a book with the stories. Cota laughing when recalling Peppers going up to dunk on Carlos Boozer. Capel recounting the time his father Jeff, then an NBA assistant, tried to get Peppers to work out with the Charlotte Bobcats, and knowing he'd have fit in. Mixon, a man who knows more words than anyone you know, running out of them when talking about a random December game in Buffalo that no one else would remember. A million little stories.

"I just remember one game we were getting kind of pushed around a little underneath," Hanners began. "Coach Guthridge put Julius in, and all of a sudden, all that pushing around ended, and we started controlling the paint. He could do that."

So, for all those testimonials, it's reasonable to wonder if he could have done it at the highest level.

Peppers admitted that giving up basketball after two seasons at UNC was purely a business decision. Once he realized he would be a top-10 pick in the NFL draft, it was about protecting his economic interests. But all those around him in his basketball days in Chapel Hill swear that he could have easily played in the NBA, and with reps and development, who knows what he could have accomplished.

The risk of injury costing him a fortune (he'd be picked second overall by the Panthers in the 2002 NFL Draft and would make over $160 million playing football in 17 years) was enough to make him put basketball aside, even if it remained close to his heart.

"I thought I could have had a decent career," Peppers said. "I was actually training that off-season to move my game to the outside. I was mainly an inside player during my career there playing the four and five, but that summer, I was training to move my game to the perimeter."

But as he thinks back, there's a hint of what might have been for Peppers.

His final college basketball game was in the Louisiana Superdome. Saints tackle Willie Roaf, now one of his fellow Pro Football Hall of Famers, was in the crowd that day, marveling at Curry and Peppers' ability in their second sports.

The Tar Heels didn't match their Final Four run from Peppers' first season, but in the second round of the tournament against Penn State, Peppers started and played 33 minutes, was 8-of-9 from the floor and 5-of-7 from the line, scored 21 points and had 10 rebounds.

For a part-time player, it was pretty impressive, but also a hint of what could have come next.

And there's a wistfulness in his tone when he talked about it recently in Canton. Football clearly worked out well for him. But he also believes in his basketball ability, which we only saw a glimpse of.

"I remember that a lot because I had a pretty decent game," Peppers said. "I think it was 21 and 10. Some of our star players didn't play as well, so we ended up losing. But that game was like, you know, maybe I could do this at the next level.

"But that was it; there were no more games."

Peppers said it while standing in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, steps away from where a bronze bust of him will reside in a few months.

But even that close to football immortality, basketball is never far away from Julius Peppers. It's as much a part of who he's been as those 159.5 sacks, or the nine Pro Bowls, or the gold jacket he'll put on in August and be able to wear the rest of his life.

You get the sense that as accomplished as he was at football, he still thinks about how good he could have been had he only played basketball.

"I don't know," he says. "We'll never know."

We saw hints of it a few decades ago, even if for a short time. But he did enough on the court in that short time to create memories that last and to make it an honest question of how high he could have climbed.

Peppers just smiles when he thinks about it.

To be greeted at the door by Bruce Smith and welcomed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and to be praised for his basketball savvy by Phil Ford.

I mean, there's only really one way to describe all that.

That's pretty cool.

View photos of Peppers alongside UNC coaches Roy Williams and Mack Brown and Panthers owner David Tepper at the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

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