CHAPEL HILL — Roy Williams had a game to prepare for Wednesday, but like millions of others across the country, the North Carolina basketball coach took time out of his daily schedule to watch the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush.
“It’s an interesting day,” Williams said after his Tar Heels beat UNC Wilmington 97-69 at the Smith Center. “I watched TV for almost three hours today. It wasn’t SportsCenter.
“(It’s the) most I’ve ever watched anything that wasn’t SportsCenter, except about the hurricane. But President Bush was a kinder, gentler person that set an example for what we need to be as a country. I was very appreciative of what he did for us.”
Wednesday was a national day of mourning for the 41st president, who died on Sunday at his home in Houston at the age of 94. His state funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., was televised live, featuring eulogies hailing Bush as a statesman, a war hero, a friend and a father.
Although Williams didn’t have a direct relationship with Bush, he did have a memorable encounter with the former president. It was a story he was itching to tell during his postgame press conference.
“I have a rule that I never take a phone call from anybody if I’ve got a player in my office,” the UNC coach said. “I can’t remember what year it was, but I’ve got a player in my office and my secretary opens the door. I looked her like, ‘What are you doing?’ And she said, Coach, excuse me but former President Bush is on the phone.”
Williams reminded the secretary of his no interruptions policy and instructed her to tell Bush to call him back.
“She gave me this look and she left,” Williams said. “Ten minutes later I finished with the player, so I went in and said, ‘Was that really President Bush?’ Or was one of my nutmeg buddies?”
Once he was convinced it really was the ex-president, he returned the call.
“I got on the phone and I said, ‘President Bush, I apologize but I have this policy that nobody is important enough to make me stop meeting with one of my players, even the former president of the United States,’” Williams said. “He laughed, he said, ‘I love that coach. Let me tell you, Jimmy Nance is the best name-dropper in the world. He’s the one who told me to call you.’ I said, ‘Good’ and he said, ‘Besides that, can I get two tickets for, I think it’s for my granddaughter for the game on Sunday.'”
It’s a story Nantz related on his broadcast of the 2010 Final Four in Houston, following a ceremony honoring Bush.
“He was so gracious and understood. He said, ‘I like that,’” Williams said of his potentially awkward interaction when the man that was once the leader of the free world. “Then he said, ‘I wish I could have been able to do that when I was president. I said, ‘You were president, you could have done anything.’”