Kanler Coker has certainly made the most of his opportunities.
Since making the transition from football to basketball the summer of 2015 at the University of North Carolina, the 2012 Flowery Branch graduate has maxed his potential as a fifth-year senior on the tail end of a fleeting, but well celebrated career with the Tar Heels.
Coker was part of a UNC squad which emerged as the only remaining No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament to reach the National Championship stage before falling short in stunning fashion against Villanova.
Now the Gainesville native is back in the Final Four on college basketball’s biggest stage for the second time as No. 1 seed North Carolina tips off tonight against No. 3 Oregon in Glendale, Ariz.
North Carolina (31-7) is in its 20th Final Four, while Oregon (33-5) in its second appearance faces huge historical implications. It is the furthest the Ducks have gone since the team won the inaugural championship in 1939 as the “Webfoots.”
These are things Coker only dreamed of as a young child growing up in Gainesville, who for many nights as a toddler nestled beside a Michael Jordan basketball in his crib. And at age 13, he declared he would one day play for the school.
Now twice making those dreams a reality, Coker continues to savor every minute since arriving in Glendale earlier in the week. His parents Miles and Sharon will be watching intently from the stands of University of Phoenix Stadium come tipoff.
“It’s a huge deal for me,” said Coker, who knows the end of the road is near. “I’ve had that mindset in the offseason, because I’ve realized this is it. I try to bust it every day, not take it for granted and be the best I can be.
“I understand the time’s running down, but we still gotta complete our mission.”
“He’s mature enough to realize what he’s getting to experience,” said Benjie Wood, Coker’s former basketball coach at North Hall and now head of the boys program at Gainesville High.
Wood knows exactly where he’ll be at 8:49 p.m. — hunkered down in front of a television to watch the national broadcast.
Coker filled Wood in on his many endeavors of the week when the two played catch up over the phone on Thursday.
“I mean, how many people in the history of basketball have gotten to experience going to two Final Fours? Very few, I would say. It’s been a great experience for him, and he had some great relationships, and I’m just happy to see him enjoy the ride.”
With only 21 appearances for 28 minutes this season, Coker hasn’t exactly seen an ample amount of playing time. He still approaches each game with the expectation he will see the court.
“From being on the team last year and this year, sometimes you’re like, ‘Eh, might not get in today,’ And sure enough you get in. I always expect to play. I always try to do my best in whatever that is,” Coker said.
Starter Isaiah Hicks never lets him forget. When the two aren’t lollygagging, Hicks constantly reminds his good friend to take the shot.
“He’ll always talk to me — ‘If you get in, do your thing out there, do what you do in practice.’ He’s always onto me about shooting,’” Coker said with a laugh.
The shining moment of Coker’s career came in the final minute of North Carolina’s first-round tournament game against Texas Southern on March 17.
With the outcome secured, Coker entered the game and took advantage of an open lane. The 6-foot-4 guard made the up-and-under reverse layup look almost effortless to score the 101st point for the Tar Heels. It had the entire North Carolina bench comprised of Hicks and the starters rocking and roaring in approval.
Junior starting forward and ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson called Coker’s surprise circus antics the “shot of the game” in the blowout victory.
Coker laughed when he caught word of Jackson’s postgame remarks.
“All my teammates are awesome. Definitely hearing that from him was an encouragement,” Coker said. “Just seeing the way the guys responded and how happy they were for me made me really appreciative of them. It really meant a lot.”
It has been 11 months and 27 days since the night Villanova stunned the University of North Carolina in the NCAA National Championship game — one still fresh in the minds of Kanler Coker and his University of North Carolina Tar Heels teammates.
“I remember like it was yesterday,” said Coker.
Coker was where he spent most nights for his career — courtside from the Tar Heels bench — when Villanova’s Ryan Archidiacono dribbled down court with 4.7 seconds on the clock, stopped in his tracks and turned at the top of the arc to underhand a pass to teammate Kris Jenkins, who from 25 feet along the right wing put up a heave with 1.1 seconds left. As the shot went through the net to give the Wildcats their second championship, an explosion of yellow and white confetti trickled down from above as a ground-shaking eruption of cheers ensued -- except from those wearing Carolina Blue.
“I just kept thinking, maybe the time ran out,” recalled Mr. Coker in hopes Jenkins' shot did not get off in time. Miles was with wife Sharon in the stands at that gut wrenching moment.
Last year’s heartbreak only prompted a new approach going into the offseason according to Coker, and now has put the Tar Heels on the cusp of another National Championship.
“Seeing how close we got last year, I had a feeling this year that could be our driving force in the offseason and all year, just to get back and finish the mission this time,” Coker said.
That pain wasn’t enough to steer Coker astray from making sure his team finished the mission.
“Obviously, Kanler doesn’t get a lot of playing time, but he’s been driven,” Miles said. “There’s four or five guys that don’t play that much, and they are determined to make these guys work so hard it will get them to where they win the championship.”
Coker can attest to the Tar Heels experiencing a not-so perfect season to get back to the dance. But in an NCAA tourney riddled with buzzer beaters and thrilling finishes, they added to the pot. Luke Maye’s two-point jumper leaving .3 seconds on the clock lifted the Tar Heel’s over No. 2 Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
“We did do what it takes to get back. And that is not easy,” Coker added. “There’s a lot of teams sitting at home right now. It’s how we overcame the downs and how we responded to coach (Williams).”
The task never seemed too daunting for Coker. After all, he’s had to overcome tougher hurdles in the past. The other driving force continues to be his younger brother Keaton, who died of brain cancer the summer of 2014.
It was typical brotherly love for siblings Kanler, Karson and Keaton. Keaton was Kanler’s No. 1 fan in the stands for football and basketball games at North Hall and Flowery Branch on Friday nights. In high school, Kanler was highly regarded at quarterback, ranked No. 72 in the nation by Scout.com by his senior year. But Keaton held on to the notion older brother would wear Carolina Blue on another surface.
And when a nagging elbow injury forced Kanler to hang up the football pads in 2015, the decision to join Roy Williams’ team as a walk on was automatic for Kanler.
Sharon said while her middle child’s work ethic in athletics was always off the charts, Keaton’s influence has given Kanler an extra gear these past two years.
In that first summer, He trimmed down to a lean 197 pounds to prepare for Williams' system. And by his final season, earned a scholarship.
Kanler, a double major in Communications and Sport Administration, is undergoing his internship with Providence Baptist Church in the state.
“He’s always been inspired by Keaton,” said Mrs. Coker. “That just maybe took it to another level. Both of Kanler’s brothers are his biggest fans.”
Kanler as well as his older brother Karson often help out with their family’s “Thumbs Up Mission,” a foundation created in Keaton’s honor back in 2014.
Coker will be back in his usual spot on the bench tonight, cheering his teammates on in any way he can while awaiting the chance to take the court, if not for the last time.
And in the back of his mind, Coker imagines younger brother Keaton offering words of encouragement: “You’ve come too far to only come this far, so finish the race.”