In his short two-game return stint as Carolina’s head football coach, Mack Brown has already achieved numerous admirable goals.
He’s reignited interest in Carolina football. His Tar Heels are surging on the recruiting trail. He’s won two games and has the program 2-0 against power five competition for the first time since 1997.
But he’s also done something even more incredible: he’s persuaded a college student to spend a Friday night with her parents.
Carolina travels to Wake Forest tomorrow night for a nonconference (yes, it’s a scheduled nonconference home-and-home, since the two teams meet infrequently in league play) matchup against the Demon Deacons. Interest is high. Carolina had returned tickets from its allotment to Wake last week; they had to call the Deacs this week and ask if they could have them back because interest in Chapel Hill was so high.
Our oldest daughter is a freshman at Carolina this year. Her first game in the student section was Saturday night against Miami. She’s a UNC football veteran and has been attending games virtually her entire life, but the atmosphere is a little different in the student section.
“It’s awesome,” she reported during the game against the Hurricanes. “So hot, but it’s awesome.”
So it’s impressive that Brown was able to persuade Sam Howell to come to Carolina, and to attract a terrific coaching staff, and rally the University community around lighting the Bell Tower. But right now, in our house, we’re more thankful that he created an environment for her first Carolina football game as a student that our daughter will always remember. The electricity in Kenan on Saturday night was something you don’t forget, and something you talk about five or ten or twenty years from now. Who you went with, what happened in the stands, how loudly you shouted the words to Hark the Sound after the game. (She’s not the only one—fresh off the Miami experience, student tickets for the Appalachian State game were claimed this morning in less than half an hour)
We are trying very hard not to be the parents that hang around their college freshman all the time. But we miss her in a way that you’ll understand one day when your kid goes off to college and after you move her in on a Thursday, you say, “See you this weekend, maybe?” and she responds, “How about next week?”
As we were already aware, she is strong and independent and eager to meet new people. From a parent’s perspective, we are alternately proud and miserable.
All of that led to this entirely unexpected text conversation earlier this week.
Me: “Do you want to see if any of your friends would want to go to the Wake game on Friday night at 6?”
Her: “Yes, I definitely want to talk to them, because I think they will want to go.”
Her (a couple hours later): “My suitemates are unsure and there are some other people going to a concert, so I would probably say it will just be me.”
Me (slightly stunned): “Do you want to go with us or would you rather not? If you want to go to the concert that’s fine.”
Her: “I would rather go to the game with y’all.”
Me: (Head exploding emoji)
It should be acknowledged that she will be mortified by this story, so she is not named here to try and preserve some level of anonymity. You understand, of course. If word gets out that she is hanging out with her parents and youngest brother on a Friday night, her social standing might not recover.
We used to take these games for granted. Of course we’d go to the game and of course we’d go together. But a month into college life, these occasions seem a little more precious. And we know that although we are obviously incredibly cool, we’re not so cool that she would turn down a Friday night in Chapel Hill with her friends unless Mack Brown had made football fun again.
So maybe Brown will deliver us all a victory and a 3-0 record on Friday night. Maybe he won’t. But he’s made Carolina football something no one wants to miss, even a college student with numerous other social options. So Friday night we’ll watch Chazz and Dazz and Sam, and we’ll get to spend a few hours with our little girl who grew up too fast, and it’s hard to imagine a better Friday night.
What a completely unpredictable, incredibly fun game in Durham. How in the world did Carolina just do that? It was a decisive 88-72 victory in which Carolina never trailed.
Sometimes, it helps to have seniors. Luke Maye had a mammoth 30 points and 15 rebounds, and Cameron Johnson had a “quiet” 26 points and seven rebounds. Four of Maye’s five career 30-point games have now come against other Triangle schools.
Say that again: Maye just put up 30 against top-ranked Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium. There will be time to appreciate his incredible career in a few months, but for now: wow. Admittedly, Zion Williamson leaving the game 34 seconds in changed the matchups, but Maye mostly did whatever he wanted in his 38 minutes.
And what about Johnson, who came to Chapel Hill largely as a three-point shooter and just scored 26 points against Duke without making a three.
But Duke had two scorers in Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett who matched Maye and Johnson almost shot for shot. The difference in the game was that Carolina had more than just that duo. Garrison Brooks made six of his seven shots and scored 14 points, Seventh Woods added five big points, and Coby White scored nine in an off performance.
The game was decided under the basket. The Tar Heels had the edge on points in the paint by a whopping 62-28 margin, and Carolina also won the rebounding battle, 46-41.
Both these teams have generated a considerable amount of offense on second chances. Although Duke had more offensive rebounds than the Tar Heels (13-10), there were many more offensive rebound opportunities for the Devils, as they missed 47 shots compared to just 37 misses for the visitors. Carolina was also more efficient with their offensive boards, as they had a 14-10 second chance points edge.
It didn’t feel like this watching the game—possibly because every Tar Heel turnover felt like a crisis—but Duke actually had 20 turnovers to Carolina’s 15. And the Heels turned those 20 miscues into 19 points. Reddish and Barrett had nine of Duke’s 20 turnovers, while Maye and Johnson combined for two.
All those times Roy Williams talks about the importance of getting the ball inside, all those times he preaches about the value of tough post play…it’s because of nights like this. The Tar Heels shot a miserable 2-for-20 from the three-point line, but somehow won the game. Johnson, Maye and Brooks combined to shoot a blistering 60 percent on two-point shots (30 for 50).
The Tar Heel freshmen won’t put this one in a time capsule. White had six turnovers and never got on track offensively, and Nassir Little wasn’t effective in his 11 minutes, getting just one rebound and committing three turnovers.
But even without Leaky Black and Sterling Manley, Carolina somehow had enough to overcome an off night from both freshmen and the team-wide bad perimeter shooting. A big reason for that was the willingness of everyone who played to put themselves in harm’s way. Kenny Williams didn’t score until the game’s closing seconds but drew three charges, Seventh Woods drew a charge, and Brandon Robinson nearly lost a tooth for his trouble.
Speaking of Woods, what a great night for the junior. In a game where White wasn’t himself, the junior reserve turned a seven-point lead into a 13-point advantage in his first stretch, took the Heels from up seven to up 10 at the end of the first half, and added another two points to the lead in a key second half stretch.
Roy Williams now has eight wins over a number-one ranked team, the most in college basketball history. The Tar Heels as a program now have 14 wins over the #1 ranked squad, also the most in the country.
Don’t forget that the next two games are against Florida State and Syracuse, the two teams that just so happen to be directly behind the three-way tie at the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Carolina needs big, rowdy crowds at the Smith Center for the next two games as they continue to battle for ACC and NCAA tournament seedings.
Maybe you’ll see this on national television, maybe you won’t: Carolina has now won three of the last four games against Duke.
Coby White was sensational in Carolina’s road win at Georgia Tech. The freshman shot 7-for-13 and handed out eight assists, which means he either scored or assisted on over half of the Tar Heels’ 29 field goals. White also had just two turnovers. He continues to be able to get his shot almost any time he wants it, and he’s starting to do a better job of identifying when he wants it. Against an offensively challenged team like the Yellow Jackets, White’s offense plus Cameron Johnson’s hot shooting (8-for-10 from the field for 22 points) was far too much to overcome.
It’s fortunate for the Tar Heels that Georgia Tech couldn’t supplement their paint scoring with some three-point accuracy. The Jackets punished Carolina in the lane in the first half (holding a 16-8 edge in points in the paint) but shot just 1-for-10 from the three-point line. Tech finished just 2-for-16 from the three-point line.
The Jackets haven’t been shooting the ball well from the perimeter all year, so give the UNC defense credit for shutting off their frequent source of offense—the free throw line. Tech had been the second-best team in the league at getting to the line in conference games, and the Tar Heels allowed them a very manageable 13 free throws. That’s occasionally been an area where Carolina has struggled this year, so this category was a noteworthy improvement.
Nassir Little didn’t score a ton, but he was very aggressive on the glass and collected four rebounds in the first half, a couple of which came in heavy traffic. For Carolina to play smaller, Little has to rebound, and he did a solid job on Tuesday. He finished with seven rebounds, played the fourth-most minutes on the team, and scored nine points. If that’s an off night from the freshman, Carolina will take it.
Nice to see Roy Williams using his use it or lose it timeout when Carolina had an inbounds play under the basket with 1.0 seconds remaining in the first half. It very nearly worked, as Garrison Brooks couldn’t quite finish a tomahawk dunk on a lob pass.
Cameron Johnson took some heat from Kenny Williams last year for a dunk that Williams called an “exaggerated layup,” referring to Johnson’s lack of explosiveness. After offseason hip surgery, what a change to watch Johnson take flight and throw down a second half dunk over the Jackets’ 6-foot-9 James Banks. Johnson said during the fall that he felt physically able to make plays he couldn’t make before, and it showed on Tuesday.
As always in Atlanta, there was a great turnout of Carolina blue in the McCamish Pavilion stands. In addition, there was a sizable contingent of former players on hand. George Lynch, the head coach at Clark Atlanta University, was behind the Carolina bench, along with his assistant coach, 2005 national champion Melvin Scott. 1993 national champion Kevin Salvadori was there, as was 2017 champ Kanler Coker. It’s always fun to watch different generations of Tar Heels connect. Lynch and his children lingered after the game because his daughter is a big fan of Cam Johnson and wanted to meet him. You’ll hear more from Lynch next week on the Carolina Insider podcast in a one-of-a-kind interview in which he and Eric Montross reminisced about the 1993 team, Dean Smith and more.
Brandon Robinson continues to be a valuable asset. Playing in front of plenty of friends and family in his home state, plus his high school coach, Robinson finished with seven points and made several heady plays off the bench (there’s much more on Robinson’s big night–and how it washed away the memories of a dismal trip to Georgia his freshman season–in the postgame column here).
If you need something to be concerned about, Georgia Tech had some success against the Tar Heels in the paint. Carolina won the rebounding battle, but narrowly, at 39-34. The Jackets had an edge on second chance points (8-1), but the Tar Heels actually had a better offensive rebounding percentage because Tech missed so many shots, and therefore there were so many more offensive rebound chances for Josh Pastner’s team. Tech still had 36 points in the paint and went through a stretch in the first half when they were having good success piercing the Tar Heel defense by throwing the ball straight into the middle. Carolina will need to be stronger against that type of play against the league’s better teams.
And, of course, there are the turnovers. Carolina committed 15 of them, and over half were from the senior combination of Luke Maye (5) and Kenny Williams (3). Again, it just looks like turnovers are going to be a fact of life with this team. If shooting 13-for-27 from the three-point line is also a fact of life, that’s not a terrible tradeoff. There’s no guarantee the Heels can sustain that level of shooting. The 29 three-pointers made in the last two games are the most in UNC history in consecutive games.
The 2018-19 season now becomes just the fourth time in the Roy Williams era—and the fourth time in the last 25 years—that the Tar Heels have posted two ACC road wins of at least 20 points in the same season. That’s certainly partially due to the expanded league (it was much tougher to do it when you only played seven or eight road games and the depth was a little more consistent) but it’s also testament to this team’s ability to put points up quickly. Just in the last two games, runs against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech have been devastating.
About those runs, from Johnson in the postgame: “The offense is clicking because we have a lot of guys who can score from anywhere…We can find scoring from so many different areas and that’s hard to guard because you can’t key in on any one guy. We did a good job scoring in transition in the second half.”
The immediate question in the aftermath of the game will be the health of Leaky Black, who went down with an ankle injury in the second half. Roy Williams referred to it as a sprained ankle in the postgame. Black had already been playing through some knee pain this year, and his availability for Saturday’s key road game at Louisville will be determined later this week.
As for that game at Louisville–it’s likely to dictate how you feel about the first half of this ACC season. Win, and the Tar Heels look like league contenders. Suffer another outcome like the one from the first meeting between the two teams, and there will be questions about whether Carolina simply took advantage of a softer league slate in January.
Josh Pastner is an excellent defender. The Tech coach was very active on the sideline when Carolina shot at the basket in front of the Jacket bench in the first half.
Ending 2018 by contracting the flu gives you lots of free time. I have watched a lot of minutes of a lot of bowl games I don’t really care about (that being said, Go Aggies). Just this afternoon, I watched Top Gun and Days of Thunder back to back, and the pattern is still full and rubbin’ is still racin’.
And I also was left with quite a bit of time to look back through the 2018 archives and pull ten favorites. This started as a list of five, but was a useful reminder that even in a year everyone seems desperate to classify as a down one, the Tar Heels still gave us a ton of memorable afternoons and evenings.
So these were ten of my favorite stories from 2018. If I missed yours, let me know below.
Jan. 17: Winning Here. I had almost completely forgotten about Carolina’s home win over Clemson, which was one of the most fun nights of 2018 in the Smith Center. There were two moments that stand out to me: Woody Durham rising and waving to the crowd from the mezzanine on the night it was announced he’d made the Hall of Fame, and the raucous student section when it was announced classes had been canceled the next day.
Jan. 31: The Testimony. I promise, not all these columns are from games against Clemson. The Tar Heels lost this game, but they played an excellent second half after some halftime motivation from Roy Williams and Joel Berry. My favorite part of this story was the anecdote about Berry and Williams having a midweek conversation that was a classic window into what kind of player Berry was in Chapel Hill.
Feb. 9: Live With This. Carolina wins a home game over Duke in front of one of the best crowds in Smith Center history. Enough said.
Feb. 18: The Rim Protector. If you’re reading this, you already know I love Joel Berry. This was such a completely different (and unexpected) kind of Berry play but so perfectly emblematic of the person he is. Also, big road wins are almost always extremely fun to write about.
Feb. 21: A Winning Room. This was the kind of story I liked reading when I was growing up soaking in every word I could read about Kenny Smith and J.R. Reid and George Lynch. So those are also the kinds of stories I like writing, with a little bit of behind the scenes flavor. You already saw the game on television, so I want to show you a little bit of what you didn’t see.
March 8: Name on the Back. That pregame hug between Wes Durham and Roy Williams is high on the list of 2018 moments I remember most clearly. This was a very, very emotional night for Carolina fans, as Woody Durham had passed away less than 24 hours earlier. But there was still a game to play.
March 10: The Way It Is. If pushed, I would probably say this was my favorite game of 2018. It was such a ferocious win, such a statement win for the program, and at the time, felt like it had important consequences. It most definitely felt like a late 1980’s Carolina-Duke ACC Tournament game.
August 25: Final Floor. All the stories from reunion weekend were fun, but this was the one where every single moment was one you wanted to freeze and remember. Roy Williams and Hubert Davis trying valiantly not to cry. Marvin Williams’ great speech. The mixture between vastly different eras in Tar Heel basketball–Marvin meeting Joe Quigg was one of those indelible moments. And, of course, seeing Roy Williams’ name on the Smith Center court for the first time.
Nov. 9: The Right Place. All the discussion about Little over the last few weeks. And every single time his name comes up, I think back to this night at Elon, and the comments from the freshman and his dad, and I find something more consequential to worry about.
Dec. 15: A Grownup. Garrison Brooks impressed me on this evening about as much as any player ever has in a postgame setting.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read the ten of these stories above, and the over 100 more that were posted on GoHeels.com. Getting to be part of the way you experience Carolina athletics is one of the greatest privileges any Tar Heel could ever have.
We were walking through a back hallway of Quicken Loans Arena on a February Friday night around 7 p.m. when a friend nudged us. “That’s the three-year-old,” he said, and then introduced us to Boone Church.
Boone looks too big to be a three-year-old, which is exactly right. He’s not a three-year-old, he’s the three-year-old—as in, the inspiration for the song by his dad, Eric Church, entitled Three Year-Old.
Boone has the type of personality that makes you pretty sure he’s going to be the inspiration for quite a few more songs over the course of his life. He’s five now, and is primarily interested in his father’s career because it means he gets to shoot baskets at a lot of really cool arenas. Less than three hours before Friday night’s first song, he was shooting hoops in the Cleveland Cavaliers practice gym.
“Who do you like better?” a security guard asked him, “LeBron or Kyrie?”
Boone was not impressed. “I don’t really like the Cavs,” he said. “I like Minnesota.”
His dad did a doubletake. His firstborn had not previously mentioned an affinity for the Timberwolves, but the tour had recently passed through the Target Center, so anything was possible.
It was like this every night on the Holdin’ My Own Tour. Backstage, there was a tightknit family of musicians and crew. Every night, they put on what was the biggest tour in America, and then they tore it all down and hauled it off to another city. On that particular day in Cleveland, they arrived from Indianapolis at 4 a.m. After the longest show of the tour so far—more tickets were sold at Quicken Loans Arena than any stop so far on the tour, so Eric felt inspired to give them the most songs yet on the tour, putting 36 songs on his set list and then adding a couple more on the end just to make sure everyone got their money’s worth; he took the stage just after 8:15 p.m. and played until midnight, with a 20-minute intermission–they packed up and headed for Auburn Hills, Michigan.
During the audible portion of the second act—Church is touring without an opening act, instead choosing to play for three hours every night, and on this night closer to four—the Granite Falls, N.C. native chuckled when he looked at the set list and saw what was supposed to come next.
“Before today, I had never heard this song,” he told the crowd. “But my manager is a Cleveland native, and he was singing it. And I told him I didn’t know this song, but I’d like to know it.”
So, as the unimaginably talented are known to do, Church simply learned “My Town,” a beloved Cleveland anthem by the Michael Stanley Band, in an afternoon. And there he was playing it in front of 20,000 people.
“My band and I,” he told the crowd, “have played this song a total of zero times together. Zero.”
And that’s what keeps them coming back. Because you never know when you might hear something for the first time, or when Church might decide to play “Standing Their Ground” as a tribute to first responders. The faithful were equally happy to hear “Two Pink Lines,” Church’s first single and one he hasn’t played on recent tours. It’s back on the set list now, because, well, there are three dozen other songs also on the set list. The singer makes certain every show is different.
It would be easier to simply replicate the same show every night, and it would still rock, and everyone would still go home happy. But it wouldn’t be Church, and that’s why he purposefully left a spot in his set list to rotate in a new group of songs every night. If someone is going to the show in Cleveland tonight and Auburn Hills tomorrow—and he inspires the type of fanaticism that means someone certainly did—he wants them to have two unique experiences.
In April, we went to the show in Pittsburgh on a Friday and Cincinnati on a Saturday. We saw Church perform nearly four dozen different songs on those two nights alone. In Pittsburgh, we met Buckshot, a West Virginia native who turned to us after every song and screamed, “This is America right here, man!” In Cincinnati, we met Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo of the world champion Chicago Cubs, who seemed equally as thrilled as Buckshot, if perhaps a little more reserved. Church has a way of taking stars and making them seem very normal, which is exactly that same normalcy that seems to appeal to his fans.
At the Phoenix stop on the tour, Michael Phelps hung out backstage, looking more like a music fan than a swimmer with 23 Olympic gold medals. He attended the national championship game with Church later that week, just two people at the very top of their respective professions watching a college basketball game. This was just a normal day on the Holdin’ My Own tour.
Church’s guitar tech, Michael Joe Sagraves, is a diehard Kentucky fan. He’s the one who whispers Carolina basketball score updates to Church when the singer is onstage and the Tar Heels are playing. Church isn’t a bandwagon Carolina fan. He’s hardcore, and spent one very late evening after the Cincinnati show analyzing the 2018 lineup possibilities if Tony Bradley decided to turn pro.
At one stop on the tour, Sagraves was asked for his first reaction when Church told him he wanted to plan an entire tour of three-hour shows that were different every night. No one in music does this. No one in music even considers this.
“I thought he was crazy,” MJ says.
Maybe he is. It was surprisingly grueling just to watch the two-set performance as a fan, so there’s no telling how demanding it is to actually perform it. But yet, there is Church in his t-shirt, jeans, and aviators, and when you looked around the arena, every single person—every single one, even those in section 202, as far as possible from the stage while still being located inside the arena—were on their feet. Go to any event in any arena anywhere, and that’s how you know it’s connected with the folks who bought the tickets. The lower level is on their feet because they’re close to what’s happening. The upper level only rises when they feel something, and every one of them felt something on this tour.
It was very much like going to a revival. “I’ll tell you what,” Church told every audience. “I’m going to give you everything I’ve got, and you’ve got to give me everything you’ve got right back.” Both parties to the deal took it very seriously.
Before the Cleveland show, Boone was relaying his exploits of the day, which included whipping a friend in a shooting contest.
“Maybe you can give me a shout out if you get on stage tonight,” the friend told him.
And then the five-year-old left absolutely no doubt whose son he is.
“If I get on stage?” he asked incredulously. “If I ever get off stage.”
It’s not entirely true to say that my main reason for writing a book about the 1957 Carolina basketball team was to meet Frank Deford. But it was one of the primary reasons.
In the early 2000s, I was working on a book on the 1957 Tar Heels. I talked to the usual sources–all the players were amazingly generous with their time, and I was lucky enough to spend hours with each of the five starters. But I needed more sources. I spent days in the UNC library, learning all those research skills I foolishly ignored during college.
In the course of that research, I came across a Sports Illustrated story on the ’57 team written by Frank Deford. In my eyes, Deford was almost as big a star as Lennie Rosenbluth or Pete Brennan. I’d been a subscriber to SI since I was about eight years old. When I was growing up, it was harder to admire writers who weren’t from your immediate area, because you couldn’t just go online and read their stories. But Deford was different, because he was national.
In fact, at one point, he was The National, which was a briefly-lived national sports newspaper in 1990. Deford was the editor of what I thought was one of the greatest ideas ever–a newspaper without all the stuff I didn’t care about (news) but with all the stuff I did care about (sports). Apparently, however, no one else agreed, and the newspaper died after 18 months. But during the 18 months it was alive, my dad would bring me a copy anytime he came across one, and I would read it from cover to cover. It was around this same time that I realized my basketball and baseball skills were not going to allow me to play in the NBA and/or MLB for more than ten or 12 years, so I would have to find another way to spend my life going to games. Deford, it seemed to me, had figured it out. I wanted to be like him.
The fact that Deford had written about the ’57 team, in my mind, made him a perfectly logical source. It seemed completely improbable that I might simply call up The Frank Deford and ask him for an interview. Somehow, though, I came across his email address on the internet. I emailed him, expecting to never hear from him again.
He responded within the hour. He invited me to visit him in New York City the next time I was in town, and a couple months later, there I was, meeting him on a street corner in the city. He was much taller than I expected but dressed exactly like I expected, wearing a suit and tie and a scarf. He looked like he had just left Frank Sinatra’s house. Today, we think of sportswriters as being somewhat nerdy. Deford was cool. Not sportswriter cool. But real life cool. Put him in a room with athletes or singers or movie stars, and he fit in. Maybe that’s why he wrote so well about them. He understood them better than those of us who looked up to them.
At this point in my life, it’s fair to say I have done thousands of interviews. I would rank sitting in The Frank Deford’s den as among the five times I have been most nervous doing an interview in my entire life. This guy had interviewed every person who mattered in sports in the last half-century. And now, I was asking him questions.
He gave me nearly an hour, which was about 57 minutes more than I deserved. The audio of the interview is attached. We talked mostly about Wilt Chamberlain, because Deford had covered him extensively and I needed some color on Carolina’s mythical opponent in the ’57 title game. But we also talked about the Tar Heels; Deford was a close friend of 1957 point guard Tommy Kearns. I don’t expect you to listen to an hour of a starstruck kid interviewing one of his idols, but here are some interview highlights:
10:00: While describing Frank McGuire’s decision to send the diminutive Kearns out to jump center against Chamberlain, Deford said, “It was a mean thing to do.” I had never thought of it this way.
14:00: Deford’s description of driving through North Carolina in 1957 when the Tar Heels returned home, and listening to the celebration on the radio.
24:40: Deford on what struck him about the 1957 team.
26:10: Deford on the South. “I was from Baltimore, and I didn’t know grits existed.”
34:30: Deford on the atmosphere of college basketball in the 1950s and “snake pits.”
38:15: Deford on the impact of the 1957 title on North Carolina basketball. “They made basketball so much more of a national game.”
42:20: Comparing and contrasting Frank McGuire and Dean Smith. “Oh, God. Night and day.” Who else in the world would describe Frank McGuire as “someone out of a Eugene O’Neill play”? If you’re only going to listen to one clip from the interview, this is the one.
49:12: “A fascinating Dean Smith story,” and how a Bear Bryant story nearly torpedoed a Deford profile of Smith. “It was one of the most intriguing episodes in my journalistic career.”
Let me be clear: there was absolutely no reason Frank Deford should have talked to me. He had no idea who I was. I was probably the least significant person he talked to in the entire year of 2005. And yet, there I was, sitting in his den. It was an experience I will never forget.
In 2005, I had a two-year-old daughter. In my quest to read everything Deford-related, I’d stumbled upon his book Alex: The Life of a Child. It was completely different than anything else I’d read by him, and it was even more powerful. I turned the pages and cried. Before I left, I told him how moving the book had been to me.
“Thank you for being part of my life,” he told me. It was exactly what I should have been saying to him. But I wasn’t really surprised that he could say what he wanted to say better than me, and he could also say what I wanted to say better than me. He was Frank Deford, and he made a life out of doing exactly that.
The team that made me fall in love with Carolina basketball was the 1986-87 squad. They had Dean Smith, and they had Jeff Lebo, but more importantly to a short nine-year-old, they had Kenny Smith. The point guard was from Queens (Archbishop Molloy, and I can tell you that without looking it up, probably from the endless afternoons mock-announcing the UNC starting lineup in my driveway, culminating with the team’s lesser-known point guard from Cary…Adam Lucas) and he possessed a cool nickname, “The Jet,” and he did awesome dunks.
I loved that team. I cried when they lost to Syracuse in the regional final. My mom asked if she could do anything to make it better. “Kill Rony Seikaly,” I replied, and immediately got a stern lecture on the appropriateness of committing murder for a Final Four appearance.
Most people believe that type of passion is genetically passed on to our kids. I don’t think so. My youngest son first developed it because of Kendall Marshall’s kindness, and the way Marshall made him feel like a member of the team even when Asher was just an eight-year-old ballboy.
My youngest daughter, meanwhile, fell in love with dance and tolerated our sports obsession. She is an incredibly talented dancer—that, too, is a talent that can be obtained without genetics, apparently—who devotes dozens of hours each week to dance while also managing to make straight A’s at a demanding school.
She attended games, but just as much for the social scene—and to laugh at her sometimes crazy dad—as for the basketball. I knew she wasn’t addicted like the rest of us, and in a way, that was good, because it forced me to learn about her world instead of cramming her into mine.
But something happened this season. She wanted to go to more games. She had favorite players and secondary favorite players. The night of a home game she had to miss because of dance, I called her thirty minutes before tipoff.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Listening to the pregame show,” she said, as though she had been tuning in to Jones and Eric for her pregame insight for all her life.
I picked her up from dance one Monday night, and she asked, “Isn’t the radio show on?”
Whose daughter was this?
She follows all the players on Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat and probably other platforms I’m not cool enough to know about. At school, she exchanges smack talk with friends who are Duke fans.
All of this was prelude to the Final Four in Phoenix. Our entire family went, with my wife sitting with our four kids in the stands while I was doing “work” with the Tar Heel Sports Network and GoHeels.com. After the championship game, I wandered onto the court and stood directly beside the team’s podium while One Shining Moment played on the arena video boards. Even when I was announcing the lineups in the driveway, I never dreamed of that moment.
Then I dashed into the stands. I circled behind my family and came up behind them. McKay was closest to the aisle. I tapped her on the shoulder, she turned around, and we hugged. And while I was hugging her, I realized she was crying tears of pure happiness.
That will be her moment, forever. Someday (in about 20 years or so) she’ll be trying to explain to some knuckleheaded boy who isn’t good enough for her why she needs to watch the Carolina game on TV instead of going out to eat, or one day she’ll be telling her friends why she’s staying in on a March night instead of going out with them. She’s going to trace it back to the night of April 3 in Phoenix, the night Tar Heel basketball moved her to happy tears, one of the most powerful human emotions that exists.
There are so many ways to express joy. There is clapping and cheering and leaping. But when you get to that certain level of elation—and there are only a tiny finite number of times in our lives when we’re able to reach that peak of sheer happiness—there’s nothing you can do except cry.
That’s what made the above video so powerful. Until that moment, did you realize how completely emotionally invested these Tar Heels were in winning? We’ve been lucky enough to see Carolina basketball players celebrate national titles multiple times in the past. We’ve never seen an entire team this completely overwhelmed.
And there was McKay, crying those same tears.
April 4 is when she fell in love with Carolina basketball, and I was there to see it. You’ve been there and I’ve been there and now, she’s there too. I feel a little guilty. Not every season—let’s be honest, virtually no season—is like this one. Because she’s hooked, she’ll experience heartbreak and disappointment and stress.
But she’ll also have some of the very best and unforgettable moments of her life, and she’ll have heroes, and someday she’ll hug a stranger in an arena and it will seem perfectly normal. She’s a 13-year-old girl, so she has plenty to cry about. School is hard and friends are tricky and parents are so, so weird and often embarrassing. But she found something to care so deeply about that she could be so happy it makes her cry. Roy Williams and Kennedy Meeks and Joel Berry and all the rest of the Tar Heels gave her that opportunity.
On Tuesday, I arrived home after the Smith Center welcome home celebration and found the following note on my desk:
She’s hooked, in the same way that I was and the same way my dad was and the same way my grandfather was and in the same way that we all were. This is that moment, right now, when she found something that will matter in her life. Some of us find it when we’re announcing the lineups in the driveway and some of us find it in college and some of us marry into it. But all of us remember when it happened for us, and hers is…now, 2017, the year she watched through happy tears as Carolina cut down the nets.
I always knew that at some point I would have to deal with the reality that she might fall in love. I just didn’t expect it to be with the Tar Heels.
I think I’d be writing about Carolina sports as therapy even if there was no GoHeels.com. The happy surprise is that other Tar Heel fans actually read those stories, but even if they didn’t, I think I’d need an outlet to try and rationalize Kris Jenkins or salute Marcus Paige. The fact that some of you find something worthwhile in those words is what enables me to have a job.
In looking back at the columns from 2016, I felt reasonably confident that the postgame column from the loss to Villanova would have the biggest readership. I had no idea about the others. Here are, then, the five most-read GoHeels columns of the year. Thanks to everyone for reading, and for helping keep me sane.
April 5: Proud. These end of season columns are the absolute worst to write. Not only was it the end of a basketball season, but it was also the end of Carolina careers for Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige and Joel James, and I think that’s what connected with readers. Plus, in the immediate hours after the championship game, Kris Jenkins’ shot was everywhere, and the overwhelming national storyline was what a great game it had been. Carolina fans needed somewhere to turn that understood that in their minds, it wasn’t a great game, that it was a horribly awful game. Hopefully, this story provided some of that, while also reminding everyone that it was a pretty incredible season (and four years).
March 24: A Loss Beyond Words. This one surprised me. Written in the buildup to the Sweet 16 game in Philadelphia, it wasn’t really about basketball at all, other than the way basketball brings a family together. But this story was mostly about an unimaginable tragedy that ripped a family apart, as a house fire in Virginia killed two boys and left their parents—including hardcore Carolina fan Lindsay McKinnon—wondering what to do next. Talking to Tom McKinnon on the phone was one of the hardest interviews I’ve ever done.
December 17: Hate the Game. Thanks to the state of Kentucky and one specific UK writer who misconstrued a key line for quite a few of the clicks on this one. Still, it might have been the best Carolina basketball game of calendar year 2016—except for the outcome. There’s a good chance these two teams meet again in approximately three months.
March 28: Priceless. Probably my favorite column of the year, because it was such a prototypical Roy Williams story. His Easter egg hunts are legendary among his family, and you just knew he’d find a way to have one even while coaching his team to the Final Four. The image of Williams hiding Easter eggs near the team hotel while the rest of the Carolina world was stressing out over the regional final is a great one. It was a nice reminder that these people we see on television and on the sidelines are, ultimately, just people.
October 1: Believe It. I didn’t plan to write this story. But watching Nick Weiler tomahawk chop down the field in Tallahassee after his game-winning field goal over Florida State, it just seemed necessary. And the response speaks to just how hungry Carolina fans are for a football winner. At the time, it felt like one of the biggest wins in modern Tar Heel gridiron history. Given how the season turned out, perhaps it’s been lessened somewhat. But the fact remains that Carolina football is now on the level that going into Tallahassee and emerging with a win doesn’t seem so impossible anymore, and that’s progress.
Thanks again for reading in 2016, and for making it possible for me to share my passion for the Tar Heels with you. Looking forward to even more fun stories in 2017.
Of all the World Series moments I’ve been lucky enough to witness over the past week, in a week that contained maybe the best World Series and best single World Series game ever, the most unforgettable didn’t even happen on the field.
My son, Asher, and I attended Games 3, 4 and 5 at Wrigley Field this past weekend. We arrived to Game 3 early, of course, so we could do our traditional walk around the stadium and then settle into our seats early in order to maximize our obsessive nervousness.
About 30 minutes after we sat down, our seatmates arrived next to us. As soon as he sat down, the man next to me, who was about 50 years old, began rummaging through his bag. He moved aside a commemorative program, took out a World Series t-shirt and shook it out. Whatever he was looking for, he couldn’t find it.
He stood up and checked his pockets. Nothing. Then looked back through the bag, and finally exhaled. “Here we go,” he said.
He’d brought a photo of his dad in a Cubs hat. He pulled out a roll of tape and affixed the photo to the rail in front of us, where he left it for the entire game. “Died a few years ago,” he told me. “Wanted him to be able to see the Cubs in the World Series.”
To me, that’s the Cubs.
I’m often asked about why I’m a Cubs fan. I don’t have a good answer. They were always on WGN when I came home from school, and I fell in love with Harry Caray (“You know, Steve, Gallaraga spelled backwards is…Agarallag”) and Ryne Sandberg. Most other kids liked the Braves, and a few liked the Orioles, and some liked the Yankees. I stuck with the Cubs. My parents took me to Wrigley Field in the mid-1980s, it soon became an annual trip, and the bond was sealed.
We took my grandparents on at least one of those visits, and I’ve got a photo of myself sitting in Section 218, row 8, with my grandfather—which is the exact same seats where Asher and I watched an NLCS victory over the Dodgers this year. The most recent piece of jewelry I gave my wife is a pendant that contains the logo from a game-used baseball that was used in the game played on her birthday at Wrigley Field this year. The fact that I married someone who considers this a cool gift is enough to make me believe in the idea of soul mates.
Through the years of Jody Davis and Doug Dascenzo and Moises Alou, sometimes my dad and I would ask each other, “Can you imagine what it would be like if the Cubs were in the World Series?”
Of course we could not imagine this because it was unimaginable. We often told people that the Cubs were the universe’s way of keeping us humble. Any time we felt too arrogant watching the perennial greatness of Carolina basketball, we’d remember that the Cubs season was just a few weeks away.
But we kept going back. There is something about a game at Wrigley, about the neighborhood and the way the city supports the team that makes a city of three million feel like a small-town high school football cheerleading squad. Walking down Michigan Avenue last weekend during the World Series, I almost expected to see Garrett Popcorn and Do-Rite Donuts and the Drake Hotel closed tight with a “Gone to the game” sign on the front door.
One of the most striking parts of attending the World Series at Wrigley was the sheer happiness of everyone within six blocks of the field. Police stopped to take pictures. Fans offered to buy strangers a drink, so amazed were we that we were here, at Wrigley Field, watching the World Series. Can you take a picture of us with the scoreboard in the background? Of course I can. Can you get one of us, too?
Then it was Game Seven. Getting to Cleveland and finding tickets was going to be a challenge, and I somberly told Asher the odds of the Cubs actually winning the game were very slim. You know…down 3-1, road game, history, all that.
But we went. Conservatively, the Progressive Field crowd was at least 40 percent Cubs fans. Our section was almost entirely blue. We sat one row behind two brothers from Chicago who’d driven six hours to be there, and next to a mom and her son who had driven eight. Some games you attend with friends. This one was for family.
After nine innings and a rain delay and four hours, my teeth hurt. Around the top of the tenth, I suddenly felt my molars aching. It didn’t make a lot of sense, until I realized I’d been gritting my teeth for at least the last hour. The Cubs don’t win these games. Maybe you have a light understanding of that fact because, well, they’re the Cubs.
Cubs fans have lived it. You know that sense you get about Carolina basketball, that they could come back at any time and any close game is a probable win? Cubs fans feel the exact opposite.
I attended the Bartman game with my dad in 2003. We woke up the next morning and the local Chicago news was broadcasting live from outside his house. I’ve watched 100-loss seasons. I’ve seen playoff teams with potential be swept by nondescript opponents.
This group was different. Somehow, and I’m still not sure how—but I intend to find out with repeated viewings for the rest of my living years—they did it. KB and Rizz and Dex and Grandpa and Zorilla and Schwarber and…well, when we’d jumped and screamed and high-fived and stood watching the celebration, the Cubs fan next to us said, “The Cubs just won the World Series, and we were here to see it,” and I got a little misty because that one sentence said it all. You can dream of Carolina winning a national title because it has happened. But dreaming of the Cubs winning the World Series felt more like believing in Peter Pan, where Peter is a light-hitting infielder signed to an exorbitant contract who makes too many errors and is untradeable.
I hugged that guy. On Wednesday night, I hugged lots of people I don’t know. I am not a hugger. But what I learned is that when the Cubs win the World Series, I hug like Jim Valvano.
After Wednesday’s game, after multiple renditions of “Go Cubs Go” and after multiple hugs with complete strangers and after the Cleveland police had to tell we tens of thousands of Cubs fans that we were required to leave Progressive Field even though I fully believe some of us were prepared to sleep there, we finally found a cab.
In the car, Asher and I talked about the game’s biggest moments, about Grandpa Rossy’s home run and Ben Zobrist’s (“BENNY!”) huge hit and Miguel Montero’s extra-innings single and the Indians fan behind us that bellowed throughout the entire game except for the last inning. I looked over around 1:30 a.m. and noticed that Asher’s eyes would intermittently get heavy between his recaps of the biggest plays.
With two outs in the Cleveland tenth, I had started videoing each pitch in the hopes of capturing the historic moment. But then the Indians began getting hits, and you know what that means—my videos were causing the Cubs pitching to struggle. So I stopped taking video, which means I don’t really know what happened when Kris Bryant fielded the final out and threw to Anthony Rizzo to set off an incredible celebration.
We talked about what we remembered of the final out, which we’ll begin watching hundreds of times in the days to come. “I think,” I told Asher, “that I might have picked you up in the air and spun you around.”
He grinned. “You did,” he agreed, and his head dropped onto my shoulder.
The weather could be bad at Kenan Stadium on Saturday.
That’s not meant as a deterrent. In fact, it’s meant as encouragement. That’s right–I think you should sit in the pouring rain, with water dripping into your shoes, and wear clothes that are still a little damp several days from now.
Doesn’t it sound glorious?
Kenan Stadium is one of the most beautiful places in America to watch a college football game. But some of those postcard sunny days can start to melt together in your memory. The rainy/cold/terrible weather games, you never forget.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of bad weather Tar Heel games (I can already hear my dad telling me I forgot the freezing cold Peach Bowl in Atlanta in 1983). But it is a list of the five most memorable bad weather Carolina football games I can remember since I began regularly attending games in the mid-1980s. Will Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech be added to this list? It looks like a good possibility, which means anyone who turns down a chance to sit in Kenan is turning down a chance to have a story to tell for decades to come.
Sept. 30, 1989: Navy 12, Carolina 7 at Kenan Stadium. What I’m about to say is a bold statement–this might be the worst football game in Tar Heel history. These were two very bad teams, playing a very bad game in very bad weather. Mack Brown called it “one of the lowest times of my life,” and he might be underselling it. It was the first time in THREE YEARS that Navy had beaten a Division I football team. Brown wrote in his book, “I went out to my car and just sat there and cried.” That’s how bad it was. The next day’s Washington Post described Carolina as “almost totally inept on offense,” which was generous. Tar Heel quarterbacks combined to complete 9-of-32 passes. This game might be worth a blog entry all on its own.
But here’s the thing: almost 30 years later, I still vividly remember sitting in Kenan in a driving rainstorm. I have a friend who attended that same game and we often refer to it as a “badge of honor” game–as in, if you sat there for this game, then you have a permanent Tar Heel fandom badge of honor.
Nov. 9, 1991: Clemson 21, Carolina 6 at Kenan Stadium. Someone will undoubtedly correct me if I’m wrong, but my memory is that the Tar Heels played an exhibition basketball game before this football game, and then the hearty among us hiked over to Kenan Stadium, where the wind chill was 11 degrees. Lights had only been added in the late 1980s, so night games were still somewhat of a novelty. The thrill quickly wore off in the cold, as we came to two realizations: 1. Clemson was a lot better than Carolina. 2. Frostbite is uncomfortable. The cold was heightened by rain that occasionally threatened to turn to snow and/or sleet. Announced attendance was 31,000.
Dec. 19, 1998: Carolina 20, San Diego State 13 in the Las Vegas Bowl. Here is what you think when you sign up to go to the Las Vegas Bowl: Oh! Fun! It will be in Las Vegas and we will get to see the Strip! Here is what actually happens: the stadium is in the middle of the desert in what apparently is a wind tunnel. And it’s not one of those winds that is mainly a cool breeze. It’s a gritty, dry wind that left me picking sand out of my clothes for days after the game. Fans were wearing sunglasses not to fight the sun, but as a form of eye protection.
Carolina gained 196 yards total in the game and won. That should tell you something about a day when the wind gusted up to 48 miles per hour. Decorated Tar Heels like Ronald Curry and Brandon Spoon played in this game, and yet head coach Carl Torbush correctly said afterwards, “I would have voted for (punter) Brian Schmitz for MVP.”
The punter for MVP of a bowl game. These are the kinds of things you only see in bad weather games.
August 25, 2001: Oklahoma 41, Carolina 27 in Norman. From the top of Oklahoma’s press box, you could see for what felt like hundreds of miles in every direction across the flatlands of the Sooner State. That meant we had a terrific view when what looked suspiciously like a tornado began moving towards the stadium. And while the Tar Heels were mounting a comeback under the direction of Darian Durant, the weather–which had started the day at an angry 99 degrees–got progressively worse, with lightning crackling across the gray clouds.
The game was paused in the third quarter for the referee to check with National Weather Service officials, who were undoubtedly sitting nice and dry in their offices. The game then continued, only to see the skies open near the end of the fourth quarter.
Sept. 29, 2012: Carolina 66, Idaho 0 at Kenan Stadium. It still amazes me that 32,000 people sat in a monsoon to watch the Tar Heels beat the Vandals by 66 points. Granted, by the second half, there was nowhere close to that many people present. But if you attended this one from start to finish, you have your own Badge of Honor game.
And we haven’t even gotten to numerous games that could’ve been on this list, such as the 2002 loss to Miami of Ohio (NINE Tar Heel turnovers) in a rainstorm, or any time you’ve melted in Columbia watching Carolina and Pretend Carolina, or the fog in the 1993 Gator Bowl that left some fans in the stadium unable to see the field. Feel free to add your own below; when you sit outside in horrible weather for three hours, you deserve permanent bragging rights.
Will Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech be so damp and so uncomfortable that it should be added to this list? If we’re lucky, it will.