Hooked

We all remember when we were hooked.

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.

Top Five of 2016

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.

The Cubs

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.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0396.

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.

usws

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.

“It was awesome,” he said, and he went to sleep.

asherws

Foul Weather Fans

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.

Pod People

From 2005-2012, I sat next to Jones Angell while he did play-by-play for the Carolina baseball team. It was a pretty incredible time to have that job; the Tar Heels went to the College World Series five times in that span, meaning Jones and I became much better acquainted with Omaha, Nebraska, than we ever imagined. There was a time when Jones rightfully claimed that other than his hometown of Jacksonville and Chapel Hill, Omaha was probably the city in America he could most easily navigate without a map.

I was originally going to write that I was the “color analyst” on the baseball broadcasts, but that sounds a little more professional than I actually was. I had no clue what I was doing and Jones was nice enough to let me sit there and follow the Tar Heels. We saw some of the greatest victories in program history and also some of the most painful defeats. Jones once checked into a hotel room that had as its primary feature a guy who was not wearing pants, and I once told off the Oregon State radio broadcaster in an Omaha parking lot. Come to think of it, off-the-field baseball broadcast stories might be a good blog topic.

Since that last baseball broadcast in 2012, Jones has provided the signature radio calls for every important moment in Carolina football and basketball.

Just like he did for baseball, he’s provided the perfect mix of Tar Heel emotion and radio professionalism.

I’m far from being a radio expert, but based on what I’ve observed from Jones–and Woody Durham before him–one absolute truth of the business is that the broadcasters who are the best at their craft work much harder than you think. “Anyone can do radio, it’s just talking about sports and I’m good at that!” No, that’s how some people do it, and it’s usually pretty easy to pick them out. But being good at it actually requires preparation and knowledge and skill.

Even with Jones’ current high-profile gig, it’s been gratifying to have numerous fans ask if we might ever do baseball again. They are usually nice enough to follow that comment by saying they enjoyed the broadcasts. The funny thing, though, is they rarely mention specific games. They do, however, frequently talk about the rain delays, and the tangents that were a semi-regular feature of the baseball broadcasts.

We tried to have fun doing the games while also being informative. I don’t know which of those two goals we met more regularly, but that’s the same strategy we’re going to follow with the new Carolina Insider podcast, which was announced today. UNC is one of four schools nationwide to participate in this pilot program. The others are Alabama, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, so we’re in good company.

Prior to about three weeks ago, I had never listened to a podcast in my life. Since then, I’ve listened to some good ones and some bad ones, but I still feel a little bit like my dad trying to program the VCR in 1988 (“BUT WHY DOES IT HAVE TO BE ON CHANNEL 3?”). There’s one thing I’ve determined for certain: to make this podcast good, and to make it something that has some value to you as a Tar Heel fan, we need your help. So we’re open to your comments on what you want to hear more or less of, or which guests make for entertaining listening. We want it to be informative, because that’s the whole point, but we also want it to be fun, because this is sports and in some small way that’s also supposed to be the whole point. So we’d ask you to subscribe and listen to the initial episodes next week (new podcasts each Tuesday and Friday) and then let us know what you like and don’t like.

I’ll never forget one particular baseball rain delay. It was during the 2008 NCAA Tournament, when Carolina played its home games at the USA Baseball complex in Cary while Boshamer Stadium was being renovated. It was approximately 184 degrees that day, and a summer thunderstorm had sent fans to their cars. We stayed on the air to kill some time, and the conversation ranged from movies to favorite Tar Heels to when we might ever play baseball again. I was pretty convinced that our only listener, at that point, was my father, and even he might have dozed off.

I was trying to persuade Jones to play the UNC baseball rap song (that’s a whole different blog entry). To enlist the always-helpful aid of peer pressure, I said, “If you’re listening in the parking lot and want to hear the rap song, blow your horn.”

To be honest, I just assumed we would be greeted with dead silence. But then came a cacophony of car horns. “Wow!” I remember saying on air. “They’re actually listening!”

We’re hoping for the same enthusiastic response to the new podcast. Blow your car horn if you can hear us.

The gum will never die

Today, young adults have a vast assortment of ways they might become the next millionaire. They could start a software company. They could start a tech company. They could win a reality show.

In 1991, however, we did not have any of those options. But we still knew exactly how we were going to become rich beyond our wildest dreams: baseball cards.

I was absolutely certain that baseball cards were going to make me filthy rich. I started out buying wax packs at Rose’s, occasionally dipping into the world of rack packs, where you could attempt to select the pack with the biggest star showing on the front of the pack (always Ryne Sandberg for me). Then I learned about Paper Heroes in Knightdale, a baseball card shop owned by a gentleman named Paul Snow. For at least my next five birthdays, my entire birthday list looked like this:

GIFT CERTIFICATES TO PAPER HEROES

Armed with that year’s birthday haul, I’d spent entire afternoons at Paper Heroes. Sometimes I’d buy full boxes (36 packs in each box). Sometimes I’d buy single older cards in the fancy screw-down holders. By 1991, I had become a savvy baseball card connoisseur. I attended baseball cards show at the NC State Fairgrounds. At one point, I subscribed to Baseball Cards magazine, Sports Collector’s Digest, Tuff Stuff, and of course, I eagerly awaited every month’s issue of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly (they once had an awesome Bo Jackson cover that briefly became a collectible in itself). The latter had a price guide that was essentially written in stone. Every month, I’d wait to see if any of my prize cards–you know, like the ’89 Upper Deck Griffey or the ’83 Topps Sandberg–had possibly received an “up arrow” by the price, or perhaps even the dreaded “down arrow.” As I tallied my imaginary net worth every month, my dad would unfailingly tell me, “You realize the cards aren’t worth anything if you don’t sell them.” I ignored him. Why would I sell my baseball cards? They would be worth millions one day.

In 1991, Topps celebrated its 40th anniversary of printing baseball cards with a special promotion. They randomly inserted one of every Topps card into wax packs. To a savvy baseball card shark like myself, this seemed like obvious gold. I purchased an entire case of 1991 Topps cards, meaning I purchased 20 boxes of 36 packs each. And why not? There might be a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle in there! In 1991, that card was approaching $10,000; by the time I was really ancient, like 40 years old, it would probably be worth as much as the Mona Lisa. Dad was convinced he’d had dozens of Mickey Mantle cards when he was my age, but he unwisely put them in the spokes of his bicycle because “it would make my bike sound like a motorcycle.” Ha! I would never be that foolish! I first sorted my cards into numerical order, then put them in plastic sheets (one to each slot, so the cards wouldn’t decompose each other–can’t be too careful with chemistry), then put the sheets in binders that were labeled by which set they contained.

Yes, looking back I agree it could have been an early sign of an obsessive compulsive disorder.

While cleaning out a closet recently, I found about a dozen of those 1991 Topps boxes, still unopened. There was only one thing to do, of course–tear into them.

Toppsbox

I know what you’re most curious about: yes, the gum survived. Yes, that perfect pink sliver of rock-hard alleged gum was still just as pink as you remember. The disappointing news is that it no longer carries that Topps gum smell that will forever be synonymous with baseball cards. A normal person might have realized the lack of a smell might indicate it would be unwise to consume the gum. This did not occur to me. After sitting down with our oldest son, I had to try the gum that came out of the first pack we opened.

Toppswrappers

It fell apart in my mouth immediately. Now, you might remember that Topps gum was not exactly high-quality carcinogens to begin with. But after 25 years in the wrapper, it had devolved into little tiny pieces of crispy cardboard. It tasted pretty much like what I would imagine chewing an actual baseball card would taste like, except without the complete yearly stats and cool trivia facts. Our oldest daughter happened to be passing through the den when I sampled the gum. I faithfully reported it was not delicious. She gave me an incredulous look, like when I don’t know the words to a Hamilton song. “Why would you eat 25-year-old gum out of a pack of baseball cards?” she said.

As the molecules broke down into tiny little pieces of brittle pink rocks in my mouth, I realized she had a point, although I didn’t admit this to her (Parenting 101). I did quietly make a mental note that in the event of a nuclear strike, I could probably construct an impenetrable shelter from pieces of 1991 Topps gum.

We opened an entire box of 1991 Topps cards while watching the Little League World Series. The coolest card, by far, was the horizontal shot of Roger Clemens posing by the words “Strike out” on Fenway Park’s Green Monster, but that was an aberration; in 1991, most of the cards featured players sitting on the bench in the dugout. Many of the names I remembered (don’t tell me you’ve forgotten Oddibe McDowell), some I didn’t. At one point, Drew piped up with, “Hey, I got Steve Avery!”

I prepared my speech on the early 1990s Atlanta Braves and the Avery/Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz quartet. Just as I began my soliloquy, he continued, “You know…the guy from Making A Murderer!”

Toppsgum

I pulled a Ryne Sandberg All-Star card and a Mark Grace…the 1991 version of Adam would have immediately put those cards into top-load holders to keep them in mint condition. Instead, Drew and I gathered what we believed were our best finds and put them on the kitchen table. This is them:

Toppsriches

These, folks, are the cards I expected to one day enable me to retire. As best I can tell on eBay, their present worth is currently about a dollar.

Combined.

Of course, as Dad would say, they’re not worth anything unless I’m selling them. But why would I ever consider selling them? They’re worth too much to me.

But I can let you have a great deal on some slightly chewed gum.

I’ve been there

It never fails. No matter what time Carolina plays a home basketball game, whether it’s 12 noon or 9:30 p.m., when the players leave the Smith Center after the game, there are autograph seekers waiting outside. It’s a much better way to try and get signatures than leaning over the tunnel inside the building, and most often, the patience is rewarded with a few autographs or selfies.

Whether you’re the parent of a kid who begs to stand outside and wait for the Tar Heels, or the kid herself who does the begging, I’ve got some reassuring news for you: don’t worry. You can still turn out to be a fairly productive member of society (well, sort of). I’ve got proof.

Lynch

The above picture was taken at the Blue-White game before the 1990-91 season. Kids, the Blue-White game was something that used to happen twice every preseason, and it was basically an open scrimmage. The 1990 edition was an especially big one, because Dean Smith had inked an incredible freshman class that included Eric Montross, Brian Reese, Derrick Phelps and Pat (“Pat had a good game”) Sullivan, plus a very talented player who would ultimately transfer, Clifford Rozier. The Montross/Reese/Phelps/Sullivan/Rozier group was essentially the Fab Five before the Fab Five existed…and, of course, this group minus Rozier ultimately beat the actual Fab Five in the 1993 NCAA title game.

Before they could do that, though, they had to play the Blue-White game. In the photo above, that’s George Lynch signing autographs after the game at the Smith Center exit. That kid holding the Sharpie and the team poster and making the truly regrettable fashion choice to wear a turtleneck under his Carolina “Just Do It” sweatshirt is me. This pretty much ensures my kids will never believe I was once cool.

Here’s Eric Montross as a freshman with his proud father beaming in the background:

Eric

That’s current Tar Heel assistant coach Hubert Davis in the back of this shot:

Hubert

And here’s me wisely standing on a ledge to try and reach Sullivan. 1990 was a simpler time; we all just mobbed the exit and made the players wade through us. Today the autograph seekers are at least nice enough to stand back from the door.

Sullivan

I’ve still got that poster, along with dozens more programs, posters and basketballs that I tracked down while following the Tar Heels around the country during the late 1980s and 1990s. At the Final Four in New Orleans in 1993, while everyone else was out enjoying Bourbon Street, I was staking out the elevator at the team hotel, adding signatures to a team-signed basketball that I now cherish. After numerous autograph hunts at the ACC Tournament and the now-defunct Diet Pepsi Tournament of Champions, I quickly learned who enjoyed signing and who considered it a chore. Former assistant coach Dave Hanners was by far one of the nicest people I ever encountered in these pursuits, as he was prone to revealing when the team might be leaving for a shoot around or a meal. That was precisely the useful information I needed to make sure I was loitering in the lobby at exactly the right time. Despite being the target of virtually everyone chasing the team, I never saw Dean Smith turn down a request, and almost every time, he would ask, “Who should I make this to?”

I never sold or traded a Carolina autograph. Why would I? As far as I was concerned, every single player on the roster was the pinnacle of the entire sports world. My favorite player on the 1990-91 team was a guard named Kenny Harris who eventually transferred. I still have a hat signed by Harris. I never wore it–after all, it was priceless and couldn’t risk being worn out in public.

Here are some things you definitely need in order to be a Carolina basketball autograph seeker:

  1. Know the roster. Know the assistant coaches. Know the managers. Here’s a tip you might not know–many times, the managers are just like you. They grew up loving the Tar Heels and are thrilled to be that close to the program. They remember what it’s like to idolize the players and coaches and they’re almost always willing to help as much as they can.
  2. Have very understanding parents. I spent a lot of my time in lobbies, just sitting and waiting. Many times, our family had to make the choice between, “Let’s go out to eat” or “Let’s wait ten more minutes and see if Donald Williams comes downstairs.” More often than not, they chose the latter. That’s how you end up with a kid who eventually wants to spend his entire professional life writing about the Tar Heels. Parents, whether you take that as a warning or as encouragement is up to you.
  3. Be polite. This is the one thing that hasn’t changed since I was seeking autographs a long, long, long time ago. It was startling how rude people could be to college kids who were doing them a favor. That’s still the case today. More often than not, if you’re not one of those people, you’re going to have a positive experience.

The 1990 version of me would’ve been stunned to find out that more than 25 years later, I follow around the Tar Heels as a “job” rather than a hobby. The 1990 version of me also would’ve wanted to make sure to find out when the team was leaving for the next shoot around, so I try to be as helpful as I can when fans are looking for the team. If there’s one thing I learned standing outside the Smith Center and waiting in lobbies, it’s that everyone can use their own Dave Hanners. You never know when you might fuel a fan’s passion that turns into a lifetime of love.

Omaha memories

Today, in theory, is the final day of the College World Series. It’s only “in theory” because yesterday was supposed to be the last day, but bad weather–which is sort of an Omaha staple, like the zoo or arguments over the best steakhouse–forced the postponement of the final game.

I was lucky enough to work with Jones Angell on the Tar Heel Sports Network radio team for five Tar Heel trips to the College World Series. In 2006, after Carolina lost the final game in heartbreaking fashion to Oregon State, 3-2, Jones and I walked out of the Rosenblatt Stadium press box. At that facility, the stadium was on top of the hill, and the press box was on top of the stadium on top of the hill. So we could see for what felt like hundreds of miles all the way around us. Jones was carrying the giant box of stuff that was required to put us on the air. We looked at each other and agreed we should savor the view, because we would probably never be there again. We then proceeded to go back four more times, eventually broadcasting two dozen games from Omaha. By the end of our summers there, Jones made the observation that of all the cities in the world other than the Triangle and his hometown of Jacksonville, he believed he probably knew the streets and directions of Omaha better than any other city. It reached the point that we knew traffic patterns and shortcuts like a local.

We saw a lot of great games (and some devastating defeats). But when I think about Omaha memories, these are some of the first ones that come to mind.

Arby’s: Our first year in Omaha, there was an Arby’s within walking distance of our hotel. For some reason I don’t remember, we ate there before Carolina’s first CWS game, which turned out to be a 7-5 win over Cal State Fullerton. You have to remember that this was 2006. We couldn’t believe that Carolina was in the College World Series, much less that the Tar Heels had won their first game. It seemed obvious that our trip to Arby’s had propelled Carolina to victory (looking back, Andrew Miller might have had something to do with it). We proceeded to eat at Arby’s for every subsequent 2006 Carolina game of the CWS, to the point that the employees began to recognize us. Also, we parked in the same place at Rosenblatt every single time–directly beside a newspaper delivery truck with a giant photo of Omaha columnist Tom Shatel. At least our car was easy to find after the game.

Kong burger: You’ve probably heard that milkshake favorite Zesto did make the transition from Rosenblatt to the new TD Ameritrade Park. One Rosenblatt local that didn’t–as far as I know–make the trip was King Kong Burger. Kong Burger was like a Char-Grill if Char-Grill was slightly less classy, with a little less attention to nutritional value, and had a giant inflatable gorilla outside the front door. After the win over Fullerton in 2006, which took 13 innings and lasted nearly five hours, we were walking to the parking lot and came across UNC baseball photographer Joe Bray, who had the same did-that-just-happen deliriously happy expression that we did, except that he was gleefully eating a double Kong burger. This was well after midnight local time. But why wouldn’t you be eating a double Kong burger in a deserted parking lot after midnight in the middle of Nebraska?  That’s what you do at the College World Series.

Radio rivalry: I believe the statute of limitations on this story may have expired, so it’s OK to tell. Carolina’s opponent in the national championship series in both 2006 and 2007 was Oregon State. I mean this in the nicest way possible, but Oregon State was more annoying than the zika virus. They had made their own rap song, and their mascot was the Beavers (which of course everyone thought was plucky and hilarious), and they were an underdog, smaller school that had never won anything. Also, they were good at baseball, which proved to be a problem for two straight years. In 2006, they had a second baseman named Chris Kunda, who is probably selling insurance somewhere right now, but in 2006 he had morphed into the second base version of Brooks Robinson, making every ridiculous play and usually leaving me staring at the sky from the broadcast booth and shaking my fist while muttering, “Kundaaaaaaaa” under my breath. I built up such a hatred for Oregon State that when mascot/shortstop Darwin Barney signed to play with my beloved Chicago Cubs during his professional career, it created some major internal conflicts.

Oregon State had a very colorful radio play by play man who also believed he was a member of the baseball team. He regularly cheered great plays from the booth and also, on at least two occasions, yelled out of the booth at the umpires after unfavorable calls to the Beavers. He was annoying, and when coupled with the fact that Oregon State beat Carolina four out of five games in the two championship series combined, he was very annoying. Finally, after the Beavers swept the 2007 series from the Tar Heels, we just happened to be walking through the parking lot at Rosenblatt (why did so many memorable stories happen in the Rosenblatt parking lot?) just ahead of him. “I need to talk to him,” I told Jones. “That seems like a terrible idea,” he told me. He was exactly right, but I didn’t care. I walked back to the OSU head cheerleader radio broadcaster and said, “I just wanted to tell you congratulations on your national championship. And also that you are the most unprofessional broadcaster I’ve ever seen.” Not my finest moment, but it sure was satisfying, and I can still see the look of surprise on his face.

Sullivan’s: Most of the details of this meal need to remain covert, but one of the greatest UNC athletics meals of all time happened at an Omaha Sullivan’s with Jones, Clint Gwaltney and Brian Bersticker. This was also the only Omaha meal we ever ate that prominently featured a famous (to Stick, at least) folk singer.

The ski lodge: The College World Series has now moved downtown and has a much more corporate feel. All the team hotels are also downtown, and everything is more centralized. But in the Rosenblatt days, teams were housed all over town, and poor luck of the draw could stick you a solid 20 or more minutes from the stadium. One year–I think it might have been 2008, but I’m not completely sure–the Tar Heels were housed at a mock ski lodge. Yes, in Omaha. The Regency Lodge featured a giant stuffed grizzly bear by the check-in counter. I really wish I had photos so you could understand that this isn’t being made up. TripAdvisor currently rates it the 44th best hotel out of 83 establishments in Omaha, just below a Super 8, which sounds about right, if possibly a little optimistic. On the bright side, however, it did feature a rocking happy hour in the lounge most weekday afternoons, which usually was attended by no one under the age of 85 and sometimes included dancing. There was a bar called The Naughty Lounge located directly across the parking lot (the ski lodge rooms had doors that opened to the parking lot) from the Regency Lodge. I never saw anyone eat a Kong burger in the parking lot of the Regency Lodge (although I did once see a Tar Heel land a new job in the parking lot), but if I had, it would’ve been the quintessential Omaha experience.

Best of 2015-16 basketball meals

Carolina basketball takes us to some amazing places…and also to places like Tallahassee and Starkville. If you plan your trip just right, some of the best road trips also include a meal that can sometimes be more memorable than the games (note: this is unfortunately not the case in Houston).

Here’s one opinion on the best of the 2015-16 basketball trip-related meals:

1.Filomena’s in Washington, D.C.: I don’t know that it was absolutely the best food. But I can still perfectly picture the meal here, primarily because there were hundreds–no, thousands–of rabbits in the dining room. We ate here with three of our kids during the ACC Tournament, which means it was close to Easter. And Filomena’s gets really, really excited about Easter. So there were stuffed rabbits everywhere. Rabbit statues. Rabbits in airplanes. Rabbits driving cars and rabbits riding shotgun while rabbits drove cars. At one point, we tried to estimate how many rabbits were in the dark dining room–the low guess was 250.

Oh, but the food is delicious also. Lobster ravioli is the famous dish (“Bill Clinton loved it”) but anything with the red sauce was amazing. Go at the right time and there are old ladies hand-making the pasta in an upstairs window. Kind of like the red light district in Amsterdam, if the red light district was selling pasta and not, uh, other stuff. They also have gigantic cakes and pies for desserts…but Georgetown Cupcake is right across the street.

2. Montage in Cedar Falls, Iowa: I know, I know. Iowa? Here’s a great example of how a meal can overcome a terrible game. Jenn and I ventured here with Eric Montross and Clint Gwaltney in the middle of a November snowstorm. Not a November snow flurry. But a November snow storm that would’ve shut North Carolina schools for multiple days. Remember, Eric is from Indianapolis. He just laughed when I asked if he wanted to get dinner a different night because of the weather. I drove us there while he probably sat very frustrated (but polite, because he is Eric) at my lack of snow-driving abilities. He drove us back to the hotel in about half the time it had taken me to get there.

In-between, we had the most surprising meal of this past season. The waitress convinced me I should try piñon crusted chicken. To this day, I don’t know what piñon is, but I do know if you put it in the crust of a chicken, it’s delicious. The chocolate souffle–and I am a bit of a chocolate souffle expert–was also amazing. Friendly people, fun atmosphere, good food: it was a place I’d most definitely go back the next time I’m in Cedar Falls, Iowa, which hopefully will be at least decades from now.

3. Garozzo’s in Kansas City, Missouri: Now this is what an Italian restaurant is supposed to feel like. Garozzo’s came on the recommendation of Roy Williams, who indeed was seated with several friends from the Lawrence area when we walked in. Which, by the way, was only after parking in the middle of what feels like a residential neighborhood. You don’t in any way feel like you’re headed to a place that will ultimately land on the highly illustrious Best Of 2015-16 UNC Basketball Meals list. But there it is.

The owner, Michael Garozzo, was in the building the night we were there, and went around and greeted every table. Some people got hugs. Others got handshakes. But everyone got some kind of greeting. It’s that kind of place. It’s also a place where you should get the chicken spiedini. There are other foods on the menu, and maybe some other sucker at the table can get that stuff. But you should get the spiedini.

Honorable mention: Nico in Boston, River Cafe in New York, Founding Farmers in Washington D.C., and Shane in Philadelphia. Note the purposeful exclusion of anywhere in Houston because Houston is the devil’s town.