One of the best interactions any of us who cover Carolina can have is when a Tar Heel fan stops us and says something we did–an interview, a book, a story–was meaningful to them. Let’s be very clear: the main connection is with the Tar Heels. But it’s special when something I wrote or said connected with anyone, especially when it prompts them to share it with their family or friends or game-watching buddies.
I used to record Woody and Mick broadcasts on the Tar Heel Sports Network on blank tapes and save them to listen to later. One of my favorite possessions is a cassette of the 1993 championship game with the THSN call, signed by both broadcasters. I can watch the game on YouTube any time I want, of course. But there’s just something about having it in that format, in their words–even if I don’t exactly have an easy way to play it these days.
So that’s what prompted this idea. New for 2023, you can order handwritten excerpts from any GoHeels column I’ve ever done (they go back 20 years) or from any of the Tar Heel-related books I’ve done. If there’s a passage that connected with you or made you think of someone else, it’s hopefully a great way to share it with them in a slightly more artistic and personal way than just printing it off the internet. Pair it with a photo of you at a game or in Chapel Hill or wherever is meaningful to you, and boom, you’ve got a great gift. And needless to say, I’ll inscribe the excerpt with almost anything you request (don’t bother asking for, “Coach K is my hero” or something equally offensive).
The best place to find a complete list of GoHeels columns is here. As always, feel free to reach out with questions/comments about this project. And as a reminder, the order link is here.
This job is ridiculous. My work year consisted of watching two of the most memorable Carolina basketball games in program history, watching a different Tar Heel team to which I was lucky to grow very close win a national championship, having in-depth conversations with a wide range of Carolina players and coaches, and generally going to “work” with people I like and respect every single day.
So making a list of “favorites” from this past calendar year feels a little like stealing. Even the bad days (as you’ll see below) were only bad because we all get so invested in the Tar Heels–and more importantly, in the people who wear the Tar Heel uniforms.
But some days stand out more than others. This is a list of some of my favorites from this past year. Hopefully some of your favorites are on here, too.
Jan. 29: A Good Day–The rush of the last month of the season had kind of made me forget how awesome this day–Roy Williams Day–was in Chapel Hill. It had a little bit of everything, including, of course, a rout of NC State.
Feb. 4: Mother of the Family–We lost too many Tar Heels in 2022, including Lennie Rosenbluth and Ademola Okulaja. I think they’d be OK, though, with spotlighting Linda Woods here, because she was an integral part of solidifying the Carolina family. Mrs. Woods was someone who never wanted to talk about herself, and it was nice to finally get to brag on her a little.
Feb. 18: Manek Finds Second Home–We haven’t had many Tar Heels like Brady Manek. Getting to know Manek and his family over the course of the 2021-22 season was one of the highlights of that campaign. And he never changed a bit, even as he became a Tar Heel fan favorite.
March 6: The Unseen–Recently going back and watching this game for a special episode of the Carolina Insider was a nice reminder of how incredibly fun the Carolina-Duke game in Durham was. Absolutely no one thought Carolina had any chance. At the time, we thought it was the ultimate one-up in the game’s best rivalry. Little did we know things could get even better.
April 2: Apologies–A big part of what the Carolina-Duke game in New Orleans felt like was the sheer stress of it. It was a whole week of nothing but thinking about this game, and it all led to the longest day in world history, during which I mostly just sat alone in my hotel room and paced and worried. It was all completely worth it.
April 3: The Tears–Impossible to look back at 2022 without including this one. Carolina’s win over Duke in New Orleans in Mike Krzyzewski’s last game is a victory that has somehow only grown in the mythology of Tar Heel basketball every day since April 3. I’ve never, ever seen emotions like this at a basketball game.
Oct. 28: Connecting The Dots–Only at Carolina could a simple basketball exhibition game be this special. It helps that the 1997 and 1998 basketball teams were some of the most important squads of my formative Tar Heel fandom. Having them all back together at the Smith Center was a way to think back to some of my favorite UNC memories–and some of theirs, too.
Nov. 20: An All-Time Team–There are only three choices for my favorite Tar Heel day of 2022, and this is one of them. Let’s be honest: I lost any shred of objectivity about the field hockey team around the time that our family grew very close with some team members and their families. We saw nearly every game they played this season in person, and this was the frigid conclusion to something we’d been hoping for for months. I still watch the video of the final seconds sometimes just to remember what this Sunday in Storrs felt like.
Nov. 21: Finding Her Place–For some of the same reasons as above, this one was special. It was also one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever written, because it’s one of the very few times I’ve ever wanted to try to tell as much as I could about the subject, without telling everything. You’re going to hear much more from Erin Matson in the years to come. She has the ability to make an impact in a variety of different areas–it’s just a matter of which one she chooses.
Dec. 5: The Bad Times–I was sitting in our car with my wife in a jam-packed stadium parking lot after the women’s soccer national championship game when I said to her, “I think I’m going to have to write something.” Not because of job obligations. But because we’d just watched the Tar Heels lose a heartbreaker, and I needed some therapy. About a half-hour earlier, I had actively been scoping out routes down to the field to do some celebratory postgame interviews. Then everything fell apart, helped largely by a very questionable no-call on the game-tying goal. This story, which it was gratifying to see so many people connect with, was the result of trying to make sense of all of it.
If there had been an internet in 1982, the GoHeels.com Rapid Reactions might have looked like this…
1. What an incredible finish to Carolina’s first national championship since the undefeated 1957 team.
2. You know he doesn’t want it to be about him, but how relieved are you to never have to hear about how Dean Smith can’t win the big one? Point guard Jimmy Black said all week the Tar Heels wanted to win it for Smith, and the senior was emotional after the game after accomplishing his goal. Quite a redemption moment for Carolina after losing the 1981 championship game and then returning to win it in 1982. We’re almost certain to never see a redemption like that again.
3. The shot by Mike Jordan with 17 seconds remaining instantly becomes one of the biggest in Carolina history. Jordan showed plenty of poise and aggressiveness and could be a nice complement to headliner Sam Perkins on next year’s team.
4. Jordan made the final shot, but it was junior James Worthy who claimed Most Outstanding Player honors. Worthy was sensational in the Gastonia vs. Gastonia matchup with Sleepy Floyd (who was not heavily recruited by most ACC schools) and also threw down a ferocious one-handed dunk that bounced off Floyd’s head as it zipped through the basket. Worthy set a career high with 28 points in the game.
5. Key stretch late in the second half when Carolina held the ball for nearly two full minutes with a one-point lead. Jordan capped the possession with an incredible layup high off the glass over Patrick Ewing, who had four fouls.
6. Carolina didn’t shy away after Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing tried to intimidate with five early goaltends. The Tar Heels continued to pound away in the paint rather than settling for uncharacteristic long-distance 17- or 18-footers.
7. Interesting use of the bench by Dean Smith in the first half. The ’82 Tar Heels aren’t deep, but Smith got some minutes from Christ Brust, Jim Braddock and Buzz Peterson early in order to be able to push his starters in the second half.
8. Jordan’s big jumper will deservedly get most of the attention, but he had a couple other very impressive second half baskets: a follow basket in transition off a Black miss that gave Carolina a three-point lead, and an incredible drive and layup high off the glass later in the period. Jordan also had a key offensive rebound off a Worthy missed free throw that led to a beautiful Matt Doherty assist back to Worthy for a dunk, and then kept another Worthy miss alive that turned into two Black free throws.
9. Big momentum shift midway through the second half, as Peterson committed a turnover with Carolina down four and Floyd had a run-out that would’ve given Georgetown a six-point lead. But Floyd missed, and Perkins knocked in a baseline jumper to cut the lead back to two. Peterson made up for that miscue by picking up a loose ball a couple minutes later that led to Worthy’s highlight dunk.
10. Hope you were one of the many Tar Heels who turned down the sound and got to hear Woody Durham call Smith’s first national championship. If Twitter had been invented yet, it would have been on fire with Billy Packer commentary, including informing us that Jordan “looked shaky” right before his drive and score against Ewing.
11. Underrated storylines: Black’s seven assists, Carolina’s 28-20 rebounding advantage (including a team-high nine for Jordan), Carolina’s clock management in the final five minutes, and–fortunately–the Tar Heels’ hiccups at the free throw line in the second half (the Heels shot 13-for-22 in the game).
12. Who knows where the future will take us, but it’s hard not to imagine that we didn’t just watch one of the best NCAA championship games in history. Tight all the way, with great performances on both sides and great coaches on both sidelines, that’s a game they’ll probably still be talking about 40 years from now when they’re flying around in their hovercars.
Although Jones Angell and I would like to think otherwise, people don’t listen to the Carolina Insider podcast for our incredible insight. We’re well aware that our guests are the ones who drive the downloads. When they have something interesting to say or a unique viewpoint, that’s what Carolina fans want to hear.
In a time when Tar Heels everywhere have more free time than they otherwise might, we thought it might be fun to revisit some of our listeners’ favorite interviews. Last night on Twitter we asked for suggestions, and what follows is a complete list of all the interviews, along with the dates they aired, that were mentioned.
Eric Church (1/6/17): Newer listeners might be surprised that we had music superstar Eric Church on the podcast in the very early months of the show. He talks a little music, but what definitely comes through in the interview is his passionate love for the Tar Heels.
Freddie Kiger (2/3/17 and 11/26/19): Freddie has had a courtside seat for some of the biggest moments in Carolina basketball in the last nearly half-century. He also happens to be one of the best storytellers we’ve ever had on the podcast.
Mick Mixon (4/11/18): Speaking of great storytellers, Mick is also one of the best. His story about Jerry Richardson’s Chap-Stick is a classic. It’s probably about time for a part two with Mick.
Dick Baddour (4/24/18 and 8/23/19): Very similar to the Doherty episodes in the way Mr. Baddour was able to provide the facts on some of the most-rumored topics of his administration. You might be surprised at just how close Frank Beamer came to being the head football coach at North Carolina.
Matt Doherty part 1 and part 2 (9/6/18 and 9/7/18): This was easily the most-mentioned interview by listeners. Coach Doherty was extremely gracious with his time and was very open about everything we asked him. Whether you were a big Tar Heel fan during the Doherty era or have only heard about it second-hand, this is a great way to get the facts on what happened, what Coach Doherty might have done differently, and how his viewpoints on that time period have changed.
Jason Brown (11/9/18): The former Carolina and NFL offensive lineman has an incredible story, and all we had to do was turn on the recorder and let him tell it. Brown was very open about his faith, and whether you share that viewpoint or not, it’s hard not to respect his conviction and the way he’s put it into action in his life.
James Spurling (8/14/19): The best interviews are when the subjects have a passion for a topic and it comes through in their words. Mr. Spurling’s passion just so happens to be the University of North Carolina and especially Tar Heel athletics, so much so that it brought him to tears during our conversation.
Howard Lee (1/7/20): Not sure why it took us nearly four years to get Mr. Lee on the podcast. His interview might be the closest we’ve done to being a legitimate part of the history of the state of North Carolina, and it’s also a good reminder of how to handle contentious times.
Pod history, 100th pod (1/22/18) and the 200th pod (5/9/19): Much of the pod history can be found in these two episodes, plus an appearance by Big Grits himself on the 100th episode and an incredible Grammy-worthy song on the 200th edition.
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.