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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.

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