An Afternoon with a Legend

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.

Frank Deford on the 1957 Tar Heels (from 1982).

Frank Deford on Dean Smith (also from 1982).

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.

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.

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.