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