Saturday, April 02, 2005

Nothing Could Be Finer Than Final Four Time in Carolina

My alma mater, the University of North Carolina, plays once again this evening in the national semifinals. I have been a Carolina basketball fan all my life and have been around to enjoy or lament 13 previous Final Fours that have featured the Tar Heels. As a kid, I worshiped those basketball players who wore light-blue Converse high tops (a pair of which I got every year as school shoes). When it came time to apply to college, I didn't even consider any other schools. Fortunately, I got in.

As a young child, I have vague memories of Dean Smith's first . . . Final Four teams, three in a row from 1967–69, which was when my brother was matriculating at Chapel Hill and when that Carolina magic spell first got a hold on me. I don't remember the Heels losing to Dayton in the '67 semis or to Lew Alcindor and UCLA in the '68 finals.

But in '69, I am watching as Rick Mount of Purdue drains shots to do us in. My parents later buy me a red-white-and-blue Rick Mount–model basketball that reminds me of that image every time I hit the ol' driveway court.

In 1972, I am bitterly disappointed when we don't get a shot at UCLA again, as Bobby Jones, Bob McAdoo and crew lose to Otto Petty and his fellow speedy Seminoles of Florida State. During my junior year of high school in 1977, I fret as the walking-wounded Tar Heels almost take it all but fall short to a sobbing Al McGuire and Marquette, as Mike O'Koren sits and sits at the scorers table, waiting to get back into the game.

When I finally make it to Chapel Hill for my four years of studying and waiting in line for basketball tickets, my timing is perfect as we make it to the title game each of my last two years. In 1981, the semifinal win over Virginia and Ralph Sampson (who I've always contended would've been a Tar Heel had we not served him franks and beans in the Granville cafeteria on the day of his official visit) is the highlight, with Al Wood (who was known to have a few interesting moves on the dance floor—just ask my wife) knocking down 39 points. The celebration on Franklin Street that late afternoon turns out to be one of the best post-game blasts I've ever experienced. Two days later, President Reagan is shot and Isiah Thomas and the Indiana Hoosiers end up cutting down the nets. The mood on Franklin Street that night is eerie and not very cheery. I look up several times to see beer-bottle projectiles flying through the air.

In 1982, I am a senior heading for a degree in journalism and life in the cold, cruel world, and the Heels have a freshman named Michael Jordan who makes the last shot to beat Georgetown in the finals. Underappreciated and overshadowed by the heroics of MJ in years hence is James Worthy, who was the real reason we won that game. And not just because the Hoyas' Freddie Brown gives him that gift in the closing seconds. I'll never forget his breakaway dunks, especially the one that ricocheted off of his fellow Gastonia buddy Sleepy Floyd's head.

An unforgettable all-night celebration downtown is followed by the team's triumphant return the next day at Kenan Stadium. In the wee hours of the morning on Franklin Street, my steady girlfriend fiercely yanks my hair because I have the audacity to hug another girl as we all dance, whoop and holler in the street. At Kenan the following afternoon, my classmate Chris Brust points out that his one free throw was the difference in the 63-62 final score, a memory that still makes me smile.

As I settle down in adult life, going through various relationships and jobs, the Heels stay out of the Final Four spotlight. They finally make it back in 1991. That spring I am a year away from getting married (not to the hair-pulling girlfriend of '82, by the way) and have just joined the ranks of the unemployed, and Carolina is headed for a showdown against Kansas and Roy Williams in the semis. Expectations are high, but all anyone can now remember is Dean Smith slowly walking off the court past his friend Roy and the Kansas bench after being tossed out of the game by referee Pete Pavia.

Two years later, I have a good job (with my current employer) and Carolina is back in the Final Four. My new bride and I watch the finals against Michigan's Fab Five on a big-screen TV set up in Carmichael. Donald Williams gets hot and Chris Webber calls time-out, and we head downtown in a light rain. Once there, it just isn't the same as '82. For the first time in Chapel Hill, I feel old and a bit out of place. No blue paint for me. I'm a spectator, not a participant. I don't even hug anybody this time.

In 1995, Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace fall to Arkansas in the semis, and then quickly bolt for the NBA, and I start to wonder why these guys don't want to stay in Blue Heaven for all four years like I did. (Of course, no one was dangling millions in front of my nose.) Two years later, I'm now a father of a beautiful daughter, Dean overtakes Adolph Rupp with his 877th win (I get to witness No. 876 in person in Winston-Salem), but the Heels fall to Arizona and the outstanding guard play of Mike Bibby and Miles Simon in the semifinals. Dean retires the following October, and to me Carolina basketball can never be the same.

Despite Dean's departure, going to the Final Four continues to be a habit for the Heels this decade, with Bill Guthridge leading them in 1998. My 2-year-old daughter learns how to say "Ademola Okulaja," which stuns passersby as she practices while shopping with her mom at the local Big Lots. However, the Heels shoot poorly against the Running Utes of Utah and lose once again in the semis.

In 2000, the Heels are not expected to go far, but with Greensboro's Brendan Haywood hitting from inside and Joseph Forte hitting from outside, Carolina and Uncle Gut, in his final year as coach, make a surprise run before falling to Florida in the semifinals.

Now, in 2005, I have a wife, a child, a dog, a job, responsibilities at my church and, of all things, a blog. After surviving the Matt Years, Carolina is back once again in the Final Four, this time with Roy back on our bench to coach a talented cast of players. No, I don't get as excited about these games as I once did. No, I don't worship the players in light blue any longer (maybe partly because they no longer wear Carolina blue Converse and instead opt for diamond ear bobs and multiple tattoos). I won't mope around and kick said dog should we lose tonight or Monday night. But I will be in front of the TV watching and cheering them on—if I can stay awake and if my meeting at church on Monday ends on time and if I'm not glued to my computer screen blogging. Win or lose, I think I will at least give my wife, daughter and dog a hug.

Go Heels!


At Friday, April 08, 2005 1:50:00 PM, Anonymous Tim Gardner said...

A great stroll down "the lane." I too cheer on the Tar Heels at every opportunity, but the win or loss doesn't cloud my life for days as it once did. There are many other things to divide my attention, and one thing that speaks to me from your words. It is no longer the Tar Heels that I worship; but Christ. If I may say, a pretty impressive power forward of His own.


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