By Christian Schneider
Here's the thing: Sports fans know that they're ridiculous. We really do. We may not admit it to others, to ourselves, to anyone, but deep down we know it. We know that it's completely and utterly absurd to invest oneself so entirely into a game that OTHER PEOPLE are playing. We know it's ridiculous that a missed free throw or a blown call can get you so angry that your screams of rage cause your downstairs neighbor to knock on the door to see if you're OK (yep, happened last night, still ashamed). And we know that it's embarrassing to think that wearing the same gray t-shirt for each tournament game is essential to your team's success because you can't remember the last time you wore it and they lost (Also happened. Season Over=Laundry Day).
There are very few occasions in the history of mankind that the result of a game ever truly MATTERED. People try to force such a false narrative all the time. I remember 2009 when everyone convinced themselves that Michigan State winning the National Championship in Detroit would save the auto industry. Or the Cavs winning last year was going to make Clevelanders stop hating their lives. But let's be real: Unless if you're a fan of South African rugby or Texas Western basketball, your team winning it all has never actually MATTERED. But it did matter TO YOU. It mattered to you a great deal.
This one mattered to me. It mattered to me an awful lot. And it wasn't until it was over that I realized just how much it mattered.
Our regular readers will know that I'm pretty damn lucky in terms of my fandom. I'm a New Englander and we've got it good right now. But for all those parades, all those shots of confetti falling on my favorite players, all those renditions of Dirty Water, I never cried. I laughed, I cheered, I made up stupid chants, but never shed tears. Last night was different. Because it was Carolina.
To the outside observer, my love affair with UNC Basketball might seem pretty random. I'm a Maine-born Yankee who went to a private school in Connecticut. I wasn't a college athlete, I didn't play basketball in high school, and I've been on the campus at Chapel Hill four or five times max. An outside observer might whiff the stench of bandwagon in that equation.
But the truth is that for me, unlike the Pats or the Sox or the Celtics, UNC basketball is more than just a team. Most of that comes from my father. He graduated from UNC in 1982, a year that sports fans will remember as the year the freshman Mike Jordan hit the game winning shot that turned him into MICHAEL JORDAN. Growing up I heard the stories of him and his friends painting Franklin Street Carolina Blue in celebration. I heard how his friend's cat had a litter of five kittens that week and they were named for the five UNC starters (Sam Purrrr-kins anyone?). I learned that Duke is Puke and Wake is Fake. I learned that Dean Smith is the Jedi and Coach K (or as he is known in the Schneider household, Darth Sidious) is the Sith.
But what I learned more than anything was that UNC basketball was worth rooting for because they did things the right way. The "Carolina Way": Work hard, Play hard, Play together, Graduate, become a Family. Winning wasn't the only thing. Some schools have won more. But winning with class and dignity was what made Carolina different.
That class and dignity was what my immigrant grandfather saw when he moved to North Carolina. He came from Germany in the aftermath of WWII when, at 16, he had been conscripted into the Luftwaffe and, at 17, become a prisoner of war. His journey eventually took him to the foothills of the Great Smokies. My father once told me that my granddad's biggest desire was to be "one of the guys," to belong, to fit in in his adopted country. If you're gonna fit in in North Carolina, you better like basketball.
That's how Dean Smith came into my family's life. The chain-smoking, raspy-voiced, jittery little man with the bulbous nose became a symbol of all that was good to my grandfather, and then to my father. The godly man who recruited the ACC's first African-American player, who helped desegregate Chapel Hill's finest restaurant, who was begged every six years to run for Senate and drive out the monstrosity that was Jesse Helms. The man who Michael Jordan and Roy Williams looked at as a father. The living embodiment of the Carolina legacy.
That legacy was passed on to Roy, who became MY coach. As he won his first title in 2005, Jim Nantz declared "There's a new Dean in college basketball!" Corny, yes. Scripted, yes. Doesn't make it any less true. More Final Fours, more championships. Dean, Ford, Jordan, Worthy, and Wood for my father. Roy, May, Felton, Lawson, and Hansbrough for me. The Way was still a winner.
Then came the Scandal.
I'm not going to go over the specific details of the Academic Fraud case in Chapel Hill. God knows that's been chewed over enough. Suffice to say this: It Sucks. It's embarrassing, it's shameful, and it flies in the face of everything the Tar Heel family was proud of. To be sure, it's an Academic issue that affected all students, not just athletes (which isn't a good thing btw). But that hasn't stopped UNC Basketball from being called Cheaters, Frauds, and Fakes for these last six years. The rivals (Duke, Kentucky) are thrilled to see their adversary weakened and jump to take advantage. The underlings (NC State, Wake Forest) enjoy Tar Heel embarrassment because it distracts them from their own futility. Everyone looooves to make jokes about the classes.
The Scandal cut the Tar Heels off at the knees. The school that historically replenished its arsenal with top talent every year has watched that talent head to Kentucky (who won in 2012) or (Gods protect us) to That-School-8-Miles-Up-The-Road (who won in 2015). Roy had to go into the homes of top high school recruits only to be told that while they had always been Carolina fans, they couldn't take the risk of committing to a team that may be sanctioned. If UNC was going to find its way back to the top, it needed two things: 1) Non One-and-done who could develop over four years to become elite and 2) Model student athletes.
That's why 2016 hurt so much. We had both. We had Marcus Paige, possibly the best student-athlete UNC has ever produced. The player UNC NEEDED, but didn't deserve. We had Brice Johnson, the unheralded, rail-thin power forward from the backwater town in South Carolina, who grew into the best big man in college basketball. They were going to do it. They beat Duke in Cameron. They won the ACC Championship. They made it to the Final Four. Marcus made one of the most incredible shots in basketball history to tie the game and Brice hugged him at midcourt.
Then Kris Jenkins happened. Then 4.7 happened. 77-74 happened. Marcus and Brice left the court in tears.
And the confetti that fell was Villanova blue...
For 20 minutes I didn't speak. I finally bid farewell to my faithful viewing buddy Tyler (who has witnessed many of my UNC in-game meltdowns) and headed to my car. And I called my dad.
The Father-Son postgame phone conversation has become a staple of my life for the last 7 years. It began when I left for college and has continued as my life took me to LA. A big game, against Duke, against a Top-10 team, a Tournament game, they all get a postgame conversation. Usually 15-20 minutes for a big regular season win/loss, 20-30 for a Duke game or a Tournament game. 3,000 miles apart, it's our most frequent topic of discussion. I'd say that since I've moved to LA I've discussed Isaiah Hicks' foul trouble with my Dad as much as I've discussed how-are-you-liking-your-job and how-is-the-writing-going with my Mom (sorry, Mom).
The night of the 2016 Championship game the conversation lasted over an hour. There was a lot of self-lacerating, wallowing, and commiserating. At one point my Dad said miserably "I'm sorry. I feel like I got you caught up in all this." (Dang Dad, what are you gonna be like when you ACTUALLY have something to apologize for?). We both agreed that we had blown our best shot to win redemption for the program. Our two best players were graduating. Duke was bringing in its greatest group of star freshmen yet and they were going to kick our ass twice and win it all in 2017. We had failed to hold serve.
Then the 2017 Tar Heels started a text thread. It was called "Redemption." The guys who returned made up their minds that they were going to make it right. Theo Pinson the Junior made the Jenkins shot his screen saver. Justin Jackson the Junior locked himself in the gym. Joel Berry the Junior embraced the Law of Attraction. Luke Maye the Sophomore hit the greatest shot in UNC history to slay Kentucky and send us to Phoenix. Kennedy Meeks the Senior played the greatest game of his life to overwhelm Oregon. Isaiah Hicks the Senior hit the biggest shot and Meeks made the two best defensive plays of their careers to finish Gonzaga.
And the confetti that fell was Carolina blue...
And to me, it mattered. It mattered that Meeks, and Hicks, and Britt will leave Chapel Hill with a banner AND diplomas. It mattered that Justin Jackson will make his NBA millions in the knowledge that he won a ring. It mattered that Joel Berry overcame two sprained ankles to become Carolina's newest hero. It mattered that Roy won a ring despite having to wrestle with the scandal that wounded him so personally. It mattered to me that me and my Dad were gonna talk for an hour about a championship game that we WON this time.
The Father-Son phone call had to be made. But first I did the only thing that a person in my position would do: I cried.