SAN ANTONIO--We all started somewhere. Maybe you started with Lennie Rosenbluth or George Karl or Sam Perkins or maybe even Tyler Hansbrough.
I started with Kenny Smith. During the 1986-87 season, he was the point guard on a Carolina team that went undefeated in the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and advanced to the final eight in the NCAA tournament.
Prior to 1987, I'd been aware of other teams and players, and I was a Carolina fan, of course, because it had been made clear to me that the alternative was sleeping outside. But I lived 1987 in the way that you only live through your heroes. I went out in the driveway and tried to replicate the moves Kenny Smith had made in the most recent game--he had one especially sweet shimmy against Virginia in the ACC tournament semifinals that I was convinced was going to make me a future star.
When I was fortunate enough to attend the games, I'd come home and replay them in our playroom on the Nerf hoop, where nine-year-old me could slam it home like Kenny and then maybe hang on the rim for just an extra half-second to show how much air I could get. When Carolina lost the 1987 ACC tournament title game to an inferior NC State club, I still remember the drive home from Landover, Maryland, and the knowledge that going to school the next day at Farmington Woods Elementary, which was filled with Wolfpack fans (this was before Duke fans had been invented), was going to be hellacious.
That team is the point of reference for my Carolina knowledge. Pre-1987, I've read about it, and I watched some of it. Post-1987, I lived it, and there's never been a single year that when it was over, I didn't wish it would last one more game.
At some point this year, I realized this was that year for my nine-year-old son, Asher. This team is his 1987. He's known about players and teams before, and he's cheered hard for the Tar Heels since he realized that we liked the team in blue and the bad guys are on the other team.
This team, though, he lived, and I don't know if I could have picked a better one. This one had a little bit of everything and somehow managed to end the season with a game that had even more of everything. "You've got to handle some adversity and understand it's not always going to be a sweet ride," Roy Williams said Sunday night
This season had some adversity, and this season had some very good players worth emulating, and this season had some unexpected wins, which are the best kind every time.
I left Asher detailed notes after the 9 p.m. games and we talked about the players (the way James Michael McAdoo always mentioned his teammates even after his biggest games was frequently mentioned, and it was that same McAdoo who dismissed as "crazy talk" Marcus Paige blaming himself for Sunday's loss) and we filled out a bracket (with Carolina winning, obviously, because some things are more important than bracket pride).
Can't wait to hear Asher's reaction when he wakes up in morning and sees this. pic.twitter.com/CoIBNVWzBU— Adam Lucas (@jadamlucas) December 5, 2013
When we talked about Paige having his jersey honored, Asher said, "I kind of hope next year he doesn't get his jersey retired."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because I really want to wear number five when I play for Carolina," he said, and the version of me that was convinced I would one day wear Smith's number-30 nodded in agreement, because at nine years old, you should be picking out your eventual Tar Heel jersey number.
Around a month ago, Kendall Marshall was talking about watching this season from afar. "It hit me the other day," he said. "The starting lineup on this team could have been Harrison, P.J., Reggie, James Michael, and me."
Yes, that lineup would have had Paige coming off the bench. That team would have been incredible. The starting lineup Marshall mentioned would've had three seniors and two juniors and it would have been unguardable. That's not realistic in today's college basketball, of course. The very best players don't stay that long.
But what's been so much fun about the 2014 Tar Heels is that they very rarely left you time to consider what might have been. Even minus a surefire first-team All-ACC pick who was supposed to be on the roster, they whipped the defending national champion. They went on the road and beat top-ranked Michigan State at a time when absolutely no one believed it was possible, and then were greeted back at the Smith Center by hearty students who wanted to welcome them home. They beat Kentucky on one of the best days the Smith Center has ever seen. They came back from a 1-4 league start and first won a couple games, then won a half-dozen, then won 12 in a row. They beat Duke in front of what might have been the best wire-to-wire crowd in Smith Center history and one life-changing young woman. They played longer in March than anyone from the Triangle and as long as anyone in the ACC except for tournament and regular season champion Virginia.
That would have been an impressive collection of memories for one four-year career. And yet all of that happened in one season--this season, 2014, the year Asher really got started.
Once you get started, as we all know, it's very hard to stop. The games are prominently placed on your calendar when the schedule is released. You go where you go. You do what you do.
And you learn, eventually, that they're not all like this. 1987 was fantastic. 1988 wasn't. 1990 was kind of a bore, right up until Rick Fox made one of the most memorable shots in Carolina history. In 1998 we dunked on everyone in college basketball and then Utah happened, right here in the same city where Iowa State happened. "There were times that the 2008 team was the best team in the country," Roy Williams said this week, but then Kansas happened, and I'm starting to think maybe San Antonio isn't so delightful a place after all.
But even the ones that at some point leave you mumbling, "I'll be glad when this season is over," are ridiculously fun. The 2002 team went 8-20 and the main thing I remember, because I've repressed everything else, is Adam Boone raining three-pointers at Clemson.
Even the ones that don't finish happily end up being productive. I cried when the 1987 team lost to the infernal Syracuse Orangemen, and for 27 years I have carried with me an irrational hatred of Rony Seikaly.
But 1987 made me appreciate 1993 so much more. If my 1987 team, with Kenny Smith running the point, couldn't win the national title, then it must be pretty hard to accomplish. Other teams, it suddenly occurred to me, had good players. Winning is really, really difficult.
We are convinced that our guys deserve to win and have put in all the hard work to win and the universe would not be right if it didn't let them win. In a stone-quiet locker room Sunday night, Marcus Paige struggled to get through a description of the final minute without totally breaking down. "I just didn't make the play," he said of his turnover with 32 seconds left.
"We have to use this as fuel for next year," he said, echoing what Williams had told the team in the locker room after the game. "But you love this group of guys so much that it is hard to accept that after 100-some practices, all the shootarounds and all the days of lifting weights and all of the coming together that it is done."
Watching Paige, looking less like the stone-cold competitor he has been all season and more like a disappointed kid in his his blue t-shirt and his game shorts, it felt fairly certain that no one--no one--in college basketball deserves to win a national championship more than Marcus Paige.
But somewhere, someone else is thinking the exact same thing about someone from each of the 16 teams remaining, and only one of those individuals gets to do it on the first Monday night in April.
This year, we didn't get to do it, and starting tomorrow we'll spend about an hour wondering why not, and then we'll spend about eight months deciding why next year could be the year, why it should be the year, why it makes sense that it really might be the year. There could be a senior McAdoo and a junior Paige and a junior Tokoto and a junior Johnson and suddenly you're looking at exactly what Williams always says makes the best teams--experienced talent--and that is all the encouragement we need to start think about what could be possible.
"Next year's freshmen are pretty good, aren't they?" Asher asked me this week. And soon we'll be talking about Marcus throwing the ball to Justin and Joel and Nate playing together and Theo dropping in another three-pointer and you know what, I think that team just might have a chance, so when do you think the schedule will come out?
The 2014 season, officially, has ended. Thanks for the great beginning.
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.