By Adam Lucas
GREENVILLE—They’re not like us.
The players and coaches, I mean. They’re not like us.
This is how we are: with Carolina down three to Arkansas with five minutes to play, I received the following text from a friend:
There might have been one additional colorful word in there, but you understand the meaning. You probably sent one or received one yourself. Not now, not this team, not like this.
Down five with 3:30 left, I received the following text from my wife:
I had done everything I could do. I had switched pen colors and used different paper. Maybe you had changed seats or turned off the television. Nothing was working. It was torture. Pure torture.
Carolina somehow came back and held a 66-65 lead with one minute remaining. On the air on the Tar Heel Sports Network, Eric Montross was giddy. Not at the lead, but at the competition. “You want some excitement?” he asked as Joel Berry went to the free throw line.
No. I do not want any excitement at all. I do not want close games, I do not want meaningful possessions, I do not want capable opponents. I would be completely fine if everyone else in the field in Memphis decided to drop basketball between now and Friday and had to forfeit.
Carolina basketball is taking years off my life, and I can’t possibly live without it.
Exactly one week ago, Roy Williams was sitting in his den while the end of the NCAA Tournament selection show played quietly behind him. This is someone who has seen virtually every big sporting event in the world, some multiple times. The NCAA Tournament is better than any of them precisely because of that tension you felt on Sunday evening.
But here’s the difference: the players and coaches don’t feel it.
“Each step of the way, as a coach, I don’t feel more stress,” Williams said. “I feel more excitement. If I was a spectator and wasn’t coaching, if I just had one team I was rooting for, I hope I would feel the same way. It wouldn’t be more stress, it would be more excitement, and each week the excitement goes up and up.”
The blood pressure definitely goes up and up. Not sure you can call that “excitement.” But that’s why they’re different.
Isaiah Hicks is a senior who could have been playing his very last game for the Tar Heels. The best four years of his life—even if he doesn’t know it yet—could have ended on Sunday. And there he went to the free throw line, 1:44 on the clock, and the Razorbacks holding a 65-64 advantage.
That was around the moment I realized I was gripping the pen so hard it was making an indentation on my finger. There was no other way to cope.
Hicks felt none of it.
“I really didn’t feel nervous at all,” Hicks said after the game, with fresh blood still on his left cheek, because that’s how the NCAA Tournament looks. “I felt like, as many free throws as I’ve shot, I was just doing the same routine. There were no moments when I felt like I was rushing myself. At the free throw line, I’m not thinking about making or missing. I’m thinking about the process.”
Sounds good, Isaiah. You keep thinking about the process. We’ll keep thinking about trying to keep our heart moving. In the final minutes, Roy Williams’ high school coach, Buddy Baldwin, wasn’t in his usual seat behind the Carolina bench. He’d left to pace the concourse of the Bon Secours Wellness Arena. This is a man with a lifetime in the game, who has been on the bench in every imaginable situation, and he can no longer sit and watch what is supposed to be a fun game of basketball. Isn’t the NCAA Tournament just the complete greatest and/or worst? Yes, it is.
With Coach Baldwin on the concourse, Hicks made them both, of course.
Sometimes, not by choice, these players who give us these games that we never, ever forget get a tiny little glimpse of how we live. Kenny Williams was on the sideline in a suit, the product of late-season knee surgery. If he was healthy, he would have been subbing in and out, playing defense, scoring points, maybe shooting a couple free throws.
In the suit, though, he could only watch. When Hicks said he wasn’t nervous, only two Tar Heels admitted to feeling a few nerves: senior manager Maria Vanderford and Kenny Williams.
When the game was over, I received the following text from a friend: “We went on that 12-0 run as soon as I started watching via phone while sitting on the bathroom floor with the lights out. You’re welcome.”
I think, perhaps, even though he might think it’s just a little crazy, Kenny Williams understands that feeling now. You know that turning out the lights helped and I know it helped and somewhere—even though he is more rational than us and realizes it also had something to do with those seven defensive stops in a row—Kenny Williams maybe thinks turning out the lights helped.
“I got a little taste of what it’s like to have to watch,” Williams said. “When you’re in uniform, you can go out and play and try to make something happen. When you’re a spectator, it’s up to someone else. You can’t do anything at all about it. You’re just watching.”
Welcome to our world. It’s pretty terrible, Kenny. When can we please do it again?
Across the locker room, Hicks had washed the blood off his face and was about to take off his jersey, which he’ll be able to wear again solely because Carolina somehow closed on a 12-0 run over the final three minutes of the game.
He turned to a teammate.
“Man,” Hicks said, “I was not going out like that.”
Afterwards, in the stands, Phil Ford was still trying to catch his breath. He was two seats down from Shammond Williams and directly behind Al Wood, all Tar Heel greats, and all of them looked like they’d just been awake for 48 straight hours.
Ford was perhaps the coolest Tar Heel ever under pressure. He made burning clock an art form.
“Out there,” he said, gesturing at the court, “I never got nervous.”
Then he reclined in his seat in row E. “But up here?” he said. “Up here, I’m a nervous wreck.”