By Adam Lucas
I am trying to figure out how to describe what this night was like. What I think might best do it is the following scene, from the back hallway of the Smith Center after Carolina’s 90-83 win over Duke.
Brandon Robinson had showered and dressed and was about to head out into the rowdy Chapel Hill night. His parents and brother were waiting upstairs for him. He’d played three minutes in the game, just long enough to absorb an indefinite number of elbows from Grayson Allen.
And Robinson was giddy.
“He touched my thigh!” he very nearly shouted. The “he,” of course, was Michael Jordan. The greatest of all time was coming off the court after the game and tapped Robinson on the thigh.
“It was like a, ‘Good game,’ kind of tap,” Robinson said. “That’s a great compliment from the GOAT.” (This is what the kids call Greatest Of All Time.)
Robinson was beaming. “I’m pretty sure,” he said, “that I’m going to tell this story forever.”
I think maybe we all will. Remember that year when Joel Berry was on fire and Carolina won the toughest basketball conference ever by two games and Allen got a technical foul and that guy behind the basket was waving the ferret above his head and Michael Jordan was there?
Oh, you’re talking about 2017. I remember that.
Were you there? It’s an hour after the Tar Heels cut down the net in the Smith Center to celebrate the eighth regular season championship in Roy Williams’ tenure (the next-closest school has three), and my ears are still buzzing. Sometimes, we remember a game by specific plays. And there were plenty of big ones, like Isaiah Hicks’ and-one off a blind bounce pass from Justin Jackson or Berry’s five three-pointers. But this wasn’t a night about specific plays. This was a night about moments.
Four of the six living Tar Heels with retired jerseys were in the building. The fourth, Michael Jordan, sauntered out at halftime to a thunderous ovation, then went to sit in the stands behind the scorer’s table, just a few seats down from Antawn Jamison. At one point during the second half, Jamison was busily thanking the passer and Jordan was heckling official Les Jones, because they might be two of the greatest Tar Heels ever, but they’re just ultimately Carolina fans. Outside of this building, Jordan is an international superstar, an incredible businessman, and an NBA owner.
Inside the Smith Center, though, he's a little more normal. This is the building where Bill Guthridge once greeted Jordan--this was in the mid-1990s, when Jordan was a worldwide phenomenon--by wryly asking, "Michael, what have you been doing with yourself since you left Chapel Hill?" Hey, you're still just a guy. Alongside these 21,750 people, there isn’t that much separating even the greatest from the middle-aged gentleman wearing a John Henson jersey who stood behind the Duke basket throughout the second half and feverishly waved a stuffed ferret over his head while the Blue Devils attempted free throws.
Everybody is the GOAT in their own way, perhaps. Jordan makes championship clinching shots. Some of us wave ferrets. Do what you do, folks. Do what you do. It’s probably not a coincidence that staring into the twirling eyes of the ferret, Allen missed three of four free throws in the closing minutes (you know exactly what a certain Tar Heel named Rasheed Wallace—also at the game—would say: “Ball don’t lie”). Somewhere, that gentleman in the Henson jersey knows he made a difference in that game, just like you know you did for wearing your lucky shirt or staying, unmoving, in the lucky seat or for sitting at home with a month-old baby on your chest that is trying to sleep, only to be unceremoniously woken up because you bounded off the couch to shout at Allen through the television.
Wake up the babies and wave the ferrets: this Carolina team goes into the postseason as a legitimate national championship contender. They’re good, and that’s fun to watch. But that’s not the extent of it.
We’ve yelled at Kennedy Meeks for four years: jump higher. Rebound better. Dunk the ball!
But then he’s standing at midcourt on senior day after a win over Duke, and all of a sudden he’s one of us. The tears came twice for him, once when he addressed Roy Williams (“You gave me an opportunity I’ll never forget”) and once when he talked about the friendship he’s built with Nate Britt. “One day,” Meeks said after the game, “I know Nate’s going to be in my wedding.”
That’s what happens at Carolina. You come and you play basketball for four years and you win a ton of games and maybe you find time to go undefeated at home. But then it’s over, and you realize you’ve been left with something else—friends you call brothers for a lifetime. Four years of basketball, yes. But something else we don’t always see: four years of life.
Earlier Saturday, Bobby Frasor was reminiscing about his senior day in 2009. He didn’t point out certain baskets or big rebounds. He recalled that the weekend of his senior day, the families of all the seniors got together for pizza after the game, telling stories all night. That’s as much Carolina basketball as winning championships.
Britt and Meeks’ families have become similarly close; it’s not unusual for Britt’s sister to hop in the car in Charlotte with a member of Meeks’ family to catch a ride to a game. They were complete strangers four years ago. Now they’re family.
“I think about that all the time with these guys,” Britt said of the team he calls the closest in his four years at Carolina. “All of us have these memories we’re going to be thinking about 20 years from now.”
Saturday night just added another one. When the Tar Heels took the floor after halftime, Jordan was in a room off the tunnel. Robinson pogoed up and down to try and catch a glimpse of the top of Jordan’s head. After the game, Robinson sought out assistant coach Hubert Davis and gave him a hug, thanking him for recruiting him to Carolina and allowing him to be part of a night like this.
“People tell you this is a brotherhood,” Robinson said. “I didn’t really understand it until I got here. Look around. Look at the former guys who came back to this game to support us. This is a family. These are your brothers for life, and it doesn’t matter whether you played with them or didn’t play with them. This is a brotherhood.”