By Adam Lucas
You know you’ve thought it. Those lucky few who get to play Carolina basketball, they’re living our dream. That could be us, you know. If we were just a little taller or could jump a little higher or shoot a little straighter, that would be us.
Instead, it’s them. Roy Williams gets paid money to coach Carolina's basketball team. We do it for free from the stands or from the den. His players wear the Jordans and show up on SportsCenter and get the adoration. They’re on the charter airplanes and staying in the fancy hotels and wearing the Hats by Shea.
Lucky, lucky them.
They show up a little immature or maybe a little overweight, and they go through hundreds of practices, and they leave ready for the world.
Think about if social media had existed when you were in college. Think about if millions of people were waiting for you to tweet or Instagram or Snap something dumb, and how very likely you would’ve been to do just that when you were 19 years old.
They don’t do that. They’re not perfect, but they don’t embarrass themselves or the program. Most times, they do the opposite—they make us proud, make us want to wear their jersey or sport those same shoes.
Eventually, though, they have to leave. It’s hard. They have to move on and real life interferes. You know what happens then? They come back.
During Monday’s national championship game, you looked over in the stands behind the Tar Heel bench and saw Al Wood leaning over Matt Doherty’s shoulder to talk basketball. There was Vince Carter with his arm around Danny Green. Nearly four dozen former players journeyed to Phoenix for the game. They were in the hotel restaurant eating breakfast or walking down Jefferson Avenue or…why, there’s Jackie Manuel in the lobby.
Manuel was part of the 2005 championship team, and he’s an assistant coach at Valparaiso, but he’s also something you can relate to—he’s a rabid Carolina basketball fan.
“You do not,” his wife Ronda said, “want to sit next to Jackie at a Carolina game. He gets too into it.”
Four hours before the game, Manuel said he was nervous. This was somewhat comforting, because I was also nervous.
I love Jackie Manuel, in case this is not yet clear.
My wife texted me two and a half hours before the game. She had just ridden downstairs in the hotel elevator with Wanda Williams. She had also ridden down with Wanda on Saturday, a fact she noted in her text.
This actually made me feel better about the game. I realize that makes no sense. But it did. You understand.
When she texted me, I was sitting in the University of Phoenix stands trying to regulate my heart rate. I had my stuff spread out over as many seats as possible so that no one would try to sit near me and, you know, try to make regular human conversation, since at the time I was not capable of forming words. It was hours before the national title game, and Carolina was playing. I felt fortunate to be more or less upright rather than in a fetal position. On the court, they were going through practices for pregame festivities like the national anthem and starting lineups. Suddenly, without warning, the first notes of “One Shining Moment” boomed over the PA system.
A quick bit of background: Jones Angell has a belief—not a superstition, a belief—that it is bad luck to hear “One Shining Moment” before the Carolina season ends. When the song began playing, I frantically began looking for a way out of the arena. Understand: it’s not even my superstition…er, belief. But I know it exists, and this seemed like terrible mojo.
Just as I was bouncing down the stairs, after, “…the blinking of an eye…” the song cut off. I have not been so relieved since I learned that Duke is not contagious.
Whatever we did, it worked. I didn’t hear the song. You wore the lucky shirt. Someone else watched from the lucky spot.
Brandon Robinson understands these quirks. His father is a diehard Carolina basketball fan, the type who has—and cherishes—autographs from Dean Smith and Roy Williams. When Carolina won the 2009 title, the Robinson family was on a family vacation at Myrtle Beach. They walked out to the beach, wrote “U-N-C” in the sand as large as possible, and took a photo from their hotel balcony.
Somewhere, on Monday night, another kid did that. While Theo Pinson was sprinting into the stands to hug his father after the game, both men in tears, someone else was being indoctrinated into Carolina basketball.
Now Robinson sat in the locker room just a few seats down from Hubert Davis, a championship hat on backwards and a piece of the net tucked in the hat.
“I really can’t wait to talk to my dad,” Robinson said. “To be able to see the joy in his eyes, knowing he’s been a Carolina fan his whole life, and knowing what it’s going to mean to him…I can’t wait to see his smile. To be a part of this Carolina family is incredible.”
Robinson wiped tears from his eyes.
Somewhere in Chapel Hill, two older gentleman were shaking hands and calling it a night. Lennie Rosenbluth and Woody Durham had made a habit of watching every 2017 NCAA Tournament game together. They were in the den again on Monday night, because they of all people know that you go where you go.
Woody watched quietly. Lennie, in his lucky UNC shirt, did some coaching from the couch. Think of all the history in that room. Think of all the memories they’ve created for us, the wins they’ve helped us celebrate. We got to do all of this because of them and people like them.
Monday night, I got to see my youngest daughter cry tears of joy inside University of Phoenix Stadium when the game ended. Maybe you drove across the country to be in Phoenix. Maybe you just walked across town to be on Franklin Street. Maybe you’re one of Carolina’s greatest players in history and you watched the game with Woody Durham. Whatever you did, Tar Heel basketball did that for you, and the only repayment it requires is shouting “Priceless gem” at the right moment during the alma mater and maybe showing off a sweet dance move during “Jump Around.”
Every time you walk into the Smith Center and see that 2017 banner swaying from the ceiling...uh, the roof...well, let's just go with the rafters--every time you see that 2017 banner swaying from the rafters, you're going to remember those gloriously gut-twisting moments from Monday.
On Thursday night, Kennedy Meeks was sitting outside at the team hotel reflecting on the past four years. He talked some about basketball, but he talked more about life, about classes and school and friends and family.
“I want to tell Carolina fans something,” he said. “I want to tell them thank you. Thank you for pushing me. Thank you for making me tough. Thank you for giving me the opportunity and the education of a lifetime.”
Meeks paused, tears welling up. He took a moment and collected himself, then looked up with red eyes. “I just want them to know how thankful I am. I’m never going to forget this. For the rest of my life, I’ll be thankful that I got to have these four years.”
Meeks will leave Carolina as a national champion. Every time he comes back to Chapel Hill, someone will point at him and say, “That’s Kennedy Meeks. He was on the 2017 championship team.”
We don’t have to leave. We get to enjoy this one, buy the t-shirts, and then come back next October and do it all over again. We get to meet new Tar Heels, agonize and rejoice with them, cry after heartbreaks and celebrate after wins.
We get to do Carolina basketball tonight and tomorrow and next fall and forever, and we’ll get to tell stories about this year’s Tar Heels, who may have taken years off the end of our collective lives, but it was so, so worth it. We’ll get to remember where we were and who we were with and who we hugged.
The official behind-the-scenes book on the 2017 national champions, Redemption, is now available for preorder. Use the order code 01CHAMPS.