Museum a "living, breathing" monument to Tar Heel hoops
By Turner Walston 

Princeton's WordNet Dictionary defines a museum as "a depository for collecting and displaying objects having scientific or historical or artistic value." A depository. A place to put objects that don't have any other place to go, like a catchall desk drawer.

It's likely that no one on the WordNet staff has been to the Carolina Basketball Museum, now open in the Ernie Williamson Athletics Center. The 8,000 square foot facility is a showcase of 98 years of Carolina basketball history and tradition. It's not a somber, please-stand-behind-the-velvet-rope gallery. The museum encompasses everything that players, coaches, alumni and fans love about Carolina basketball. Seven museum committee members, persons with a love of Carolina basketball and a sense of its incredible history, made sure of that. On the committee were assistant coach Jerod Haase, Steve Kirschner and Matt Bowers of the athletic communications office, Adam Lucas of Tar Heel Monthly, Matt Terrell of the Rams Club, Emmy-award winning television ace Freddie Kiger and Jones Angell of the Tar Heel Sports Network.

About six years ago, it was realized that the old Smith Center memorabilia room was no longer up to par. Committee members briefly considered renovating the room, but Carolina's basketball history could not be contained in the old space. "Carolina is the best basketball program in the country, and we needed a museum that reflected that status," Lucas said. "Carolina basketball is so important to so many people, and we needed a place where people could come and relive some of those memories."

It's a program without peer, so its museum could not be just any museum. "Any time you go into a museum, you see things," Kirschner said. "You see old artifacts. This museum, you feel things, not tangibly, but emotionally. You remember certain plays and certain moments, and it's a feeling. It's not just walking in there and looking at something. You feel a part of Carolina basketball when you come out of that museum."

To convey that sense to museum visitors, the committee took trips to museums dedicated to other iconic sports programs. Churchill Downs, the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, the University of Kentucky basketball museum and University of Oklahoma sports museum all served as inspiration. More than $3 million was collected for the construction of the museum. With the history and tradition of Carolina basketball, and the passion of its followers in mind, the committee set out to "get it right."

"I didn't sleep for a number of nights prior to the opening of the museum," Kirschner said. "When you build a house with your own money, it's one thing to make a mistake, but we were building a house with $3.4 million of somebody else's money, and it was money that people had given because they believed so much in something."

Gallagher & Associates, a museum design company out of Bethesda, Md., was brought on board. The firm's previous clients included Arizona State athletics, the International Spy Museum, and the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. Gallagher took the committee's ideas and came back with the museum design.

The experience begins in the theater, featuring a six-minute video to give the museumgoer a sense of what it's like to be a part of Carolina basketball. There's a countdown to tip-off, a look in the locker room and a peek inside the huddle. Raymond Felton, Vince Carter and other former Tar Heels relate the emotions they felt on game day. It all culminates with the team running out of the tunnel, and game time. Classic plays are showcased alongside more recent ones, and it's clear that Carolina basketball is timeless.

The video alone is thrilling, but then visitors get to step onto the court, and into history. A basketball court is marked with footprints, from which memorable shots were hit. Every aspect of Carolina basketball is highlighted with a display case on the main floor, from the great shooters to point guards, academics to Olympics, big men to coaches.

The museum committee had a dream assignment, but it wasn't always easy. Kiger has been recognized for his work on ESPN's SportsCentury. For the museum, he wrote a video tribute to the history and heritage of Carolina basketball narrated by Jim Nantz, and features on Phil Ford, Michael Jordan, Dean Smith, and Roy Williams and the Carolina Family narrated by Billy Crudup. "How do you capture all the wonderful things that you want to say about four individuals and this university in a four or five minute piece?" Kiger said. And how does one pay tribute to Smith, someone who has deflected the limelight for more than 40 years?

"I sent Coach Smith the copy of what I'd written, and he called me back and said, 'Fred, you're trying to make me a star. You're trying to make me bigger than I should be,'" Kiger said. "We scheduled a meeting in which we basically said, 'Coach, please let me say something nice about you.' All the wins, all the things he did for civil rights, all that he stood for in the effort of trying to make things done correctly, he didn't do it for accolades. He did it because that's what you're supposed to do as one human being to another."

Coach Smith's methods formed the basis for what is known as the Carolina Way-doing things the right way, even in the face of intense pressure. Everyone is important, from statistician to superstar. It's right there in the database featuring every team, coach and player in Carolina history. "Yes, Michael Jordan's got a case, but every walk-on is in that database," Kirschner said. "Yes, we highlighted the championships, but we didn't highlight just the championships. There are 12 Final Fours when we didn't win the national championship, and those Final Fours are special. Everybody who went through the program is special."

Indeed, it's not just the great players that are featured in the Carolina Basketball Museum, and it's not just the championship trophies that define the Carolina tradition. It's Brian Reese's button-up warm-up jacket. It's a weighted vest worn by punished players in practice. It's Vince Carter's drum major hat. It's Bobby Jones's NBA All-Star jersey. Walter Davis's game socks. Roy Williams's college textbooks. A ball from the 1957 NCAA championship team. An index card reminded the coaching staff to check out a kid named 'Mike' Jordan from Wilmington. These are just a few of the museum's more than 450 artifacts that make up the history of Carolina basketball. All part of the Carolina Way. "We made a point of honoring defense. We made a point of honoring academics. We made a point of honoring the family atmosphere," Kirschner said.

It is a family, after all. "I was the statistician in Coach Smith's program, so I was a cousin in the family," Kiger said. "But nobody can ever take from me the fact that I was a part of something that tried to go about its business in the right way athletically, academically and institutionally."

The Carolina Basketball Museum is more than a collection of artifacts and photographs; it's a monument to doing things the right way since 1911. The museum opened on January 28, but the work doesn't stop. It will be constantly updated and maintained.

"Now we're in the museum business, and we've got to think like museum curators," Kirschner said. Last March, when Tyler Hansbrough left the Duke game with a bloody nose and jersey, Bowers scrambled to the locker room to retrieve the jersey. Alas, it was already in the laundry. The museum settled for the mask Hansbrough wore in several games following the incident.

When Hansbrough breaks Lennie Rosenbluth's school record for free throws made, someone will have to ask for the ball. Hopefully, the museum will have to make room for more national championship trophies (there's room for at least four more).

"We're not going to drop the ball," Kiger said. "This thing will be a living, breathing testament to great players, great coaches, great fans, and to a program that all of us have a definite right to be proud of."

And even those who are making Carolina basketball history have been impressed with the museum. The current Tar Heels toured the museum in mid-January. "You could see them talking to themselves, you got the sense that they were like, 'We're a part of this,'" Kirschner said. "In some ways, they were tangibly part of it. Ty Lawson saw his shoes, Bobby Frasor's jersey, Marcus Ginyard's jersey, and Tyler's got two or three things in there already. Tyler got a kick out of seeing his 3 at Duke on the 30 greatest plays. It's hard for the young guys to sense history, but they really did."

And so did their head coach. Williams did not set foot in the museum until it was complete. "Jerod (Haase), C.B. (McGrath), Steve (Robinson), all those guys had been there and told me how great they thought it was," Williams said. "And it surpassed even what they had told me, and so that means it was pretty doggone impressive. If somebody tells you that Butter Pecan is the best ice cream they've ever tasted, you know it's really got to be something before it's that impressive to you. This was Butter Pecan at its best. I was blown away by it."