Road Trip IV, Days 32-34: Chapel Hill, NC
ceremony games begin. The object of our pilgrimage trip. The ACC Tournament, ok?
For those of you not from North Carolina and/or not
tainted familiar with the mores of college sports, a quick primer. Teams are organized into leagues, or conferences. Throughout the regular season, each college plays games against other member of its conference. For the University of North Carolina (aka The Tarheels, or Heels–please don’t ask me to explain that), that means Dook Duke, NC State, Virginia, and eleven others. At the end of the regular season, these 15 teams play each other in a loser-out tournament which begins on Wednesday and culminates in the championship on Sunday.
Other conferences around the country–the PAC 12, the Big 10– are doing the same thing, of course. On Sunday, the winners of all these tournaments are selected, along with the best teams around the country that did not win their tournaments, and put into the 68 brackets that you have probably heard about, the famous Big Dance of March Madness, the NCAA Tournament.
Got that? Good. It has almost nothing to do with what I’m writing about today. I am writing about religion.
That’s the only way I can explain what happens here in Chapel Hill at our friends Rich and Becky’s house, from Wednesday to Sunday. It starts small, maybe five or six of us watching the games no one really cares about. But by Friday, when Carolina plays, the living room will scarcely hold us. And all these highly educated people–law professors, a former college president, a dean, a member of Obama’s HHS staff, a state legislator–will be screaming at refs, raising our arms during free throws, and doing push-ups during time-outs when the game gets close.
(That last innovation was started by The Mate. He swears it works. All I know is, it’s a great tension reliever.)
One year one of the group, who was representing a guy on Death Row, actually stepped into the next room to negotiate a pardon with NC’s governor while the rest of the gang kept cheering. Then he re-joined the faithful. No one thought this was weird.
There is no explaining faith. There is no explaining how all these thoughtful, rational, sensitive people can truly believe that
Dook Duke’s Coach K is the Devil. (I mean the real Satan, not just a Blue Devil.) Or that God hates us if our free throws don’t go in. Or that a pimply-faced 19 year-old with a ball holds the keys to our present and future happiness.
I should know. I grew up here, and at school I used to scoff at my fellow students who would stay home during Tournament Friday, or use “How ’bout them Heels?” as a greeting. Then I went off to college, and came home for spring break.
It was the end of March, 1982. Carolina, under Coach Dean Smith, had made it to the Final Four in New Orleans. My then-boyfriend (now my Mate) was beside himself. (The previous month he’d sent me a Carolina Blue valentine: “I love you almost as much as the Tarheels.” So I knew what I was getting into.)
The Heels won their Saturday game. Now they were in the Finals, facing Georgetown. Michael Jordan was a freshman. The Hoyas had their own super-frosh, man-child Patrick Ewing. The battle was joined. It was epic. The game came down to the final seconds.
You know what? I can’t possibly do the story justice. Too much has been written about The Shot Michael took to put Carolina up with 12 seconds on the clock; about Freddy Brown’s fateful pass to a member of the opposite team, giving the ball back to Carolina. About James Worthy’s anticlimactic missed free throws at the very end, when Carolina’s victory was sealed, and we were all rolling around on the carpet and screaming.
It was a conversion of the deepest order. At the end of my break, I traveled back to college a confirmed, lifelong Tarheel Fan.
I’m not quite as bad as The Mate, OK? He’s traveled back from Washington State to Chapel Hill every March since 1990. When we took a sabbatical in New Zealand, he traveled back from there. He sincerely wishes bad things to happen to Coach K, or at least to his car.
Me, I just cheer. And eat a ton of BBQ. And fried chicken. But that’s a whole other story.
Sports fans or baffled onlookers, let me hear from you. What’s your sports story? Are you the reason “fan” really means “fanatic”? Or do you think we’re all completely bonkers?