The Final Four and the Sickness That “Heels”: Carolina Fever

Here’s why I know I’m not a COMPLETELY un-redeemable Carolina men’s basketball fan:

  1. I have a sense of humor about how much it means to me (sort of)
  2. I refuse to defend Tarheel Coach Roy Williams from charges that he knew about the fake classes his players were given credit for “attending” these past few years. He probably did, or if he didn’t, he should have.

But here’s why I know I’m pretty far gone: this year, right now, I DON’T CARE. The Heels are in the Final Four for the first time in seven years. Back in 2009, they won it all, under the leadership one of my all-time favorite players, Tyler Hansbrough, who stayed all four years to get the job done. This year, that favorite player is Marcus Paige, another senior (and Academic All-American). The Heels are one game from the finals, two from the championship. And I don’t just want that championship for me, I want it for Marcus.

This guy.

This guy.

But I want it even more for someone else. A whole family, actually. Last month, back in my home state of North Carolina to watch the ACC tournament with our Tarheel Tribe, The Mate and I learned some terrible news. The day before the tournament began, the 48 year-old son of some of our Tribe members was diagnosed with leukemia. His parents and his brother were in shock. And they all spent the next three days in someone’s living room cheering for the Tarheels.

The Tribe (partial), doing what we do.

The Tribe (partial), doing what we do.

Wait, you say–what? What is wrong with these people? Their son is going through chemo in the hospital and they’re watching basketball? Where’s their sense of perspective?

My answer: these folks were doing exactly what they needed to be doing. They were seeking solace with their Tribe. And of course their son–who’s SUCH a fanatic he doesn’t even join the annual group because he gets too nervous–was watching all the games at the same time, from his hospital bed. It was a beautiful kind of group witness…crazy, yes, but loving.

Son Two joined the Tarheel Tribe at an arly age.

Son Two joined the Tarheel Tribe at an arly age.

Didn’t hurt that the Heels won the tournament.

And now? Our friend’s son is almost done with his first round of chemo. Being the fan that he is, he’s already joking that he’s going to have to go back into the hospital NEXT year in order for the Heels to win again.

And that tells me something. College sports may be corrupt in all sorts of ways…but it’s also pure in one special way. It brings the Tribe together. And maybe, just maybe, the Heels, through their athletic efforts, will have the power to heal.

Go Tarheels.

The Final Four and “Religious Freedom”: Why I’m Grateful to Indiana

If you’re a fan of neither basketball nor equality, you won’t be interested in this post. But if you’re a fan of either, or like me, both, read on.

Dear Hoosier Legislature,

Thank you for passing your state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would, in its current form, allow Indiana businesses to refuse to serve LGBT citizens.

Thank you for doing so exactly when the nation’s sports mega-spotlight is trained on Indianapolis for the Final Four.

Thank you for bringing to the fore the moral fibre of folks known usually only for their defense patterns. Folks like the coach of defending national men’s basketball champion Connecticut, Kevin Ollie, who is boycotting the Final Four. Granted, Ollie was following the directive of Connecticut’s Governor Dan Malloy’s executive order banning state employees from traveling to Indiana on state money. But Ollie made it clear he was doing more than “caving” to his governor’s demand (as the Connecticut Post put it).

UConn’s University Herald states,

“In support of Governor Malloy’s travel ban to the state of Indiana, Kevin Ollie and other members of the UConn men’s basketball staff will not travel to Indianapolis for the NCAA Final Four and events surrounding it,” UConn President Susan Herbst said in a statement. “UConn is a community that values all of our members and treats each person with the same degree of respect, regardless of their background and beliefs and we will not tolerate any other behavior.”

Given the expected attention to himself and his program at this year’s Final Four, Ollie’s boycott carries great weight.

Another unlikely hero: University of Southern California’s Athletic Director Pat Haden, who announced he will boycott a national football meeting in Indiana in honor of his son.
To quote the Washington Post,

Pat Haden, the athletic director at the University of Southern California, will skip a meeting of the College Football Playoff committee this week in Indiana because of the state’s recent passage of a controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“I am the proud father of a gay son,” Haden announced on Twitter. “In his honor, I will not be attending the CFP committee meeting in Indy this week. #EmbraceDiversity”

All this attention is now turning to pressure on Indiana to do the right thing. In fact, Governor Pence, who signed the law while insisting it was never intended to discriminate, is right now working with the Legislature to rewrite Indiana’s RFRA and–one can only hope–rein it in.

(Orig. photo courtesy Mike Mozart, Flikr Creative Commons)

(Orig. photo courtesy Mike Mozart, Flikr Creative Commons)

When my Mate used to teach Constitutional Law, he helped his students remember the acronym RFRA by referring to it as “the noise made by a small, angry dog.” There are a lot of small, angry dogs in our country, apparently: people who feel themselves persecuted because they don’t happen to be taking part in the great national shift toward tolerance of LGBT rights.

I, personally, am grateful to the Indiana Legislature for highlighting that small-mindedness on a national scale, and forcing even those who would prefer not to have to take a stand to do just that.



R.I.P. Dean Smith: Why You Will Love Reading About This Man Even If You Don’t Care Beans About Basketball

I’ll start with the Litany of Impressive Facts, for those of you who don’t follow men’s college basketball. 36 seasons at Carolina. 11 Final Four appearances. Two national championships. 96% graduation rate. Coaching Hall of Fame. Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Mate and I are Tarheels, so I’d be lying if I said those facts weren’t a large part of why we admired Coach Smith. And we have a lot of company

Basketball fans in general can thank Coach Smith for the 35-second clock, which was developed in response to his game-slowing Four Corners defense. But they can also thank Coach for that gesture players make after scoring, pointing to the player who passed them the ball to share the glory.  Coach Smith started that tradition, along with starting all seniors (including non-scholarship walk-ons) at their last home game, and having the entire bench stand up when a starter comes out.

That’s not basketball–that’s kindness, honor, decency. And fans of a certain kind of decency will appreciate that Coach Smith never, ever cursed, and did not allow his players to use foul language in his presence either.

We loved Coach Smith’s obvious love and care for his players. Michael Jordan said, 

Other than my parents, no one had a bigger influence on my life than Coach Smith. He was more than a coach – he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father. Coach was always there for me whenever I needed him and I loved him for it.”

Other former UNC players–a galaxy of NBA stars, but non-scholarship players as well–are now chiming in with stories of how Coach Smith helped them negotiate the world as they left Carolina, how Coach remembered their mom’s name and asked about her, how Coach would call to check on them if they’d sustained an injury. The man cared.

(Ellen Ozier, Reuters)

(Ellen Ozier, Reuters)

But here’s why I think anyone–not just basketball fans–should want to know about this man. Dean Smith never let his role as a highly-paid, political figure (don’t tell me Div. I basketball coaches aren’t political figures!) keep him from following his conscience. He participated in desegregating restaurants in the early 1960s. In 1966 he was the first coach to offer an African American  player a scholarship at UNC, when white players and fans were still spitting on Black players. He protested, with his church, not only the Vietnam War and nuclear proliferation, but the death penalty. He even took his players to visit Death Row inmates in Raleigh. In later years, through his church, he supported gay rights.

Remember: we are talking about a MEN’S BASKETBALL COACH. In the SOUTH.

So, you can see why there are many reasons we truly loved Dean Smith. Now here’s one for you to add your admiration.NPR quotes sports writer John Feinstein, a Duke alum who was working on a book about Coach Smith, in the most telling example of Smith’s character:

To me, his legacy is summed up in something that happened that I was involved in peripherally, years and years ago when I first learned about his involvement in desegregating the restaurants in Chapel Hill. And I asked him about it ’cause it was his minister who told me the story.

And he said, I wish Reverend Seymour hadn’t told you that. And I said, Dean, why? Why would you want that? You should be proud of being involved in something like that. And he looked at me, and he said, John, you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.

I’m going to repeat that last part, just to let it reverberate: “You should never be proud of the doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.”

Now aren’t you glad you took the time to read about this man? Rest in Peace, Coach–and thank you.

Butter my Busted Brackets for Breakfast—They’re Toast: Watching the NCAAs and Fearing For My Soul

This year billionaire Warren Buffet famously offered a billion-dollar purse to any individual picking a perfect set of wins in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. It’s no news by now that Mr. BigBucks learned he wouldn’t have to pay out…after the first full day of games, back two weeks ago. That’s how unpredictable this stuff is. But my own picks were so bad, I think I actually OWE Warren that billion.

Wonder if he’ll take a check.

It’s not that I didn’t see upsets coming, ok? I DID. I just chose the WRONG ONES. Case in point: Twelfth seeds are always matched up against Fives in the first round. I picked NC State, a 12, to beat St. Louis, a 5, based on my SUPERIOR KNOWLEDGE as a NC native who had just watched State beat the juggernaut of Syracuse in the ACC tourney.

In the first two days, three of the four 12-seeds beat the 5s. Guess which one DIDN’T?

Still pretty grumpy about that.

It went on from there. Every upset I called didn’t happen; every dominant team I “bet” on found a way to lose. I’m pretty sure they did it on purpose.

But I should back up here, pleading hyperbole (a common ailment among writers in general and bloggers in particular). First of all, not ALL my teams lost. Second of all, I didn’t bet.

See, when my own team goes out–as Carolina did in the second round, in a game too well-played for us to feel too sad about–and my brackets no longer hold any joyous anticipation for me, that’s when the wet blanket good angel of conscience joins the party.

What are you doing? These are kids playing with a ball! And they’re supposed to be students, not over-hyped vessels of steroids and future marketing! Or, worse, gateways to gambling addiction!

(Courtesy Chad Cooper, Flikr Creative Commons)

(Courtesy Chad Cooper, Flikr Creative Commons)

Last week’s editorial in the Christian Science Monitor (I’m not a Christian Scientist, but their magazine ROCKS) discussed exactly that: the rise in gambling among people who would never otherwise place a bet, caused by the huge mainstreaming of March Madness. So much for my giddiness over the Final Four. Luckily I had none left anyway.

Of course, the only reason I’m having these spasms of conscience now is because my own Madness has turned to Sadness.If my team were still in the Dance, don’t even think of lecturing me! Or at least wait till mid-April. Yes, I’m a total hypocrite–but at least I’m an honest one.

I am comforting myself with some gems from the past couple of weeks. I couldn’t find YouTubes for any of them, unfortunately, so you’ll just have to imagine…

North Carolina’s Xylina McDaniels making a shot from a sitting position beneath the basket after getting knocked off her feet

Louisville’s senior star Shoni Schimmel beating her male counterpart in the three-point shooting contest (part of the “hoop”la leading up to both the men’s and women’s Final Four)

And my favorite, which wasn’t even a sports moment: this ad. It’s from some network provider, I think–and I guess it must have failed in its purpose ’cause I can’t remember the name. But it features a couple of nerdy-looking guys installing some connections in the ceiling of a nondescript office.

(Non-classically-beautiful but adorably clean-cut) Woman, startled by nerdy technician in ceiling: Oh! What are you doing?

(Potentially-handsome-despite-large-glasses-and-lack-of-social-confidence) Man, hanging down from ceiling: **explains his job** then…

Man (in shy monotone): Did it hurt? When you fell from heaven?

Woman (blushing delightedly, looking down): …A little…

Man (yanked back up into ceiling by annoyed co-worker): Sorry!

But we all know they meet for sodas later, right?

OK, this has NOTHING to do with basketball, or gambling, or the sad state of my conscience. But it does have to do with March Madness. Because among all the gazillions of ads, both TV and radio, that I have muted over the past month, this is the only one where I turn UP the volume. Hey, I’m not contributing to American commercialism–I’m enjoying a love story! My conscience feels better already.

Got a March Madness story? Best game, best moment, best ad? General rage or simply bafflement? Let us hear.