I’m just a country boy. I was raised on Jesus, cornbread, and ass-whippings. I played high-school football in central North Carolina and prayed before games. Most of the time the Good Lord didn’t come through, but deep down I understood why my football team went 3-7 my junior year: Those losses were my punishment for being inherently selfish and bad.
In hindsight, getting stomped on Friday nights reinforced my guilty conscience and made me a better person.
But I never could handle a Carolina basketball loss the same way. A U.N.C. round-ball defeat caused days of profound suffering because I prayed before those matchups, too. And there was something fundamentally unfair about my heroes suffering the wrath of an angry God. I was 16, powerless and frustrated. My reasoning became compromised. I was too young to drink. Instead, I blew things up.
When we lost to Duke in the 1980 A.C.C. semifinals, my brother and I responded by filling an Eagle Claw fishhook box with gunpowder and the contents of an Estes rocket engine. We inserted a fuse, wrapped the bomb in electric tape, and dropped it into a Duke coffee mug a friend had given us as a joke. In an empty lot, we made a lovely explosion. The bomb blew Dookie-blue ceramic shards every which way. But a burning missile, probably a sliver of the rocket engine, flew into a patch of dry grass and started a brush fire. A sudden gust of wind transformed a manageable blaze into a raging inferno.
The volunteer fire department showed up, and together, we managed to contain the flames by digging a trench around them. All of the firemen knew us, so we shook hands and apologized once it was all over. By then, I was too old for an ass-whipping, so for punishment my brother and I spent the next weekend raking pine needles and cleaning out gutters. That year, Duke would make the N.C.A.A. Elite Eight and my Tar Heels would lose to Texas A&M in the second round of the tournament.
When you wear your colors in New York City, the locals can get downright nasty. By 2008, I had been living in the Big Apple for 17 years, but was naïve enough to don my Tar Heel regalia and watch the N.C.A.A. semifinals at a “friendly” neighborhood bar. I wore my National Champions T-shirt from 2005, when U.N.C. won the N.C.A.A. Tournament, and a matching cap. The game hadn’t even started before someone yelled from the across the room, “Hey, Tar Heel! Aren’t you folks ever gonna take them clothes off?”
He had a Southern drawl. He was drunk, about six-five, and powerfully built. He kept needling me. He and his girlfriend laughed and pointed. I wandered over and asked them who they rooted for.
“We’re Wake Forest graduates,” he replied with a wan smile. Suddenly, I became sympathetic. The Demon Deacons still hadn’t recovered from their promising, yet disappointing, 2005 season. That year, they had destroyed Carolina during our only regular-season matchup. Point guard Chris Paul had played perfect ball in that game, and the Deacons went 32 for 32 from the foul line. No team can compete against those numbers. But Paul went on to the N.B.A., and Skip Prosser, the Deacons’ charismatic head coach, died a tragic death. Since then, Wake Forest fans had been engaged in the agonizing process of rebuilding.
I kept my mouth shut and forced a smile. These weren’t Kansas fans; they were A.B.C. people—Anyone But Carolina.
Anyway, I ordered a bone-dry martini and prepared for the semifinal matchup against the Kansas Jayhawks. As the Tanqueray settled in, a series of freeze-frame images flashed through my brain—my sister and I in the Dean Dome, Chapel Hill’s temple to basketball; seeing my Tar Heels win the 1993 National Championship on a broken-down television set, using a foil-covered desk lamp as an antenna; a cherished family photo next to the U.N.C. flag outside my childhood home. A victory against Kansas would be sweet. U.N.C. head coach Roy Williams, who had coached at Kansas before returning to his alma mater, had taken the Jayhawks to four Final Four appearances, but he’d never won a national championship while in Lawrence. Together, Coach Williams, point guard Ty Lawson, and Associated Press player of the year Tyler Hansbrough would deliver that night’s win, I was sure, and in a couple more days, they’d bring a fifth N.C.A.A. Championship to the University of North Carolina.
I don’t remember much after the opening tipoff. I recall us being behind 40-12 with five minutes remaining in the first half. That’s when the jeers began. From one end of the bar, a man shouted in a mock-female voice, “Look at Tyler Hansbrough! He’s so tough!”
“Yeah, he’s a real fighter!” an attractive blonde hollered from the other end of the bar. “Look Out Jayhawks!” she guffawed.
I kept my mouth shut and forced a smile. These weren’t Kansas fans; they were A.B.C. people—Anyone But Carolina. I couldn’t leave, so I took the abuse. The A.B.C.s never let up either. Final score: Kansas 84, U.N.C. 66.
Of course, nobody remembers us winning the following year. Most viewers flipped away from the 2009 N.C.A.A. Championship because the game against Michigan State wasn’t even close. We’d won all six of our tournament games by 12 points or more. In the Southern Regional final, we held Oklahoma’s fearsome Blake Griffin scoreless for most of the first half. But the world slept while all of that happened.
“You’re behaving like a spoiled child,” my buddy Zane says when I refuse to participate in this year’s N.C.A.A. tournament pool. “Your team won it all last year,” he adds. “Be a good sport and fill out a goddamn bracket.”
Zane coordinates the office pool and everybody plays. Whoever comes in dead last gets a consolation prize—double their entry fee. The last time my Tar Heels missed the dance was in 2003, and that year I had lowballed my bracket in hopes of winning the loser’s award. My fellow bracketeers found this abhorrent and voted me off the island an hour before the tournament began. I remind Zane of this, telling him, “I’m keeping my 20 bucks this time.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, I respect Duke. Their current lineup plays elegant, sophisticated ball.
Zane’s a generous guy. At the beginning of this season he took me to see my Tar Heels play in the “Coaches vs. Cancer” tournament at Madison Square Garden. I lived high on the hog—a Southern boy in New York City, watching his team shoot the lights out of the Garden? My Tar Heels decimated Ohio State with superb shot selection and a ruthless man-to-man defense. The Garden was awash in Carolina Blue. I wore my colors, sang the Carolina fight song, and stuffed myself with beer and soft pretzels.
Thank God Zane invited someone else the following night, when Syracuse killed us, 87-71. Maybe you don’t follow college basketball, maybe you haven’t been informed that Carolina is currently finishing out one of its worst years—perhaps its worst season in its 100-year history—but for me, that’s the night when our season ended—November 20, 2009. Since then, I haven’t watched a basketball game outside the confines of my apartment.
I prefer watching my Tar Heels lose on the web. I can throw things. Spare myself public humiliation and huge bar tabs. This season we stunk so bad I sometimes resorted to reading online chatter from other viewers. A Duke coed made the most amusing comments. The fact that someone from Duke could be so insightful hurt real bad. Losing to the Blue Devils home and away caused even more pain. The U.N.C.-Duke basketball rivalry—aka The Battle for Tobacco Road—is the fiercest conflict in college sports, and we didn’t even show up to play.
I wish I had the maturity to play brackets this year. But through my own twisted reasoning, it makes sense that I sit this one out. Since my boys missed the dance, I’d feel obligated to pick a fellow A.C.C. team to win it all, and this year, the Blue Devils are clearly the best club in the conference. Now, don’t get me wrong, I respect Duke. Their current lineup plays elegant, sophisticated ball. But the Cameron Crazies reside eight miles away from my alma mater, and I just cannot root for my obstreperous, elitist, smug, hysterical neighbors to win a national championship.
I can’t wait until next year. I’ve lost faith in Jesus, but I still believe in my beloved Tar Heels. And to this day, I cannot believe that Mike Gminski never fouled out of a game.