I am neither Tar Heel born nor Tar Heel bred, but there’s no doubt when I die, I’ll be Tar Heel dead.
The University of North Carolina won its sixth men’s basketball national title last Monday, beating Gonzaga, 71-65, in one of the sloppiest, most haggard national titles games ever. With every foul call, only diehard fans of either team watched that game with anything more than passing interest.
That put me in the minority. I watched from the edge of my couch, jumping up and shouting with glee when Justin Jackson’s breakaway dunk with 12 seconds left all but sealed the game for the Tar Heels. As Jackson dunked, I jumped off the couch and screamed in joyous victory. It was almost a shot for shot remake of my reaction to Luke Maye’s game-winner against Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
I climbed on the Tar Heels bandwagon 30 years ago. When I was freshman in high school at Mt. St. Joseph Academy in Rutland, Vt., our football team scheduled tough out of state opponents for non-conference games. That year, one of those opponents was a juggernaut from Binghamton, N.Y. They came to Rutland and destroyed us, the only game the varsity lost that season. One player who went out of his way to pulverize us was running back King Rice, who seemed to turn every carry into a touchdown.
Flash forward just over a year to late 1987. I was at home, watching a UNC basketball game, and the Tar Heels point guard was freshman King Rice. Since I recalled with such clarity his dominance on the football field, I watched him play basketball. I became a fan. While other guys my age became UNC fans a few years earlier, when Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins were playing for the Tar Heels, my introduction to the team was Rice, JR Reid, Scott Williams and Rick Fox.
My alma mater, the University of Maine, treats March basketball as something to be avoided, an infectious disease or lima beans. I hope that changes, but until it does I’ll keep my 30-year old reservation in Tar Heel Nation. My friends who graduated from UNC are happy to let me tag along. We cheer for the Heels, and we boo Duke until our vocal cords creak.
I don’t get how anybody who didn’t go to Duke can cheer for Duke. It’s like cheering for Darth Vader or the bully in The Karate Kid. At least the Blue Devils don’t do that stupid floor slapping thing anymore, do they? Duke is at the top of the insufferable food chain.
I also don’t get the Cult of Mike Krzyzewski. I acknowledge Coach K is a fantastic coach, a great basketball mind. If we sat down and talked, I’d likely enjoy the conversation. Maybe we’d chat about our shared Polish heritage, and I’d come away knowing my dislike of him is unfounded and irrational.
The thing is, I already know my dislike of Krzyzewski is unfounded and irrational, and still I cling to it like a blanket on a cold night. It warms my basketball-loving soul. I embrace it, because part of being a fan means giving in to your lesser angels. There is nothing rational about the lesser angels.
My lesser angels tell me no decent coach would let Grayson Allen play after tripping an opponent twice, much less make a grand show of an indefinite suspension after the third trip, only to rescind said suspension after one lousy game. My lesser angels say Krzyzewski is an enabler of the highest order, because he’s been enabled for decades by a fawning public.
My lesser angels know that if a Tar Heel exhibited the abject lack of sportsmanship Allen has turned into his vocation, Roy Williams would not tolerate it, because Dean Smith would not have tolerated it.
Since Roy Williams came back to UNC in 2003, I’ve noticed I say dadgum a lot more. I’m thinking of buying a “The Ceiling is the Roof” t-shirt. I look good in Carolina blue.
I’m already looking at next season. Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt, and Kennedy Meeks graduate. Jackson is probably off to the NBA. Joel Berry II should be back for his senior year, and he’ll be one of the best guards in the country. Theo Pinson will be back. Seventh Woods will see his playing time increase. If he doesn’t jump to the NBA, Tony Bradley will be a key big man. Kenny Williams will be back from his knee injury. Another strong freshman class is on the way.
Repeat, and in the process, beat Duke. One caveat: Next season, make more free throws.
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242