Saturday, March 12, 2011

My Blue Heaven

With the NCAA basketball postseason getting into full swing, I reflect upon my recent trip to Tobacco Road and one of the country's hardwood havens...

Take a moment and think back as far as you can remember.

What were your interests, your likes, your loves, your dislikes? Did they linger throughout your childhood? Did they stick with you as you grew up? Are they still a part of you now?

Despite hundreds of miles standing in the way, my fascination with the University of North Carolina -- and in particular, its basketball program -- has been everlasting. How the love affair began, I couldn't tell you. Maybe the school's colors appealed to my then-4-year-old eyes. Perhaps it was the team's uniforms. Maybe it was their constant exposure on national television. Although it stemmed from such innocent and arbitrary beginnings, the interest continues to this day.


During President's Day weekend, I decided to take a trip to Chapel Hill, NC, to watch the nationally-ranked Tar Heels' basketball team go up against the Boston College Eagles.

This journey was about more than a basketball game, was an opportunity to reflect upon my life and consider its current direction. It's so easy to get caught up in the hustle-and-bustle of everyday adult life -- our relationships, our friendships, our careers, and our responsibilities. But for a few hours on Saturday, February 19th, Chapel Hill and the UNC campus served as my temporary time machine to simpler, more carefree days.

Nothin' could be finer...

Chapel Hill is the quintessential college town, balancing university and residential life. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the main strip in the downtown area, East Franklin Street. A combination of shops, restaurants, fast-food eateries, nightlife spots and UNC-themed stores dot the landscape...with campus buildings just a short walk away.

Chapel Hill's Franklin Street on a Saturday afternoon

Upon taking my first steps on Franklin Street, I flashed back to my initial visit in 1991, as a 12-year-old. Much like then, I looked around in awe and wonder...taking in all the sights.

How intertwined are the community and the school? Ask the owners of the "Shrunken Head Boutique," a Franklin Street store that has been around since 1969, specializing in selling UNC apparel and items. It has been owned-and-operated by the same people for the duration of its existence...and they openly share stories about their craziest and happiest times. Owner Shelton Henderson recalls his most memorable moment. "After UNC won the national championship in '82. We were up until 4 AM after that game, making t-shirts...and we couldn't even keep up with demand!" Other stores in the area -- despite having fewer years under their belts -- probably have similar tales to tell.

The Shrunken Head Boutique -- a pillar in the Chapel Hill community

After spending a couple of hours (and a few dollars) on Franklin Street, it was time to walk the UNC campus. I adore the picturesque setting. Brick building after brick building -- some dating back to the late-1700s and early-1800s -- surround you. Brick paths guide students along the manicured college greens throughout the spacious (and -- befitting the town's name -- hilly) campus.

The South Building -- one of the oldest on the UNC campus

About halfway into my campus walk, I encounter some UNC basketball history -- Carmichael Auditorium -- home of the men's basketball team from 1965 to 1986, and the current home of the women's team. Head coach Dean Smith perfected his craft there, eventually leading to the construction of an arena that would be named in his honor. It was where legendary names in Tar Heel basketball history -- Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Phil Ford, to name a few -- thrilled and delighted fans. Over 10,000 people would pack Carmichael on a game-by-game basis back then...prompting the need for a larger facility.

Carmichael Auditorium housed the UNC men's basketball team for two decades

Continuing the walk, I would eventually reach my destination. The Dean Smith Center sits near the bottom of a hill along the outer edge of campus. Completed in 1986, its brown exterior is topped with a black roof, and a small white dome atop the structure.

The Dean Smith Center -- home of the Tar Heels

Upon walking inside, I became a little kid yet Carolina Blue blood started to rush through my veins. In about 45 minutes, I would be watching the Tar Heels take the court in a pivotal ACC matchup with Boston College.

The murals alone can get you excited for Carolina basketball

The Dean Dome's concourse is an ode to North Carolina's basketball tradition. Numerous murals appear, displaying great moments in Tar Heel history. In addition, there are framed-and-enlarged team photos of every ACC and NCAA championship-winning team that UNC has ever had! When you're not approaching a concession stand for refreshments, you can take part in a self-guided history lesson.

Team photo of the 1981-82 national champions on the concourse

Inside the seating area, the rafters provide another reminder of Tar Heel basketball greatness. There are 43 jerseys hanging from the ceiling on one side of the court, signifying the great players who have donned Carolina blue-and-white. Of those banners, 8 are displayed on a light blue background. Those indicate retired numbers that will never be worn again by a UNC player.

Those jerseys in the rafters are an impressive sight

On the opposite side of the arena are North Carolina's 6 national championship banners, complete with the team's final overall record for that season. They are purposefully made to be larger than any other banner on display in the arena...and to Tar Heel fans, they are larger-than-life.

North Carolina's national championship banners are proudly displayed

As gametime draws closer, the atmosphere inside the Smith Center becomes more intense. The UNC pep band plays both contemporary music and traditional fight songs as the players get ready for the game. Students near the court cheer as current Carolina head coach Roy Williams tosses them t-shirts. The video boards display UNC statistics and trivia. For the next 2-or-so hours, North Carolina Tar Heels basketball would become the center of my universe.

Underway at the Smith Center

The first 20 minutes of the game featured deliberate play and shoddy execution. Boston College, who entered the game with a 16-9 overall record and 6-5 ACC mark, kept within striking distance of the #19 Tar Heels as UNC took a 21-20 lead into the locker room at halftime.

Sophomore forward John Henson's tip-in helped UNC to a 21-20 halftime lead

During the intermission, the 1971 Tar Heel basketball team was honored for the 40th anniversary of its NIT championship win. Nearly the entire roster from that team made the trip to Chapel Hill to take part in the festivities...revealing the loyalty that they still have for the university.

The 1971 NIT championship team is honored at halftime

The 2nd half proved tough for the 19-5 (9-2 in the ACC) Tar Heels as well. Although UNC had established a 13-point lead during a couple stretches of play, the Eagles fought back. Could BC pull off the road upset?

Junior center Tyler Zeller scores two of his 16 points in the game

As the game approached its conclusion, UNC held a 48-46 lead. Boston College had the ball with 20 seconds left. Everyone inside the Smith Center was nervously on their feet, anticipating the final shot. Would the Eagles play it safe and go for the tie? Or would a 3-point attempt be launched for the win?

Boston College huddles up to discuss strategy

Following a timeout, UNC and Boston College players left their respective huddles to take the floor for the final play. The crowd of 21,159 cheered, almost all of them pleading for a Tar Heel defensive stop.

The ball is brought in-bounds. It rests in the hands of junior BC guard Reggie Jackson. He stands slightly behind the three-point line as the final seconds tick away. Jackson starts dribbling toward the hoop...and with five seconds left, he stops short. He's going for 3! The ball arcs toward the basket as players and fans alike watch helplessly. It strikes the rim...and bounces away! North Carolina escapes with a narrow victory as the Smith Center crowd celebrates. I jumped around with the same joy you'd see in a young child.

Junior guard Reggie Jackson's game-winning shot attempt bounces off the rim

The 48 points scored by UNC established a dubious single-game record -- the lowest total by a Tar Heel team in the history of the Dean Smith Center. Yet despite the ugly number, the result was a beautiful win.

UNC survives Boston College's upset bid

After the game, I remained in my seat in Section 224 for several minutes...smiling about the victory and quietly absorbing the sights-and-sounds as people made their way to the exits. The band played the UNC alma mater, "Hark the Sound," as the remaining fans sang, swayed and then clapped along with the music.

Celebration as the UNC alma mater plays

This was my first visit to Chapel Hill in eight years. Although a lot of time had passed, it still felt "comfortable"...and despite having no official affiliation with UNC, the passion for a school I started rooting for decades ago had not subsided.

While my future has yet to be determined...but it's pretty safe to say that Carolina will be in my mind.

Some things never change as you grow up...

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