On college basketball, the state religion of North Carolina
North Carolina is a state full of contradictions, one being that every single person can correctly pronounce Krzyzewski but no one can pronounce Buccini.
My second AIM screen name was
ibleeddukeblue (the first one, if you were wondering, was a Homestar Runner reference). Some of you may be surprised to learn that I was a Duke fan growing up. College team preference is just one of many ways North Carolinians talk in code, especially given the stark contrasts between Duke and Carolina. Duke is private, UNC is public. Duke is pricey, UNC is affordable. UNC is native sons and daughters, Duke is Yankees and international students. But when you’re a kid, you don’t understand any of that. It’s probably more accurate to say that I was more of a Coach K fan than a Duke fan. They say representation in media matters, and I guess even at 8 years old I realized that there really weren’t a whole lot of dark-haired Yankee Catholics with strange names walking around town.
Watching the 2001 Duke team go all the way was the first time I remember getting really into college basketball. The names still roll off the tongue with ease: Shane Battier, Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy. I remember my mom taking me to JP Looneys for the game. It was dark, it was smoky (remember “non-smoking” sections?), and it was really, really loud. That’s when I realized that for North Carolinians, college basketball is not just a game. It’s a religion.
When I moved out to California for college, I realized that the importance of basketball in North Carolina was something that couldn’t be explained to outsiders. Perhaps, after living in the state for a few years, it could be understood. But only those who grew up cutting class to go to March Madness at the Greensboro Coliseum, knowing the joy of seeing the TV cart wheeled during the ACC Tournament, or walking down Franklin Street after a win at the Dean Dome truly understand what this Final Four game is all about.
It’s hard to believe that tonight could be the night when the age of Great North Carolina Basketball Coaches comes to a close. It started with Dean Smith, going through Jim Valvano and Skip Prosser, continuing with Roy Williams, and concluding with Coach K’s retirement. Perhaps, in time, we’ll learn that the great era is actually still ongoing in Hubert Davis and Jon Scheyer, both players-turned-coaches steeped in the traditions of their respective programs.
There’s something poetic about a changing of the guard at our state’s most treasured institutions reflecting the monumental transformation underway in our state. Everywhere you look, the last vestiges of tobacco-and-textiles North Carolina are fading away. The best and brightest are moving to the state instead of away from it. Dairy farms are transforming into shoddy tract housing. Durham went from Black Wall Street to white hipster haven. Beer replaced moonshine in the birthplace of NASCAR. People still say y’all, not because they’re Southern but because it’s inclusive. Native son Jerry Richardson sold the Panthers to Yankee hedge fund bajillionaire Tepper. That same bajillionaire started a soccer team in Charlotte that is primarily marketed towards (check notes)…Latinos? Hell, even NC State is more of an engineering school than an ag school these days.
Change might be inevitable, but heartbreak is the crucible that forges a North Carolina basketball fan. Fate has a way of wrenching the most treasured and beloved pieces of the game from us, doesn’t it? It moved the ACC tournament to the heart of Yankee Country. It took Jim Valvano and Skip Prosser in their primes. It took Dean Smith’s mind. It took UNC’s 2016 championship away at the buzzer. By any measure, Coach K not getting his fairy tale ending at Cameron seems minor in comparison.
While the Lord taketh away, The Lord also Giveth. And Giveth He has, bestowing us with a never-before-seen Tobacco Road March Madness matchup, in the Final Four no less. So tonight, as North Carolinians around the world head to the Church of Tobacco Road, we give thanks. Our team may not win, but we can rest easy in the knowledge that North Carolina remains the center of the college basketball universe.