when we come marching

4/4/05

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What is it that makes North Carolina so great? Was it because it rescued me, showed me how to be a real human being, allowed me to fall in love, make friends for decades, appreciate the beauty of a dogwood tree in April and the intrigued smile across a crowded room? I went to UNC in the depths of my private school despair because of a photograph: it was a guy and a girl holding hands, carrying books in the springtime by the Old Well. That picture has made all the difference in my life, and in the life of my future family.

It was the family that won last night, the extended cadre of folks I love that created a blast area, a diaspora thousands of miles in radius from the Old Well, with our collective affection still concentrated on that campus. It has allowed us to care about these irrational exuberances long after many people forget what college they went to. I know tonight, as the final buzzer sounded, my long-lost friends Sunny Kumar, Amy Wearmouth, Josh Pate, Barb Laing, R.C. Stiles, Deborah Fox-Currier – wherever the hell you guys are – were as ecstatic as I was.

Much has been made of our seniors suffering through the 8-20 season in 2002, but I don’t think people understand the kind of wood rot that had crept into the Carolina program by then. The fabled family was coming apart, like those devastating scenes in “Avalon,” and getting back to a National Championship wasn’t just fortuitous, it was more a miracle.

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I’m in love with everybody and everything. I am totally sick and can’t speak, just like that night in 1993. I had sweet-and-sour chicken from the local Chinese place, just like 1993. Only this time, I’m really enjoying the feeling of going out a winner.

We did not win this game to a gaffe like Fred Brown in 1982 or Chris Webber in 1993. We did not lose because some guy went crazy and had a career night, like 1988, 1989, 1996, 1997, 1999 and so many other games in between. Even though Illinois jacked up more 3-pointers than any team in Championship Game history, they still didn’t fell our team. We beat the best to become the best.

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after the game, still in mojo mode

There are many people who I am so happy for today, most conspicuously Jackie Manuel, our fan favorite who got engaged and will now have his own ring along with his bride. But the cake goes to Roy Williams, a man I think I truly understand. What follows is a long clip from Sports Illustrated in 1997, and it shows why this is so meaningful. It made me cry last night while waiting for the game.

Roy Williams can still close his eyes and see his mother, her raven-black hair pulled back, standing at the stove with her apron on, cooking biscuits and milk gravy and sausages. Or canning green beans and tomatoes for winter meals. Or standing over and ironing board with piles of other folks’ clothes at her feet. He doesn’t remember her ever taking a vacation. As a mother of two—Roy and his older sister, Frances—and as the ex-wife of an alcoholic whose life had spun out of control, Lallage Williams had all she could do to provide for her family.

“For several years there, I really felt my mom had to battle every day to make things go, so that on Friday she could pay this bill and that and then have enough left for food,” Roy says. “Some of my worst memories are coming home in sixth or seventh grade and finding her ironing. Ten cents for a shirts, 10 cents for a pair of pants. And this after she had worked all day. You don’t think that was hard to see? I knew that a lot of moms didn’t have to do that, and I didn’t want to watch her, so I’d just leave.”

Every day Roy would go over to the basketball courts at Biltmore Elementary School, and afterward he and his friends would stop at Ed’s service station on Hendersonville Road, where each of them got a Coca-Cola from the vending machine—each of them except Roy. “I couldn’t, because I didn’t have ten cents,” he says. When Mimmie heard that the boys stopped at Ed’s after basketball, she asked Roy what he drank when the other boys had Cokes. “Oh, I just have some water,” he told her. All these years later, Williams, who’s now 46, can’t tell his story without pausing to swallow hard as he describes walking into the kitchen the next morning, after Mimmie had gone to work, and seeing her on the corner of the table what would become for him the symbol of her goodness and her struggle. “There was 10 cents sitting there,” he says.

This remains prominent among the searing memories of his boyhood days in North Carolina. So much so that when his old high school coach, Buddy Baldwin came to spend a weekend at Kansas two years ago, Williams told him the story all over again. At one point Williams escorted Baldwin out to the garage and pointed to a large refrigerator and told him, “Open that up.”

Baldwin swung open the door and looked inside. All the shelves, from front to back, were lined with hundreds of cans of Coca-Cola Classic. Four unopened cases were piled on tip of the fridge. Williams then told Baldwin, “I said to myself back then, ‘Someday I’m going to have all the Coca-Cola I want.’ “

Go Heels.

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0 thoughts on “when we come marching

  1. kenny

    That Roy Williams story almost takes away the disappointment of seeing my home state’s team (though not my alma mater) lose to what amounts to the New York Yankees of college basketball. The whole state of Illinois went absolutely nuts for Illinois this past season. Tonight on the way home, the electronic message boards along Chicago’s expressways replaced the usual travel times with a simple ‘Go Ilini!’ Even those of us who went to other Big Ten schools (Go Hawkeyes!) put aside those rivalries to cheer on the Ilini to what we hoped would be a victory. This was the Yankees/Red Sox, Bulls/Lakers, Bears/Packers of college basketball and Illinois came up short, again.
    I will say this though, I made my first trip to North Carolina last fall for the wedding of a UNC Grad which was attended by a large contingent of fellow UNC grads and the pride Tar Heels fans share for their alma mater is among the most fervent I’ve seen.
    Congrats!

    Reply
  2. scruggs

    I can’t believe you’re going to make me cry before I have my coffee, or should I have a Coca-Cola today instead?
    Watched the game at an aforementioned sports bar in Atlanta packed with probably 400 folks, 99.5% Carolina. Attached to the main dining room is a smaller room decorated only with Carolina stuff. Shortly before game time, the place erupts in cheers as George freakin “heart of the 93 team” Lynch comes into the room with a few pals. Though there’s “no room at the inn,” a prime viewing space immediately clears and chairs are brought in for them to join us. Being able to watch our Heels persevere and not fold with Lynch cheering right by me and high-fiving everyone definitely capped the night.
    What a great game. Glad Peanut was cooperative.
    $10 for tenders and fries, $2 for sweet tea and $60 for a sitter. Worth every penny!

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  3. Laurie from Manly Dorm

    Excellent post today! I am now bawling in my cubicle. Your wood rot/”Avalon” analogy was right on! You and I were at Carolina the same years, and we know that ever since Dean left, it has been such misery. Thank God for Roy Williams! He is my hero — even more so now that I have read your post.
    You are having quite the year, my friend. National Championship, Peanut on the way. If I were a betting woman, I would say that you should start playing the lottery — the planets are definitely aligned in your favor!

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  4. Killian

    yes, tears in the coffee, for sure–thanks for sharing that Williams story. the world is a wonderful place for the Peanut to make her entrance (i’m thinkin’ she knew enough not to want to share the limelight with the Heels) so now, sweetie, all spotlights on YOU!!!

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  5. jon

    Dood: I vaguely remember that SI story, and major props for digging it out now. Have a Coke and a smile. Dean excepted, who’s cooler than Roy?
    As that Joe dude in Grimes might have said about our beloved team, “Rage on, You Hell-Raisin’ Motherf******s.”

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  6. Emma

    I didn’t do anything the same as ’82 (12 years old watching game with my Dad) or ’93 (23 years old and watching the game at Henderson Street) but I had on my 1993 “Heels Win it All” t-shirt and did not jinx a thing.
    I loved the Roy Williams story. As a life long UNC fan (class of ’91) and almost a decade long Red Sox fan (Boy what a good year it has been!), I must take exception to the Tar Heels being compared to the Evil Empire of the Yankees as stated in the comments. If you are looking for an apt comparison to the New York Yankees, I suggest looking to the Dook Blue Devils.
    Sean May is the man and your wife is the women being 9 months pregnant and being able to stay awake for duration of the whole game!

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  7. Andrew

    The feelings that follow victory can be odd. In 1993, victory was fun because I was celebrating at school with friends and we had always been a good team. But now, I am even happier, probably because we went to the bottom and have bounced back. I am so happy today about winning that the most prominent emotion I have is anger towards anyone that ever spoke ill of Carolina Basketball over the past couple of years. Feel like saying “that’s right…told you the Revenge Tour was coming”.

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  8. Emily

    Report from Chapel Hill via my brothers Stephen (’02) and Lewis (a sophomore) – the birds are singing more sweetly today, the spring foilage is more beautiful, the sky is a gorgeous Carolina blue…and the line for reprints of today’s DTH is a mile long.
    THEY DID IT!!! THEY DID IT!!! Oh how I love them Heels!

    Reply
  9. Laurie from Manly Dorm

    My daughter packed a whole load of Carolina stuff in her backpack this morning. She told me that she wanted to share it all for Show-and-Tell in her kindergarten class. That’s my girl! I suspect that she is spreading the Gospel of Roy Williams right about now to all those little Maryland kids. . .

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  10. Eric G

    Fellow UNC ’91 and Daily Tar Heel vet Bill Taggart and I brought the Heels home from the West Coast bureau in Alameda, CA last night. We had to temper our cheers so as not to wake Bill’s new six-week-old daughter Lindsay. But we were silently high-fiving the whole time. During the time-out with 1:04 left, Bill looked at me and said “I can’t say anything.” The moment was too tense. It is amazing indeed that a game played by men so much younger than ourselves can still reduce us to tears, but the fact that I had a voicemail from Chris Landgraff at halftime and talked to Chris Chapman before, during and after the game goes a long way to explaining it. Let ’em all go pro. Roy’ll bring us back!

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  11. greg

    My favorite statistic from the post-game show:
    UNC Tar Heels: 4 national championships
    Duke Blue Devils: 3 national championships
    You just know that alot of dookies had assumed the Tar Heel era was over…
    sorry, gang, there’s plenty of fight left in them Heels!

    Reply
  12. clay harris

    found your site while searching for that great clip of charles kuralt saying
    “What is it that binds us to this place as to no other? It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls. Or the crisp October nights or the memory of dogwoods blooming. Our loyalty is not only to William Richardson Davie, though we are proud of what he did 200 years ago today. Nor even to Dean Smith, though we are proud of what he did last March. No, our love for this place is based on the fact that it is, as it was meant to be, the University of the people.”
    and started reading.
    last night, i watched the game on airport road, one block from franklin st. tv on the front porch, woody on the radio, hot dogs on the grill, and a carolina blue sky that gradually faded in to carolina black.
    after the game, we picked up anything flammable and carried it up to franklin st. hugged and hi-fived everyone, all 25,000 of them, and went home to bed.
    next time ya’ll should come back home for the game.

    Reply
  13. Tanya

    Just got back from Franklin Street. Man, it’s a beautiful day. Every store on FS that sells t-shirts/hats/etc. is crowded full of peeps, and they all have long-ass lines out the door just to get in! I did get to enjoy the Single Gambler at the Rat, however.
    If anyone needs me, I’ll be in my office chewing on Tums with a very big smile on my face…

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  14. Donald

    YEAH! WOO HOO!!!
    Sorry, that’s all the coherence I can muster today, except to note – Ian, your DTH column back in the day helped me greatly with the difficult adjustment to college life in the Gen X era. Thanks, and I’m glad we can virtually share this joyous occasions.
    GO TAR HEELS!!!

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  15. KJF

    after reading this emotional posting i simply cannot imagine the posting once your little girl is in your arms.

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  16. Hilary Howard

    had a complete meltdown when they won last night. what a team. what drama. ian or anyone: do you know the history behind the tie roy wore last night?

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  17. Pete

    Are you sure Sunny Kumar was rooting for the Heels last night? If memory serves, he was all about the Cavaliers, and they wear orange…

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  18. DB

    There are 22 comments already, so I kinda hate to spoil the magic.
    But…
    Damn, that coke story teared me up, too. I was thinking after the game that Roy seemed hard, that I wouldn’t love him as much as I loved Dean. I realize now that I didn’t understand him.
    I will say this–there’s something bittersweet about getting what you want. After watching every single game this year, it’s — disbelief? or a realization that it’s the journey, not the destination.
    I’m holding on to my ticket stub from watching UNC lose to Santa Clara, where I ran into Grib and Bill Taggart (shout out!).
    And Sunny Kumar, I hope you google yourself sometime and find yourself on this page.
    David Ball

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  19. Alex

    Ian – how far our beloved Tar Heels have come in the year since we watched them bow out of the 2004 tourney to Texas in the second round! The memory of you and I placing our Carolina hats side-by-side on that TV in Aspen to give our team luck crossed my mind as I was cheering my lungs out in the Edward Jones Arena in St. Louis on Monday night.
    I couldn’t begin to describe the emotions that I was feeling when you called me on my cell soon after the final buzzer sounded – even if I could have found the words, I doubt you would have heard them over the joyous uproar of the crowd. All of what the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill means to me came rushing in at one moment and I was overwhelmed. Completely. All I could do was scream and shout and cheer and clap along with all the other Carolina folks who were there. I still don’t have my voice back, but I am hopeful that I won’t sound like a thirteen year old going through puberty by tomorrow.
    I love the clip from Sports Ill, Ian. It says a whole lot, I don’t really need to say much more about the man except that when I saw him after the game at the Adams Mark Hotel, he was absolutely beaming, a grin so wide he looked like a little boy as he waved to the crowd as we chanted, “Roy! Roy! Roy!”
    Good for you, Roy! Go Heels!!

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  20. Kate

    Hi Ian,
    My boyfriend Anthony King linked me to your site via an IM – he prefaced the link with “Wanna cry?” :)
    Which I did – you summed it all up so well. I’m a born and bred Bostonian (so you know what that means) and am now a Carolina fan and proud of it.
    What a great year it’s been for all of us – Congratulations (and Go Sox)!

    Reply
  21. VanLear

    tears, tears, and more tears…..
    after watching something at Zog’s that, after 1998, I was not convinced I’d ever see again, and raising hell with the kids on franklin st. like it was 1993 (this year more cops, less paint, MUCH better weather, MUCH better weed)I ordered my double cheese on a pita to go and negotiated the 1 hour plus drive back to raleighwood. 5 hours later, with Hector still barking, I arrived at RDU, headed to LAX, with N&O and USA today in hand. Thus began my personal trail of tears (no offense).
    I’m proud to report that I cried like hell reading those two publications in RDU, I cried like hell reading The NY Times, and the Charlotte Observer during a layover, and ulitmately cried like hell reading the LA Times at my hotel. When I read your blog that night, I really lost it. Thank you for sharing that wonderful story.
    I used the picture of McCants holding the trophy high during a customer presentation in Santa Monica later in the week. And it killed.
    God Bless us all, and go to hell dook!

    Reply

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