Usually when I write about basketball, I warn you right off: if you don’t enjoy it the way I do, then feel free to skip this particular entry. However, in the lingering sting of today’s loss, I’m going to try and put into words exactly why I bother, and use language designed for those readers who only see a leather ball, an iron rim, and a bunch of people running around in culottes.
Nutty fans give college hoops a terrible name. In particular are the Kameron Krazies, a numbnut group of ravenously twee dorks who shoepolish their nipples dark blue, scream classless and deeply unfunny bullshit at opposing teams, and jump up and down with the sort of mindless hegemony last seen by the German army in “Triumph of the Will.”
Add to this Madison Avenue’s idea of college fandom, which is unfailingly a balding, fat, aging fuckwad busy torturing his family with a minivan painted orange, or freaking out at Applebee’s, or woofing at insurance ladies while wearing styrofoam antennae. This kind of shit is fine if you want to sell deep-fried wings or beer, but it gives me Stupid Feeling™ and no doubt makes some people rankle at college sports in general and March Madness in particular.
Understand, then, that this type of obsession is not practiced by everybody. There are those for whom college basketball is a spiritual thing – as serious as medicine, as frivolous as dessert, and as important as religion. For me, Carolina basketball came to represent a way of thinking. It’s not just scoring more points than your opponent, it’s a method of conducting your affairs. I know that sounds silly, but bear with me.
The progenitor of much of this is Dean Smith, who was UNC’s coach from 1961 to 1997. He innovated entire swaths of the sport that affect everything from YMCA pick-up games to the NBA Finals. Apart from being an incredible man who was the first to integrate southern white-only basketball, he also lent his hand to gay rights, peace activism and stopping the death penalty – all under the auspices of his religious faith. He is truly one of the last of a giant, dying breed: the liberal Christians.
He also hated to lose. There are a number of stories about him getting under the skin of other coaches, pushing their buttons, and occasionally being a sneaky little gadfly. He was also a virulent smoker with a failed marriage (who quit smoking and remarried happily) but it is also his slightly-flawed humanity that makes him such a stunning character.
I will cut to the chase. He had several rules about playing basketball, some of which I will list here – first describing what they mean to the game, and then what they mean to me.
1. “You play the first half to get to the second half.”
Basketball meaning: Just survive the first twenty minutes of play, because what counts is the end of the game. If you are still competitive at halftime, start over and outscore them.
To me: The first part of any endeavor is almost always a slog, especially when dealing with massive works of art: a script, a musical, a novel, even a long piece of journalism. Think of how great it will be when you give your work the last semicolon; the last period. Don’t worry too much in the early going of any relationship. Don’t get despondent. The final act hasn’t been written yet. You aren’t fired. In fact, for all you know, your boss might be fired first.
2. “Take the shots you want, not what the defense gives you.”
Basketball meaning: Your game plan is to get the ball to your hot players, and to make set plays for an open shot. Your opponent is big down low? They like to run? Who cares? Make them play YOUR GAME.
To me: Don’t ever second-guess your strengths, and don’t ever give up on a plan without concrete evidence of failure. Come into an interview with a clear knowledge of the conversation you want to have. If you are a brilliant actor, don’t try to write; if you don’t want to be bored, bring a book.
3. “When you get blocked, go straight back up with the ball.”
Basketball meaning: Usually, a player who makes a block has either exhausted his energy getting to you, or is busy celebrating, so if the ball comes back to you, chances are good for an open lay-up.
To me: A huge failure generally frees you for another project. If someone pulls the rug out from under you, and all your funding is gone, make seven phone calls THAT DAY. When God closes a window, it’s usually because the door was always open.
4. “Point out the passer.”
Basketball meaning: When you make a basket, immediately point out the person who threw you the ball. This deflects praise to the true creator of the play.
To me: Never forget where you came from. Never foster resentments to those under you. You had help, and don’t fucking forget it.
5. “Give the tired signal if you want a rest.”
Basketball meaning: The coach doesn’t take you out – YOU decide when you need a rest. Put your fist in the air, and you will have relief.
To me: Know your limitations. Don’t stay at that party until 3am; she is never going to come.
6. “The Carolina Way.”
Basketball meaning: Dean Smith and his successors Bill Guthridge and now Roy Williams never let any of their players go out alone into the world. The Carolina family will always be there with advice, help, and occasionally life-saving gestures. When ex-point guard Phil Ford went into rehab, Dean learned the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and went to meetings with him. When Richard Vinroot went to Vietnam (a war Dean despised), the only postcards he got were from his parents and from Coach Smith. Old players never quite leave. Michael Jordan will show up to give a pep talk. Vince Carter calls for advice. It is a loving fraternity like no other.
To me: You will see commenters on this blog who have been friends for more than twenty years (and we’re not that old yet). My life would be so much the lesser without Bud, Chip, Jon, Lindsay, Kendall, Salem, Greggy and everyone of us (Gribster! Lee! Suzanne! Andy! Bill! Greg! Dean! Scruggs! Neva! Etc! SO MANY!) who spent those spring days in Chapel Hill soaking in the dogwoods.
I admit it, I’m an asshole homer. I will instinctively give jobs, hire and promote fellow Cackalackians. And for those of you who didn’t go to school with us, we’re an open fraternity/sorority, and you’ve got a bid. Hell, my two favorite roommates ever were dookies, Scotty and Lars (well, tied for third. My Tar Heel wife and my Tar Heel brother get #1 and #2).
I may be a jackass, a pill-popping leftist stooge and fat with a double-chin(?) but I am fiercely loyal. You’d have to murder a lot of puppies to lose me. Carolina taught me that nothing is meaningful without your family, both nuclear and extended.
As for the game today, sure, I’m heartbroken. We had what seemed to be a golden path to the Elite Eight. We made terrible decisions and it’s hard to believe this dream season is over. But this has been my favorite UNC team ever – they worked so hard and obviously loved each other. There is also this sense with Roy that if you followed his directions and toiled beyond compare, any one of us could have made the 2005-2006 squad. Even Lindsay.
And I’ve never said this before, but this time I think it’s fitting: Just wait until next year.