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.
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.
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.’ “