I know there’s a cadre of blog readers on here who automatically tune out every time I start talking about the North Carolina men’s basketball team, and I totally get it. As I’ve said many times before, other people’s sports teams are at best a creepy experience for you to endure, and at worst, a testosterone-fueled game-day mob that can only end in date rape.
I even tried to explain to my therapist today why Carolina hoops has always been my magnetic north, but it always fails in translation. I usually leave it at this: “deflect personal glory, act like you’ve been here before, value your family, play hard, play smart and play together.” But even that can end up sounding like a motivational poster hastily taped to a conference room wall in a struggling company.
So many of you won’t understand the epic fall from excellence our program has suffered over the last year, nor will you care, and that’s fine. But we were supposed to be celebrating the centennial of UNC basketball this year, and it feels a little like America’s bicentennial: an epic calendar event that happened to fall in the year 1976, when the entire country was malaised, depressed, stuck in gas lines and wearing checkered polyester leisure suits.
Most college basketball fans would say “boo fucking hoo, you won the National Championship in 2005, not to mention last year, while schools like Illinois, Texas, Purdue, UMass and Memphis have NEVER won it” and yes, that’s true. But this year we’re seeing a historic collapse, the kind of “first to worst” showing that is leaving most of us fans – and there are thousands and thousands – wondering what the hell happened.
We were pre-season ranked in the Top 5, returned some important starters (despite losing most of our team to the NBA last year), and had a stellar-rated recruiting class. The old cliché was trotted out: “Carolina doesn’t rebuild, it reloads”. Now we’re beneath even rebuilding – we have to gut the floor plan, buy new material and start over. It’s getting hard to see how we win another game this year.
Excellence is decades in the making, but success teeters on the pinpoint edge, a breath of air on a hair’s breadth, felling it one way or the other. Look at the Olympics over the last couple of days – Lindsey Jacobellis (snowboardcross) and Lindsey Vonn (alpine skiing) are both excellent, but one caught an edge, and the other grabbed gold. Maybe the same could be said of our team this year.
Let’s throw in a few elements: We lose the most determined player in Carolina history. Our point guard tries too hard, then is too tentative. Our big man relies on a soft touch that turns soft. Our freshmen are a little shellshocked. We lose a game in Charleston that punctures our vanity, but also puts a slow leak in our confidence. Eighteen games in, we’re psychologically devastated, and then the real losing starts.
On Tuesday, we went to Georgia Tech and fell behind by 27 points in the second half. After the game, Adam Lucas summed it up best:
As [Deon] Thompson rounded a corner in the Alexander Memorial Coliseum labyrinth, he came upon [Roy] Williams. The big man, still clad in his uniform, said nothing. He just sank into his coach, with Williams wrapping his arms around Thompson and clapping him on the back several times. Both have been called upon to try and explain this season to the public, to tell us what’s going wrong, how it feels, or how they’re going to fix it. Both have been upbeat and resolute.
Now, though, they just hugged. Neither man said anything. There was nothing left to say.
All that’s left of our season is recrimination, rumors of rifts on the team, unfortunate tweets from players, message board frenzy, transfers, and a lot of folks like me wondering what happened to the winters we used to look forward to.
We’ve been in worse states before, I’ve had this blog long enough to have documented horrors from the Doherty era, getting waxed by 40 points, and wandering out into the snow. Then, as now, I post a picture of Michael Jordan dunking over Maryland in 1983, as a reminder that we thrive in an era of excellence, even if we live in a moment of failure.