Thursday, March 3, 2011
A lot of University of North Carolina fans like to proclaim that they are "Tar Heel born and Tar Heel bred."
I was indoctrinated in a different manner.
It was a few months into the third grade when I moved from Illinois to North Carolina. I showed up in Ms. Nelson's class desperate for a friend of any kind.
The first kid that talked to me eyed me up and asked: "Do you like Carolina, Duke or State?"
The question took me aback. I recognized all the words in his sentence, but didn’t comprehend the meaning of them placed together.
He was wearing a sweatshirt that had “Carolina” emblazoned across the chest. So, eager to fit in as the new guy, I quickly responded: "Carolina."
It so happened that the real estate agent who sold my parents their house in Greensboro, in our first brush with Southern hospitality, offered up tickets to a Tar Heels game at the pleasant-sounding Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
I was an official convert. The Heels' game against UCLA on Dec. 17, 1988, would be the baptism.
Looking back at the tape and box score of the game, I had no idea what was going on during the action on the court.
There's no way that I knew the Heels were ranked eighth in the nation or that they had gone 8-1 despite the absence of All-American forward J.R. Reid, who was about to return from foot surgery.
Certainly I had no clue about UCLA, which had started 4-0 behind new coach Jim Harrick and the stellar play of guard Pooh Richardson.
I was just happy to be one of the 20,712 fans at Dean Dome, teeming with the evangelical spirit.
The crowd reached a fever pitch when Reid and his imposing flattop checked in at the 15:41 mark. A few minutes later, Reid worked himself free in the post with his ample backside and hammered home a one-handed dunk that gave the junior his first points of the season and UNC a 19-10 lead.
The game turned out to be a 104-78 dismantling by the Tar Heels. At the time, it was the third-worst loss in Bruins history. Dean Smith’s trapping defense flustered Richardson. Reid finished with six points and four rebounds in 10 minutes. Harrick and the UCLA bench were whistled for two technicals.
None of that registered in my 9-year-old mind, however. I was just taken by the rise and fall of the crowd with each three-pointer by Jeff Lebo, offensive put-back by Pete Chilcutt or defensive hounding by King Rice.
I was hooked for life even before Marty Hensley and Jeff Denny closed out garbage time against the Bruins. In subsequent seasons, I paid witness as Reid begat George Lynch, who begat Rasheed Wallace, who begat Antawn Jamison. And so on.
That passion followed me even after I moved away from the Old North State. It led me to the wayside televisions of State Street Brats in Madison, Wis., where I watched every Duke-UNC game alongside a UW graduate student and native of Boone, N.C. He got me in the habit of saying, in a drawling Appalachian accent, “Fuuuuuuck yoooooou, Wooo-joooo” every time ESPN cameras would catch a shot of Blue Devils assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski.
I don’t think I ever knew that guy’s name. We just recognized a shared passion that had long since hooked itself into our souls.