UNC Basketball first gained national notoriety in 1957 when a group of talented but no-named New York transplants beat seven-footer Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas team in a classic David vs. Goliath matchup to win the national championship. This exciting triple overtime thriller capped off a perfect 32-0 season for the Tar Heels. I would’ve probably eaten this experience up, but I was only one-and- a-half years old at the time, and hungering for milk and baby food rather than basketball.
It wasn’t until the late sixties that I began passionately following the Tar Heels, when they put together a string of several championship seasons. During 1967 to 1969, I watched each and every game with keen interest, glued to an old black and white television set, feeling as if I was magically transported onto the court. Led by All-Americans Larry Miller and Charlie Scott, who was the first black player ever recruited in the south, Carolina finished in the nation’s Top Five and won three straight conference championships and trips to the national Final Four tournament. Their combined record was 81-15. Unfortunately for a true blue fan like me, each year ended with a disappointing loss.
Though it didn’t register with me back then, the accomplishments of these earlier Tar Heel teams stand out because in that era, the NCAA, college’s athletic association, only invited 24 teams to their post-season basketball tournament, not the 68 teams in today’s field. It required less games to earn the coveted national title, but all of the opponents were usually of a much higher caliber. Only the tournament champion from each conference was allowed to participate. This meant that a great team might go undefeated for three months, but then lose out in their three-day weekend tournament.
I didn’t have much in the way of connections or finances as a teenage boy, but a couple of my Tar Heel dreams did come true. During 1969 and 1970, my doctor helped me to attend the Carolina Basketball School, a summer teenage sports camp, which at the time was one of the most exciting thrills of my life. I got individual instruction from the coaches, and got to be up close with the players, and watch them play pickup games. Then in the 1980’s, a family friend helped me get tickets, and I was finally able to visit the new Dean Dome in Chapel Hill and watch the Tar Heels play in person.
The Tar Heels have long been involved in an inner-state rivalry with Duke University. Playing twice each year on one another’s home courts, these games take on a greater significance for coaches, players and fans alike. Separated by Interstate 40 and less than ten miles, UNC (in Chapel Hill) and Duke (in Durham) are like two twin siblings fighting one another for their family’s favor.
I’ve never known anyone who was a Tar Heel fan that did not hate Duke until one day my Dad told me that he liked both teams equally. This came about because a dear friend of his, a local minister, was also a beloved Duke fan and through his friendship with my father, my Dad eventually adopted a policy of rooting for both teams. I always respected and loved my father. However, this is one area in which I have not followed in my father’s footsteps.
I’m sure many Duke fans will disagree, but I find the evidence for superiority to be overwhelmingly in favor of the Tar Heels. First of all, there’s an old sports adage in North Carolina that says, “If God is not a Tar Heel, then why did he make the sky Carolina Blue?” I guess we Tar Heel fans could quote Romans 8:31, “If God be for us, then who can be against us?” Carolina’s coaches have easy–to-remember names, for example, Tar Heel coaches Dean Smith and Roy Williams. However, Duke’s coach, Mike Krzyzewski has such a difficult name that they simply refer to him as “Coach K”. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a fan of a team whose coach’s name I can neither spell nor pronounce.
Most ordinary fans would point out Michael Jordan (or “MJ” as we like to call him) as the highlight of all of the years of watching the Tar Heels. And he definitely is one. I enjoyed watching Michael play, and followed him into his NBA career. But to a true fan, each and every game, and each and every
player, made their own contribution to the overall legacy and history of UNC Tar Heels basketball. Following Tar Heel basketball through the years has had its shares of ups and downs, but overall it has been a wonderful experience. Some non-sports fans may say, “What’s the big deal?” Something like this is hard to explain to the unitiated outsider. It’s kind of like an exclusive club. Only those on the inside can truly appreciate its significance. And-- it probably kept a young guy like me out of trouble.
Over the years my Aunt Jayne, who is a UNC alumnus and fan, has shared all of these highs and lows with me. We rejoiced in 1982 when UNC won its first championship for coach Dean Smith, when young freshman Jordan hit the game winning shot with only 17 ticks of the clock left against Georgetown. And we’ve also had collective groans and sighs whenever things didn’t go our way… like this year.
I guess some of you have been wondering how the title of this article fits into the story. Well, someone has said, “Whenever life gives you a lemon, make lemonade.” But what do you do when life poops on you? It seemed that kind of a dilemma just a short time ago, when this year’s Tar Heels had gone on a ten-game winning streak to advance to the national championship game against Villanova. Carolina had been picked in the preseason polls as the #1 team and was the favorite to win the title. My guitar student, a fellow Carolina fan, and I had decided to watch the game together on his big-screen TV. We sat glued to the set as the game went back and forth, and eventually swung in Villanova’s favor. But the Tar Heels, down by as many as ten points, mounted a comeback. Star point guard Marcus Paige made an acrobatic shot from the three-point line to tie the game with less than five seconds left.
We sat, mesmerized and shocked, as we watched the final ticks of the clock play out on the floor. We were hoping for overtime, but could not believe the unbelievable ending as one of Villanova’s players cooly tossed in his own three-point shot to win the game at the buzzer.
About a week later, I was standing in front of our house, preparing to leave on a walk, when suddenly I felt and heard something above me. I reached up, grabbing the UNC ball cap off of my head. There, on the bill of my cap, was the residue of a bird’s not-so- welcome deposit. Later, when talking to one of my sports buddies, a Duke fan, he remarked : “Yeah, I sent him down from Durham just for you.”
Yeah…Right. Poop happens!
Bob Wingate is a freelance writer living in Salisbury.
You can read his Tar Heels sports blogs at www.bobstarheels.blogspot.com.