Last April, a few hours before UNC took the floor against Michigan State in the National Semi-Final my father was suddenly killed while riding an ATV behind his home in rural North Carolina. What proceeded over the next three days was the absolute definition of bittersweet as I was immersed in the utter devastation of losing my father so suddenly and watching my beloved Tar Heels win a national title. It was especially bittersweet because when I was living at home we watched UNC play together as much as we could. In fact when I spoke with him two days before his death, I lamented the fact the UNC had been slotted for the later game Saturday night and if they had been in the earlier one I was going to invite him up to my house to watch the game. So, imagine the sad irony of me being at my parents' house with my mother and sister among all those visitors and the UNC game on without him there.
Watching UNC games with Daddy was an experience. My first game was the 1982 National Championship and I remember the steal by Worthy even though I was only seven. For many years we had a console television with sat on the floor. Watching TV from the recliners or couch was fine but when the games were close we would sit on the floor. We referred to those games as "floor beaters" because each ebb and flow often produced a slap on the floor or a head buried in carpet. Through the years it seemed like we watched more UNC heartbreaks than anything else. The 1985 ACC Final loss to Georgia Tech which was played at the old Omni in Atlanta. Daddy asserted numerous times that UNC just did not play well there referencing the 1977 national championship loss to Marquette. We watched in disbelief as UNC lost to NC State in 1987, Duke in 1988 and screamed murder at the 1991 Final Four loss to Kansas. He was working the Saturday in 1990 UNC topped #1 Oklahoma, but called me when it ended and in 1994 with UNC locked in a double overtime game with Wake Forest in the ACC semi-final, I relayed to him the play-by-play over the phone(his radio could not pick up the game).
The 1993 season perhaps held the greatest moments in our long history of watching the games together. I remember his proclaimation following the UNC timeout with 9 minutes to go and UNC trailing by 18 to Florida State that they were going to make a run and try to comeback. We were high fiving when George Lynch stole the pass and put UNC in the lead. The NCAA tournament game against Arkansas was fun because Razorback coach Nolan Richardson had some choice words for the Heels in the paper. When the game concluded we brought out the collection of quotes he had made in the days leading up to the game and read them aloud. The NCAA title game was the best memory of all. We pretty much stayed on the floor the whole game. We were in despair when UNC fell behind by 9 early, but feeling pretty good about the halftime lead. We almost lost it when the refs failed to call the Chris Webber travel and when Webber called the errant timeout, I jumped in celebration as he beckoned me to wait and make sure they were really going to call a technical foul. They did and we celebrated the title that had been 11 years in the making.
I suppose I think of him more when UNC plays Duke than any other time. We enjoyed the agony of losing to Duke as well as the joy of them knocking off the Devils. Although it happened before I was born, he always talked about the 8 points in 17 seconds in 1974 like it was yesterday. During the 1989 ACC Championship we shared the anxiety of Danny Ferry nearly tying the game from 75 feet. The UNC blowouts in 1991 and 1998 were particularly sweet, especially in 1998 because Duke had won the previous week in an unbearably hot Cameron which took the legs out from under the thin Heels. We thought and were proved right that the air conditioned Greensboro Coliseum would help the Heels survive in a rematch and it did. In fact that game was last Duke game I remember watching with him. The next year was busier and for some reason we did not watch as much and then I moved away. It seemed after that he watched them play less and less. Maybe it was me not being there that may it less fun for him. We would talk about UNC and celebrate when they won, but we never saw another game together.
So that night of April 4, I returned from the visitation and watch the Tar Heels play the second half. I promised myself I would be reserved, that I would not dishonor him by getting excited over a game that really had no meaning in the long term during this period of grief. That, of course, went out the window with 10 minutes to go. I was right there barking at the television, complaining at the referees, and grimacing went Raymond Felton missed a free throw in the final minute. I realized that I really know no other way to watch a UNC game, that is how Daddy and I watched them, that is how we expressed our love of the Tar Heels by slapping the floor, high fiving good plays, and complaining to the TV and each other on the bad ones.
So Saturday night at 9:00 I will be there, alone, in front of my television and regardless of the fact I will be the only one there I will slap the floor or couch, decry the bad calls, and fist pump the big plays. I will celebrate with joy if they win and slump with sadness if they lose. I will do all these things because I know of no other way to watch them play. And watching the games with all of the anxiety and excitement means, in a small way, he is still there watching them with me.