On April 5th, 1993, I was sitting in my normal spot on the end of the couch. My Dad was a few feet away in his chair. We had both been on the edge of our seats when we rose in unison and screamed at the television, “He walked!” The no-call was stunning. A few seconds later, the timeout was called and we both immediately realized that victory was at hand. When the buzzer sounded, Dad just started clapping in a slow, rhythmic pattern. He didn’t speak, but he smiled from ear to ear and clapped. In retrospect, it was a tremendous bonding moment and a teaching lesson in how to properly react to a great basketball game outcome. His applause reflected the view that a Carolina Championship meant that all was right with the world.
In the years since that April evening, Dad and I have watched a lot of basketball. Watching together now takes more logistical effort with travel and a family of my own. When it happens, however, it still remains a highlight of any weekend or family trip.
Once I moved away from home, we began a new basketball tradition beyond where we sat in the basement; we talk after the games. We talk after every game whether it be a win, a loss, a heart-breaking narrow defeat, or a blow out victory. Over time, my father has evolved from the quiet champion of the Carolina Way into a loving pessimist. His reviews of the game have turned to what went wrong and his prognostications have grown decidedly more dreary. I now affectionately refer to him as My Grumpy Dad (“MGD”). He remains as avid a fan as ever, but he is increasingly convinced that the shortcomings of any team will ultimately be their undoing.
As a subconscious reaction to this fall into realism (as he would call it), I have now developed an overly optimistic outlook on every game, team, and season. I consistently see bight spots where there likely are not any and I repeatedly erroneously declare that “this team will not lose again”. Our views of any game tend to be polar opposites that balance themselves in the mystique of college basketball fandom. These calls bring a necessary catharsis of closure to the forty minute saga.
The exception, of course, to these opposing views of hoops reality is the final game of any year. Whether it comes in the opening weekend or the Final Four, that horn sounds the expiration of the season and the journey that we have invested in for the previous year. Those calls with MGD are attempts to rationalize what just occurred and how we will move forward. Many years, they are like deaths in the family that draw us together and accompany the somber reflection of finality. Championship years are quite different.
In July 2015, my Dad got sick. Although treatment options were available, the prognosis was not good. The world, it seemed, was a different place.
By the time the 2015 Heels took the floor for the first time in November, MGD was on the road to recovery. The early season looked bright as did his health. January brought a change that was decidedly negative. With a new treatment looming, a fear began to creep into my mind that this may be the last time he would get to watch his beloved Carolina play basketball. I became emotionally invested to an unreasonable level as I adopted the view that with more passion I could will the team to victory. Every loss seemed to hit worse than the previous one as the new treatment was slow to take hold. With an impressive ACC Tournament Championship victory over Virginia, I was convinced that this team could win and MGD would be truly happy.
It felt like someone stabbed me when that shot went in. Very few words were exchanged in the post game call with MGD. There was just a lot of silence. It felt cosmically unfair to have what I feared would be his last season end that way.
Intermittent hospital stays through the summer of 2016 preceded the start of this past season. For many, it was a redemption saga built on equal parts of revenge and triumph. For me, it was a season of peaceful gratitude that I could still make those phone calls after every game.
I am pleased to report that MGD watched the 2017 NCAA Championship game and that he had very little criticism to dole out afterward. He has long been the rare combination of best friend and inspiration and he continues to courageously battle his horrible illness. Regardless of what happens this year, now I feel that all is right with the world.
I will always be able to close my eyes and hear him clapping for the team he loves. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.