When the final horn sounded and the confetti…eventually…fell on the North Carolina Men’s Basketball team, I was jumping up and down in my apartment with my wife excitedly shouting alongside me. I hopped on Twitter and posted (for superstition I couldn’t be on during the game) and texted my friends in delight. Especially after last year, this result was sweet. Still, something was missing.
We all have a story about where our love for Carolina comes from. Mine is like a lot of yours, I’m sure, in that it comes from my family. Mom was an unabashed lover of Carolina basketball. Had been as long as I could remember, and so I didn’t have much of a choice but to be a Carolina fan. Every win and loss was celebrated in our house as life and death. Mom would pull me from school on those March Fridays where Carolina was in the Noon ACC Tournament game. She and my stepdad also surprised me for one birthday with a trip to Charlotte to see the Heels play in the old Tournament of Champions at the Coliseum.
1993 brought about a national title that almost had my Mom drive from our home about an hour away to Chapel Hill to join those on Franklin Street. As it was, the next day she missed work to go into town to pick up some of the first t-shirts. I wasn’t going to miss school to be able to rub it in the faces of all my non-Carolina friends and teachers. By now, UNC was such a part of my soul that I didn’t just root for the team, but I dreamed of walking onto the campus in Chapel Hill as a student.
The acceptance letter a few years later was a bright spot after a rough fall; Hurricane Fran had blown through and caused a tree to fall on the roof of our house and opened a hole in my bedroom. It would take months for the house to be fully back to normal. That thick envelope was a momentary, but necessary, bright spot for what was ahead.
A couple of months later, Mom walked into my bedroom to let me know the next day she was going to the hospital for a mastectomy. They had discovered a small tumor, and while it was treatable, it was going to require surgery, chemo, and radiation. Oh by the way, you get to graduate high school and leave for college while your Mom is still recovering from breast cancer. Fun times.
Fortunately, everything went about as well as it could. She finished chemo by the time I went to Chapel Hill, and was taking radiation. This precluded her from seeing me perform as a member of the Marching Tar Heels for much of that year as Carolina kept getting early starts (sound familiar?). Finally, almost a year to the day after I got my acceptance letter, Carolina was scheduled for their big showdown in Kenan against FSU. It was going to be completely at night, and I could get her tickets.
I will always remember that game fondly despite the loss. Somehow, someway, during the halftime performance, Mom had figured out which blue-uniformed human was me. As I was walking back to the stands, I heard dozens of people yell my name at once. I turned and I saw her waving excitedly. Mom being Mom, no doubt told those folks “Hey, that’s my son, when he walks by I need to get his attention.” I waved back and was on Cloud 9 the rest of the night.
Carolina didn’t win a title while I was there, but I did get her tickets to basketball games, including my Senior Day game against Duke. After the game, despite the loss, she beamed at being able to yell in Coach K’s direction. Hey, we all have dreams.
Life moves on as it does, and very quickly I was married and living in Texas. My new wife didn’t have the same passion for sports, let alone UNC. She knew it was important to me, though, and helped keep me informed of the score in 2005 while I drove home from work. She celebrated with me, but it wasn’t the same as when I called Mom and her voice excitedly rang through the receiver. Four years later, we were in Boston, and my wife was home recovering from thyroid surgery. They won another national title, again we celebrated, again I spoke to an excited Mom.
A few months later we were back in North Carolina for Christmas. Mom felt strongly that the whole family, including my brother, his wife, and his daughter, get together that year. I should have known something was up. Sure enough, a month later Mom laid it out for us: her cancer was back.
Seven years ago today, I awoke to a call from my brother. She was gone.
Since that day, technology has exploded to the point where I feel more connected to my friends, family, and fellow alumni than I ever have before. I could collectively share in the pain of “The Shot” last year and the joy of this year’s title easily. It helps someone living far away from Chapel Hill take part in the celebration.
Social media also helped fill in a missing piece of the puzzle for my wife. She started following some of the players on social media, discovered how great they were and how great the Carolina Family is, and started caring about the team. She went with me to see them play at Boston College, and was just as crushed as I was when “The Shot” happened.
During this year’s tournament, she watched every game alongside me. She developed superstitions about when she could drink, how she would sit, what she would wear. This time, when the buzzer sounded and Carolina had won, she wasn’t happy FOR me. She was happy WITH me.
My Carolina Family also expanded in the last couple of years to include my father-in-law. I don’t fully know why he jumped on this train. I do know that not long after he got a Facebook account of his own and saw just how excited his daughter and son-in-law were for this team, he started watching. He tried to console me after the title game loss last year, and I never thought that would happen.
As the championship merchandise came out, I realized what I had to do. First, when the full selection of t-shirts was available, I showed them to my wife and told her to pick one. I also bought and sent a shirt to my father-in-law. That’s what Mom taught me: when your team wins a title, you get a shirt to celebrate it. They were both thrilled and beamed when their new shirts came in.
I’d like to think somewhere Mom is smiling about all of this. It goes to show you don’t have to go to UNC to have a real love for the school and its players…to be a part of the Carolina Family. I never found out why Mom, for lack of a better word, chose to root for UNC, and now I never will. It doesn’t matter, really. She brought me into the Carolina Family. I just wish I could have celebrated one more with her.