I’m sure you’re aware that, seeing as sports (besides, for some unfathomable reason, UFC) have been cancelled for the immediate future, a lot of networks, writers, and broadcasters are turning to the past to give us our necessary dosage of sports content. Some of you have probably had pretty great times reliving classic Carolina moments in the past few weeks, and other sports have gotten in on the action, too. Now, it’s THB’s turn to join the fray, with a bit of a twist: we’re going to be talking about our own stories as they relate to Carolina sports: something that hasn’t really been covered before and yet something that only needs the past to be told. And, as the youngest of THB’s staff, I take it upon myself to be the first to tell my story of finding UNC fandom. I hope you enjoy both my story and the series this becomes:
Unlike, I think, most of my colleagues, I didn’t grow up in a fandom household. My parents are both immigrants, so they didn’t really get or care to get US sports culture for a long time. Sure, they went through the rituals, going to Super Bowl parties, reading the front page of the sports section so they weren’t lost in office conversations... you know, all the things that Americans require foreigners to do so they don’t (immediately) tell them to go back to where they came from. And they came from arguably the biggest sports fandom in the world, Indian cricket, so they weren’t sports illiterate by any means. They just didn’t get involved in this new one surrounding them, even though they’d unwittingly moved right into the cradle of college basketball. After getting married, they rented their first place in Chapel Hill, then moved after a while to Raleigh, where I was born in 1995 (don’t judge me too hard!).
I was an active kid, and I’d been born into that cradle - it surrounded me from basically the first moment I was coordinated enough to catch a ball. In my neighborhood, on the bus, at school, whatever: basketball was king in about every space I occupied that wasn’t home. And without home fandom influences, I just wanted to fit in. I was a State fan with other State fans, a Carolina fan with other Carolina fans, and even (*shudder*) a Duke fan with other Duke fans. Although, if we’re being entirely honest, the first team I actually paid attention to was the 2002-2003 Duke squad, when I was 7 years old, with a freshman JJ Redick and Shelden Williams (both of whom I remember hating instantly), a young Shavlik Randolph, and an upperclassman Chris Duhon, who had cool names and were okay in my book. Ugh. I didn’t mind when they lost in the NCAA Tournament, though: I wasn’t a fan so much as just overexposed. Obviously, UNC was going through some tough transition at the time, and I wasn’t super in tune with them for the Doherty years (a fact that my THB colleagues make fun of me for to this day). Once Roy Williams took over, though, as you well remember, the energy around the program changed, and they were just as in-your-face as Duke had been. And unlike with Duke, there were no (at the time - thanks, #32) unlikeable players to an 8-year old. Raymond Felton in particular quickly became one of my favorite individual ballers to watch, and while State fell by the wayside, I still hadn’t picked a side - now I was just a little more knowledgeable.
By the time I was 9 years old, kids were starting to get pretty tribal about basketball, and I started feeling the pressure to pick a team and stick with them. It’s absurd looking back how thoroughly fandom infects us as sports viewers generally (and North Carolinians particularly), but it is what it was: even at age 9, I didn’t want to get stuck with the label of “bandwagon” or whatever the 4th grade equivalent was. And I honestly didn’t know what to decide. Oh, and at this point, my dad was a casual Duke fan: he still didn’t care about American sports that much, but he had sat on a plane next to Mike Krzyzewski once, and he was apparently nice to him. The 2004-2005 basketball season rolled around, then, and then it was conference season. And I have this very distinct memory of getting to know UNC’s players while I rooted for them - Felton, obviously, but also Sean May, Marvin and Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel, Reyshawn Terry... the only guys I could have told you about on the Duke squad were Redick and Shelden Williams - who, as we’ve established, I didn’t really care for. I’ve been told that Lee Melchionni was also very annoying, but I honestly didn’t realize that he was on teams I’d watched. So I was fine with Duke as a team winning, but I also wasn’t investing myself in them the way I was slowly, unknowingly starting to with Carolina. Near the end of the season, there was a preview for a Duke vs Wake Forest game in the newspaper that featured a bunch of UNC players, including Manuel, being asked if they could bring themselves to root for Duke because them winning would clinch the conference championship for the Heels. Manuel, with a big grin, went all in. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of “Yeah, I’m rooting for Duke tonight. JJ better do his thing, drop 30, if it helps us, I’ll be the first Crazy in line.” This very obviously appealed to my both-sidesing, and, quietly, it was just one more thing that endeared me to Carolina that Duke was just missing. UNC had personality. Duke, to me, was a machine.
This all came to a head with a game that’s now immortal, and you already know the one. I sat down in front of the TV with my dad to watch UNC’s Senior Night game against a surging Duke team, and as my dad did his usual show of cheering Duke stuff, I found myself, partly because of all those points that had been piling up in UNC’s favor and partly just because I felt like he needed some opposition, cheering hard for the Heels. I watched and delighted in Sean May taking Shelden Williams’ lunch money, even as despair started setting in with about 3 minutes left and my dad started gloating. I think we were both figuring out, or re-finding, exactly how fun it can be to have friendly opposition, especially when you’ve got the advantage. And then... well, you know what happened:
The second Marvin hit his shot, I got it. I knew immediately why everybody around me was so deeply invested in fandom, because if this was the kind of high it could give you, why on Earth wouldn’t you be?? That moment decided it: I was a Tar Heel, unshakably and seriously. I watched that NCAA Tournament run avidly. They gave me another heart attack in the Sweet 16, as I wondered if Duke and NC State’s losses earlier the same game was an indicator of bad North Carolina luck that day, and then, improbably, took the title. I barely slept that night - a school night! - because of all the emotion. Yes, I recognize how lucky I am to have seen a title winner as the first team I rooted for.
Since then, the story’s been a lot less interesting. I was a model UNC fan through middle and high school, with a few logo shirts (not as many as I wanted), lots of jokes at State and Duke’s expense, and appointments to watch every single Carolina basketball game that aired on a network channel (we didn’t have cable). As was my duty as an older brother, I relentlessly propagandized my younger brother until I was confident he was as invested in UNC as I was. I raged at Gerald Henderson with everybody else in 2007, had my heart broken by Kansas in 2008, and took undue joy in what was honestly a boringly dominant run to and through the 2009 NCAA Tournament. And then the 2011 and 2012 seasons happened, and I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed watching a college player more than I did Kendall Marshall. My brother and I didn’t care that he couldn’t score, because the control he had over the floor was literal magic to us, as he just handed Tyler Zeller, John Henson, and Harrison Barnes bucket after bucket after bucket. And then, around mid-2012 season, when he low-key started pouring in buckets as well? Perfection. I distinctly remember laughing with my brother at an N&O preview of a UNC-State game that went through position-by-position matchups, and gave LORENZO BROWN the advantage over Marshall because “something something Brown has a lot of talents and Marshall is one-dimensional.” Marshall gave State 20/10, and I don’t think I had ever taken more vindictive glee than in that game. I know you think that 2012 team should’ve won it all if it wasn’t for Doug redacted McDermott. Maybe you think you know the 2012 team would’ve won it all if it wasn’t for Doug redacted McDermott. But I promise, you do not carry half the animosity towards Doug redacted McDermott that I do, because he robbed UNC and, selfishly, me, of watching the end of the best college point guard season I might ever see. There are more explosive and pro-ready guys nowadays, like Ja Morant or our own Coby White, and there are high-level distributors like Zavier Simpson, Cassius Winston, and even (groan) Tre Jones. But in today’s era of basketball, which is getting more and more positionless on the offensive end, I don’t think we’re ever going to see a puppetmaster like Marshall again, and it was UNC and Roy Williams who made him possible. And while my fandom gave me incredible emotional highs and a wonderful community, this was the moment, I think, that UNC embedded itself in my DNA: my relationship with the Heels was now personal, not just communal.
I was lucky enough to get accepted to UNC out of high school, and I was there for four incredible years. I’m not going to bore you with my college story, but I will note this: You might have noticed that the entirety of the above story is about basketball. This is because I could not stand college football for the first 17 years of my life, even though I might actually like football more than basketball. It moved too slowly, quarterback play was often hopeless and strangled entire teams, and there was next to no defense except at the top of the SEC. That changed once I got to college, even though my first year at UNC was the year of the 2014 squad who surprised us if they allowed less than 50 points in a game. Kenan had enough of a gameday culture to be interesting to a college freshman, and there was obviously an element of being a holistic Carolina fan at this point, too: I was a student of the university, and that meant supporting all of its sports. I went to soccer games, volleyball games, even baseball games (and I did not care about baseball, trust me).
Maybe I’m biased, but I think I was at UNC during a particularly noteworthy time for UNC sports. My freshman year was the 8-day delay against Duke, a game I got to see live when it was finally played - I still don’t think I’ve been in a louder stadium. I was there for the 2015 football team that went 12-1 and should’ve been given the opportunity to beat Clemson. I was there for the passing of Dean Smith. I was there for the shock of two national championships in two days with men’s and women’s lacrosse. I was there the years the NCAA fiasco hit hardest, and I was there to see it definitively ended. I saw Mitch Trubisky rewrite the single-season record book for UNC quarterbacks. I watched Jamie Loeb cement herself as one of the greatest collegiate tennis players ever. I was there for the basketball heartbreak of 2016, and, finally a senior in my last semester when the 2017 team beat Gonzaga and brought us another trophy. Somewhere in this timelapse, you could theoretically find me:
During that time, of course, I started writing for Tar Heel Blog. And writing about this team, since 2016 and well into my post-graduate careers, has given me a whole new kind of appreciation for UNC’s teams and the stories contained within them, and thankfully, it’s done so without diluting those emotional highs or lows that got me into this thing in the first place. This is how I maintain my connection and contributions to the Carolina family, which I have found without a shadow of a doubt to be real, strong, and not just contained to basketball or athletics at all (family also means you criticize what should be criticized, to be clear). I might not have quite been a Tar Heel born, but I’m a Tar Heel bred and dead for sure.