I’ve been ridiculously fortunate that I’ve been alive for five UNC Basketball titles, another seven trips to the Final Four, and a ton of memorable players that brought me to the edge of whatever seat I was in. Granted, I don’t remember 1982 because I was only three years old, but years like last season are exceptionally rare. When one gets used to winning, it’s tough to get moved to the point where a win makes you so happy you can’t help but to cry.
The 2017 Tar Heels, though, managed to rip that out of me.
We all know just how hard any title is to win, but the 2017 team had the pressure of an ongoing academic investigation that never seemed to end and a shot that will live forever in college basketball history. It’s easy to say that you’ll come back to fight, but it’s something all together different to pull it off when you lose two players that many considered heart and souls of the team in Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige.
Here’s the biggest thing that’s forgotten in the haze of the title: this one was already stressful going in just because of what I just mentioned, but then it seemed like every game they played in March had drama. Their first round NCAA game was their only easy one, against 16 seed Texas Southern. Then, you had the comeback that was needed against Arkansas. They only beat Butler by 12, which felt downright comfortable. Next, the legend of Luke Maye was born at the last second against Kentucky. The Semi-Final game against Oregon was tight until the last minute and needed two offensive rebounds on free throws to be sealed.
So, of course, the title game was another back and forth game. The lead traded back and forth, and it was a grinding affair where both teams felt worthy of being the winners, but neither could get comfortable. With a minute left, the Heels narrowly held onto a lead and all of that weight came down to the end.
So, with all of that in a backdrop, here’s a reminder of just how quickly the realization hit that Carolina was going to win:
25.4 seconds remaining: Hicks makes a shot to put Carolina up by 3
21.9: Gonzaga calls timeout - 70 seconds pass
16.3: Meeks blocks the shot
15.1: Berry recovers the ball
14.1: Berry passes to a streaking Justin Jackson
11.4: Jackson stuffs it home. Gonzaga quickly inbounds it
9.8: Meeks intercepts a cross court pass, tosses it to Berry
7.3: Berry is fouled, walks to the sideline and screams as everyone goes crazy.
Years of tension, magnified by the past twelve months, is released in less than 90 seconds.
No other national title team brought this level of release to me when the moment hit that they were going to win the game. All of the pain, all of the loss, and all of the Hollywood-scripted levels of redemption were in play here and it all was fulfilled, right up to the tailor-made Nantz line of “This year the confetti will eventually fall...”
But you notice I didn’t say the game brought me to tears, it was the team. This wasn’t going to be the last time that this title team made me cry.
A few months passed and I was given the opportunity to write for this site. The wonderful site’s editor indulged this new author and allowed me to write a post about this team on the seventh anniversary of my Mom’s death. It’s still the piece that’s pinned on top of my Twitter, because it was the first title I watched the Tar Heels win without Mom being around, as their last one occurred just a year before she died. So on that April night, some of the tears weren’t just for the release of happiness, but a longing to have my iPhone go off and have her screaming into the other side.
As I note in that post, this was also the first title that Carolina won where my wife was fully “bought in.” She wasn’t just happy because I was happy, she was genuinely happy for the team. She was also crying, and her crying made me cry.
The next morning, the wonderful social media team with the Tar Heels posted this wonderful video, and it had me bawling all over again:
I think I can identify with Isaiah Hicks and the ugly cry.
Just when I thought I was done crying, I decided I would travel down to Chapel Hill and watch the banner raising ceremony. It would be the first one I’ve seen in person, as they didn’t have a formal one in 1993, and I was just not in a position to celebrate in 2005 or 2009. As we all started to make our way to the Smith Center, the NCAA finally announced they were not going to bring any sanctions on Carolina for their interminable investigation into the whole AFAM situation. Combine that huge weight off your shoulders along with this:
Yeah, I was blubbering all over again.
I truly don’t know if such a confluence of events will happen again that will create such a tide of relief that the only way to properly emote the relief is to cry. Maybe if the Carolina Hurricanes had won the Stanley Cup last year I would have. Their run provided me with so much joy as I was going through my cancer fight, plus their social media squad had shouted me out before one of my trips to chemo, so that season had a special meaning to it. I had moments where the 2013 Boston Red Sox had me tearing up during the victory parade, as I was living in the city during the Marathon Bombing, and the way they celebrated reminded us all of what was good in this city that I’m about to no longer call home.
But a first title since a parent died, combined with the joy of winning in the face of all of the negativity by the investigation, added with the redemption of the previous season, and so many do-or-die games lived at the edge creates a powerful stew that will be tough to replicate. For that, the 2017 Tar Heels will be the most memorable team of my lifetime, and they have my thanks more than they will ever truly know.