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A new relationship

UNC basketball’s next coach has big non-basketball shoes to fill, too

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Wisconsin at North Carolina Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

How do you write about losing a staple? Roy Williams’ retirement is reverberating throughout the college basketball world, as you’d expect from one of the sport’s greatest ever coaches and one of its few active (well, until now) Hall of Famers. But the sport has seen its legends come and go. Bob Knight’s retirement was just 13 years ago, and while that feels like it might as well have been the Mesozoic era with how much time has dilated in the past year, it’s basically yesterday on the timeline of college basketball. The late Pat Summitt’s retirement was less than a decade ago. The world of college basketball changed irrevocably on April 1st, but it hasn’t lost somebody so much as the opportunity to continue accumulating the gifts that one of its great figures could provide. Put another way, Roy Williams’ mark on college basketball has been indelible and will help define the sport for as long as it exists, and his retirement doesn’t leave a hole in it because he’s already given it so much.

So you’ll forgive me for being a little self-indulgent here, because I don’t have the institutional memory of the sport of college basketball. I don’t even have the human memory of most of my colleagues and probably most of my readers. Max wrote earlier today about not really remembering a world where Coach Williams wasn’t coaching the Tar Heels, but I, about two years younger, have no memories of a pre-Roy world. Part of it’s attributable to not having a Tar Heel family like most (if not all) of my colleagues did, so my first memories of UNC basketball were formed when I was 8 or 9 and starting to identify my own likes and dislikes, rather than strummed into me from the moment I could form thoughts. In other words, by the time I could call myself a UNC fan, Roy Williams was the Tar Heels, and continued to be that way until the first day of April, 2021. And with his decision to move on from coaching, the only way I can describe what I feel is that something feels broken, not irrecoverable but in need of fixing all the same, about my relationship to UNC men’s basketball. I wasn’t prepared for a change like this, one of the loves of my life deciding without telling me that it was going to change everything I knew about it. I’m not angry at Ol’ Roy for his well-earned decision, far from it. I just didn’t expect for this relationship, that has in its constancy nurtured me from childhood to my mid-twenties, watching and helping me grow into who I am today, to turn the tables and ask me to accept and love this partner through a midlife renaissance. I’ve known even before I was one that sometimes even the steadiest grown-ups need to radically change how they’re living, but that was an abstract concept. I want to support a Carolina post-Roy Williams. I guess I just never really believed I’d have to, and against all rationality, I’m scared of what I’ve committed myself to. Roy gave me a Carolina that was so very easy to root for, so almost natural to love. Can I really be blamed for wondering if a new face, a new direction, a new driving force can keep giving me that?

I’m sorry if this extended metaphor is a little gross or misplaced. It’s also not totally accurate, because my relationship with UNC even before this news was still pretty fraught, not uncomplicated and idyllic. But Roy made things simple. For any and all problems I had with his basketball philosophy, at the very least it felt like basketball, not a game of ball control or even the ultra-iso Harden-Moreyball. And he made UNC Basketball feel entrenched with the university in a way that’s not always true of college sports, and not just in a sports party culture way but rather in a way that allowed sports to feel a little academic, maybe. His love for UNC, both the university itself and all its sports programs, are irreplaceable and made rooting for the Heels so much more meaningful than basketball — and also made it so that I could write articles like this one and not feel like I was straying from the topic. In all the time I’ve been a sports fan, none of my teams have felt so identity-defining as UNC basketball, even in sports I enjoy more, and it’s exactly because Roy’s influence, though he wasn’t a Dean Smith at the forefront of the nation’s Civil Rights Era or a Dawn Staley right now demanding change within and outside the NCAA’s treatment of Black women, made basketball mean a lot more.

Bubba Cunningham’s a good AD. I’m confident he’s not going to lead UNC down the path of Indiana or UCLA (the latter’s ongoing Final Four run notwithstanding), whatever decision is made, and we’ll have some time to prognosticate all that once we’ve had time to process. UNC Basketball is going to be in good hands. They will almost necessarily be inferior to their predecessor’s, but they’ll be hands that can shape a team into the kind of winner we expect to see in Chapel Hill. I just hope they’ll be attached to someone who can keep giving me reasons to love the program for more than the program, who can keep making sports feel like a big deal not just because they’re sports, but because they’re everything else, and, ultimately, feels good and uncomplicated to love.