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Enjoying the ride of this UNC basketball team

After the last five years, I’m going to enjoy Saturday.

Saint Peter’s v North Carolina Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The last time a Tar Heel squad made the trip down to New Orleans, they left with Dean Smith’s second national title and I celebrated by going to my eighth grade class with every bit of UNC paraphernalia I could find to show up my Duke fan teacher. It was the first title I remembered them winning, and since then I’ve been lucky to see them win three more.

After the last title, I wrote about how life had changed since the first one and being able to share that with new family members. That was only five years ago, but for me and for all of us I’m sure, it feels like a lifetime ago.

If you're reading this, you’ve made it out of a world wide pandemic that has been ongoing for over two years. COVID has taken so much from so many, that to even try to quantify it at this point wouldn’t make any sense at all. Even before that, I had my own fight with colorectal cancer that was successful, but left scars I look at every day. All of this has provided us with a simple gift: perspective.

I think the first moment that I realized my perspective had changed was on Thursday night, after Duke had beaten Texas Tech and I realized just how miserable I felt. My own squad was about to play in the Sweet 16 and I’m sitting here upset trying to play 4D chess about who we may end up playing in two games. I quickly realized this fear was stealing joy from me. The joy of watching a team pull off an incredible run that so rarely happens, and savoring every moment because you never know when those moments will, if ever, happen again.

So, after Friday night’s amazing win against UCLA I made a promise to myself: I wouldn’t care about any other game except for ours, and then let the chips fall where they may. On Saturday I didn’t watch a lick of basketball, instead having dinner at Al’s on Franklin Street and then taking in a thorough beating of the Blues by the Carolina Hurricanes. On Sunday, instead of watching Kansas/Miami, I watched Free Guy. The first time my TV hit CBS was moments before the tip of Saint Peter’s/UNC.

I cannot explain to you the level of calm that washed over me as I just soaked up every moment of that game on Sunday. The Tar Heels raced out to that early lead and showed up like they weren’t going to overlook this moment. If they were going to focus on this moment and enjoy every second, why shouldn’t I? In the past few weeks I’ve experienced such joy as I watched this squad flip the script in such an amazing way in Durham, overcome so many things to upset Baylor, and play one of the best games of the tournament in defeating UCLA. All along I’ve seen a team that seems to have fun with each other, and has been quick to pick each other up when needed.

So now it’s Duke again this weekend as the Retirement Tour lurches into New Orleans and provides a perfect script, supposedly, for this Duke team that was embarrassed by a Tar Heel squad that didn’t know their place to lose in that contest. This week, local and national media is going to talk this game up and have fans of both schools twisted up in knots as we wait for tipoff at 8:30 Saturday Night.

Not me. Here’s what I look at:

  • A team that already gave us a once-in-a-lifetime win that can’t be topped with a semifinal defeat, because that isn’t going to erase the sight of Cameron Indoor Stadium stunned into silence as they had to soak in the fact they lost the Retirement Celebration.
  • A team that then dominated the NCAA Tournament, and threw in a recovery from squandering a 25-point lead for good measure-handling that better than most of the fans did.
  • A team that withstood the loss of a good backup, a talented scorer, and had to adjust to changing COVID hurdles on the fly as Omicron ran raged throughout the country as we thought it was behind us.
  • A team with some genuinely good dudes who are having fun and savoring all of these moments, thanks to a coach who’s made it a point to try and prove people wrong.
  • A coach that appears to just be continuing the long line of excellence that we had been hoping for, as he’s the sixth coach to take this team to the Final Four.
  • Wins over two of last year’s Final Four teams, including the defending national champs
  • A coach who has given so much to the program and the university being able to enjoy life in retirement and see what it’s like for fans watching something special, all the while knowing he stepped away at the right time to enjoy it all.

So, if you are dreading Saturday because of what might be-take a step back and look at what’s already happened, and know that Saturday won’t take that away from you. This UNC team is already playing with house money which they’ve mostly pulled off the table. Sure, if you lose that money that’s on the table it could have been better, but you still leave the table far better off. They are soaking it up, and so eager to play.

If you need any more motivation about enjoying the moment, watch the press conference as Hubert describes the joy he’s going to have in getting the kids to New Orleans and the Superdome for the first time. They aren’t scared, why should you be?

*Edited the number of coaches to take a team to the Final Four as Ben Carnevale took the 1946 Tar Heels to the Final Four