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UNC Basketball: Looking Back on Love’s Lasting Legacy

Current Facebook relationship status: It’s complicated.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Semifinals-North Carolina vs Duke Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

I will never forget that shot. You know the one; the image at the top of this post. The only shot, really, that matters; at least when discussing the now-ended Tar Heel career of Caleb Love. The shot that drove a dagger into the hopes and dreams of Blue Devil fans worldwide, and a stake into the heart of the storied career of Coach Krzyzewski. That shot, forever emblazoned on the highlight reel in my mind; standing tall next to Luke Maye’s shot to beat Kentucky, as well as Jordan’s shot to beat Georgetown.

Except neither of those were against Duke. Neither of those ended Coach K’s career with a scalding loss and a sad golf cart ride out of the stadum. It’s possible that neither of those shots came with as much pressure on the shooter as Love’s; Jordan’s shot was in the championship game, sure, but he wasn’t even The Guy yet, thanks to James Worthy. Luke Maye had a tie game and a defense scrambling to get back in transition when he released the ball. Caleb Love had the ball in his hands with a one-point lead over a surging Duke team and a lone screener at the top of the key to allow him to get separation. The Blue Devils switched the screen, of course, and now Love had a sliver of space to let fly over the 7’7” wingspan of Mark Williams. The shot went down, the lead increased to two scores, and Love added a pair of free throws to ice the game and cement his place in the pantheon of Tar Heel tournament game-winners.

These are the dizzying heights that Caleb Love was capable of reaching. In a program so blessed with highlights from March, the author of maybe the greatest tournament win (that didn’t result in a trophy) still dazzles, untarnished by anything that came after. His unfailing confidence was a sword that cut both ways, certainly, but it cut most deep on the biggest stages, and we have Love to thank for the ultimate card to play on our friends and coworkers who root for the wrong blue.

It’s a little sad, then, that Caleb Love won’t be a Tar Heel forever. A second act is coming, as he heads to Ann Arbor to play for Juwan Howard’s team. The Wolverines are right to be excited; the best of Caleb Love is still as good as any player in the country, and I truly hope he reaches that stratosphere again in maize and blue.

This past season was frustrating, and I feel no desire to rehash anything that better writers than I have already said. An outsized portion of the blame for it, though, was laid at Love’s feet; can you blame a young man for wanting a fresh start somewhere else? It’s a new landscape in college sports, and if we allow a player’s departure to dint the shine of the superhuman things that player accomplished for the team we love, eventually the whole thing will lose its luster.

Two things can be true. We can love the memories that Caleb Love gave to our program, and still understand the need to go somewhere else and wish him the best on his way out. We, as a sports-consuming nation, are obsessed with legacy, and it sometimes doesn’t sit well when a legacy is complicated. Is Jordan’s legacy with the Bulls cheapened by his time with the Wizards? Is Brett Favre’s legacy shattered by his seasons with the Jets or the Vikings? Nevermind, bad example, but at least Caleb Love hasn’t misappropriated millions of dollars of welfare money.

For my part, I’ll remember the end of the 2021-2022 season much more than the muddiness of the 2022-2023 season. That shot will always be like a diamond ina family heirloom, catching the light every once in a while and making me glad for the reminder, even if the original owner of the diamond is no longer with us.

Best of luck to Caleb Love, and it’s a great day to be a Tar Heel for those of us who still are.