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UNC basketball in the age of the iPhone

There’s an app for that — but should there be?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Team Press Conferences Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Many years ago, the phone rang. This was back when land lines were a thing. I was being called upon for sympathy.

“I just spent two hours watching the Virginia-UNC game with the most OBNOXIOUS Carolina fan I have ever met.”

It was one of those moments when you realize that while you are sharing a planet with the person you’re talking to, you are nonetheless living in different worlds.

I was supposed to respond with some kind of shock and horror at the conduct she was describing, which consisted largely of this guy doing everything humanly possible to make clear to everyone within 100 yards of his seat at Virginia’s University Hall that he was rooting for the opposition.

Instead, I asked whether she knew this guy, and when she said yes, I asked if she could get me a phone number. That day, a friendship started. It’s been decades now and it’s still going strong, and with any luck, will be with me for the rest of my days. Hardly a moment of Tar Heel history has passed since that we didn’t share together, up to and including the time I thought that John Bunting was a good idea.

This brings me to last Thursday night. Duke game. Although life and circumstances have made it harder and harder for us to get together for UNC sports events, the Duke game is an exception. That, we make happen. On Thursday, it was at his place. Wife, kids, mother-in-law all there . . . and me. Coming up with a suitable movie to entertain a 5-year-old not yet ready to appreciate the gravity of the basketball game, all part of what just had to be worked around so that we could do what we do for the Duke game. So I get there, we open a bottle of wine as part of the occasion, and the game starts.

And then it happens. My phone starts blowing up, like it does most every game. My brother. My dad. My sons. Friends all over the country. Duke people. My cousin who went to Florida State but pulls for the Tar Heels in all non-FSU events. All of that is before you even get to Twitter. My sons have their own text sounds, so I’m especially attentive to those when they come in. If I wasn’t at his place (and usually I’m not), my Tar Heel partner in crime would be lighting up my phone just like everyone else.

Since that night, I’ve taken no end of abuse from my Tar Heel wingman about my being as attached to my phone as a hormonal 14-year-old (abuse is what he does best). Like all the best burns, this one has stuck with me ever since, because let’s face it, it’s just the truth. Whether I’m watching it on TV or in person, I probably haven’t taken in a full Tar Heel sporting event without involving my phone in at least 3-4 years. Somewhere along the way, it became part of gameday. Last Thursday night, I was living two gameday experiences: one happening in a friend’s house, and another going on, well, just about everywhere.

The damnable thing is, I can’t figure out whether that’s the best thing that’s happened to sports in my life or the worst. Something is definitely lost in this process. Involve your phone, and taking in a game as a shared experience with only the people in the room with you (and the possible addition of Jones Angell in the background) is lost.

My childhood was largely defined by moments like that with my parents and siblings. It was part of what made us who we were as a family; a series of anxieties and joys and crushing defeats that we went through together, for better or for worse. There is treasure in that. Sure, it’s possible to enjoy a game with friends and family despite your technology, but let’s be honest about it: it’s not the same. It’s hard to be completely present when your phone gets involved.

The trouble is that there’s more than one kind of treasure. The Tar Heel world extends well beyond the boundaries of the dwelling in which you’ve tuned into the game and the people who happen to be with you at the time. It’s rare that the UNC fans in your life can be with you in person on a routine basis, even for a Duke game.

With your phone in hand, you can share the experience in real time with all of those people, wherever they may be, and whatever else they may have going on. You can laugh and SCREAM (in text anyway) and fret and complain and ask why Roy simply will not call timeout and do it with all of the people who share your passion for those kinds of moments, and who understand living and dying with every minute of what a bunch of college students do on a basketball court.

Involve Twitter, and you can involve celebrities and pundits and people you may never meet but who share your interests and have interesting and often hilarious things to say that make the game that much better.

It is at this point, I suspect, that many people will try to argue that this is straightforward: put down your phone and take the game in with those you love best. That looks good on paper, until you realize that if you are a parent, or a child, or a best friend, sooner or later the people you love best will be somewhere other than with you when the Duke game comes around, and when that happens, your phone will be the thing that maintains and grows those connections. We don’t get to have all of our favorite people with us in the same room all the time. Most often, we don’t get anything like that.

Which brings me back to Thursday night. There I was, in a room with a Tar Heels friendship that has lasted more than half of my life, a little distracted. I feel a little guilty about that. But then I wonder: between the kids and the job and the carpools and that inevitable thing at work that’s eating me alive, if not for this godforsaken phone and my ability to crack jokes about Beejay Anya with this very same person at any hour of any day, and to forward him a tweet involving a wildly inappropriate (and correspondingly hilarious) Photoshop involving Mike Krzyzewski, would that friendship have thrived as well as it has? Would getting together for the Duke game even have happened?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer to any of these questions beyond this: it’s complicated. It’s complicated, and it isn’t going to change, and as best I can tell, no one has it completely figured out. Suffice it to say that whatever real value sports has lies in the connections they can create between people, and that if you ended Thursday night, despite the disappointment, adding another shared chapter of the journey with people who matter to you, however you got there, you did it right.

Care to share how technology affects your experience of Tar Heel sports?