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Point of connection: How I became a Tar Heel fan

A WWII prison camp, five cats with funny names, and a barbecue-loving German all appear in this story.

North Carolina

In a very literal way, Carolina Basketball is a form of patriotism in my family. You hear that figurative analogy often when describing fandom (“A religion!” “A way of life!” “A matter of LIFE and DEATH!”), so let me put it directly: For my family, Carolina Basketball represents the very best in what it means to be an American. Let me explain.

I didn’t attend the University of North Carolina. I have only been in the Dean Dome once, when I was 8 years old and my Dad and I were inadvertently trespassing during a Bill Guthridge practice in 2000. I had time enough for a just single glance (“It’s so blue,” said I) before a student manager politely informed us the practice was closed. I didn’t see my first UNC game live until last Thanksgiving in Las Vegas. My in-person experiences with the Tar Heels are as fleeting as that all-too-short visit, but what the team means to me is very personal indeed.

Carolina Basketball came to my family through my grandfather, who immigrated to the United States from Germany in the late 1950s. It was a good break for a guy who hadn’t gotten too many good ones: he had been chosen from among his company to head to the States for work because he spoke English. He spoke English because he had been a prisoner of war. In 1945, when he was 16 years old, he had been conscripted into the Luftwaffe, Germany at that point relegated to throwing children into the front lines. By the time he was 17, he was a prisoner in Scotland.

Like most immigrants, my grandfather came to the States with a desire for a fresh start and a new country to be proud of. His travels eventually took him through the Northeast for some time before eventually landing in Charlotte, still trying to fit in and find “his people” so to speak. When you live in North Carolina in the 50s and 60s, you were asked two questions: 1) Which church do you go to? and 2) What ACC team do you pull for? My grandfather was a once-a-year-at-Christmas churchgoer, which didn’t cut much ice thereabouts. Finding a team was going to have to be his point of connection. Better yet, a team that embodied all the things he was seeking in his new country: Decency, Justice, and Equality.

And that’s how Dean Smith came into my family’s life.

My grandfather loved Dean Smith. He loved to watch his smart, cerebral teams drive opponents to distraction. He loved to listen to Dean’s nasally twang on his weekend show with Woody Durham, breaking down yet another triumph from the day before. He loved the way Dean’s teams always seemed to come back at the end and steal a victory when all hope was lost. He loved that Dean loved all his players and they all loved him.

And he really loved that Dean Smith brought Charlie Scott to Chapel Hill.

He passed that love on to my dad. My grandfather’s marriage ended in divorce, but on weekends, when my dad and he would visit, their visits would go as follows: They’d grab barbecue and they’d talk about the game. If the game on, they’d watch it. If Dean’s show was on, they’d watch it. They’d marvel at Phil Ford and how brilliant he was running the Four Corners. They’d commiserate about how they’d let it slip away against Marquette. And they’d hope that the next year would finally be their year.

My dad attended UNC. He was Class of 1982 which was their year. He’s got a million and one stories about that team: How everyone was buzzing in the preseason about this freshman “Mike” Jordan losing at pool and snapping his cue over his leg, how the team rode on top of a bus down Franklin Street after the championship win, the list goes on and on. My favorite will always be his then-girlfriend’s cat having a litter of five kittens and their naming them for the five starters (Sam Purr-kins, anyone?).

I grew up in Maine, but I still had the faith in Carolina as all that is right and just instilled in me. But this time there was another element added to the mix: hatred of Duke as all that is wicked, tricksy, and false. I can still remember the way my dad would spit out Mike Krzyzewski’s name (“Darth Sidious,” we called him in our home), I can still remember the way he would groan when Shane Battier drew a charge against Kris Lang (“He flopped!”), and the way he would whisper Christian Laettner’s name, as if just speaking of him could summon him. And yes, I was born in 1992 and was named Christian by my Tar Heel father. I believe something about “reclaiming the name” went into the decision.

I went to a liberal arts college in Connecticut and, like most college kids, being in touch with the folks wasn’t always foremost in my mind during those four years. One exception was when the Tar Heels were playing. My school friends couldn’t possibly have cared less about sports and watching the games was a rare lonely experience. But after every game came “The Call.” My Dad and I would hop on the phone and we’d break down the game. There was no barbecue, but there was the connection. My loving mother would make a brief cameo appearance to inquire about the things that actually mattered, you know like classes, friends, and my general health, but she’d often be drowned out by our rantings about the crimes of Larry Drew II. Sorry again, Mom.

Sometimes the call was rough, like after the Austin Rivers Shot in 2012 (“Dude...”). Sometimes it was elated, like the 2014 Snow Game against Duke (“We made our free throws! Happy Birthday, by the way” *That game fell on my 22nd). I moved to Los Angeles after graduating and the stakes of the calls seemed to grow with distance. The 2016 National Championship call was the worst one (“I couldn’t take Marcus crying, man. And the refs killed us.”). The 2017 National Championship was the best one (“I feel like a part of my soul’s been reattached”). The call home to tell him I was gonna write for this site was a pretty darn good one, too.

Now as I hunker down in Los Angeles, 3,000 miles away from family I, like all of us in this particular moment in time, find myself grateful for points of connection. Separation is not something that is natural to us humans. We are creatures of connection. And it’s hard to think of a better time to think of the things we love that bring us together. One of the things I love is the North Carolina Tar Heels. My dad loves them too. My granddad did as well.