HATING THE PLAYERS, NOT THE GAME
The last six minutes of play during the first half of the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament championship game gives everyone sitting in the Greensboro Coliseum legitimate claim to a story for the ages.
We were there. We see the local guy, PJ Hairston, a product of Dudley High School in Greensboro, drop a three at 6:43 for the UNC Tar Heels, putting them ahead of the University of Miami Hurricanes 27-26, the sixth lead change of the game, his left hand wrapped into a flipper of gauze and tape after an injury against Florida State a couple days earlier.
In fewer than 30 seconds, Miami’s superstar Shane Larkin drops a three on the other side of the court, putting Miami ahead 29-27. Larkin’s father Barry won a World Series with the Cincinnati Reds in 1990; he’s sitting right there in the stands behind the Miami bench.
At 5:51 Hairston hits another three off a pass from teammate Reggie Bullock. UNC is up 30-29 for another 30 seconds, when Larkin passes off to Trey McKinney Jones, who drops another three to make it 32-30. Then it’s another 30 seconds, another three from Hairston, putting Carolina up again, until a field goal by Larkin flips the score again. Larkin would score five more points in the half, Hairston another three. When the halftime buzzer sounds, Miami is still ahead 44-41 and everybody in the room is pretty much wiped out.
It’s an amazing stretch of basketball, and I’ll admit that the crescendos of the Carolina Blue crowd as Hairston gave his heroic performance almost — almost — sway me. But in truth, I’m rooting for Carolina to lose.
There’s no cheering in the press box, an old sportswriting saw that, unless you’re a university flack or a student journalist from one of the team’s school papers, remains true. It’s considered poor form among the journeymen in the media corps to wear team colors, participate in cheers, give high-fives during games… anything that detracts from a professional image. We’re here to cover the games, not pick favorites.
But I’ve been living in ACC country for 13 years, long enough to know that this conference is not just a loose amalgamation of teams with a tenuous geographic base. The ACC is a league fraught with emotional baggage that eschews the kind of casual fanship I generally employ when it comes to college sports. The team you favor conveys much about who you are as a person, and choosing one is akin to being sorted into a house at Hogwarts. And around here, it seems, you need to choose a team.
I maintain that the team for the discerning Triad ACC fan is the Wake Forest University Demon Deacons. Sure, they’re a fancy, private college, but they are the only team in the ACC located here, in Winston-Salem. Plus they have a storied enough history as not to be an embarrassment, with some breakout players — most notably Tim Duncan and Chris Paul, who now plays in the NBA for the LA Clippers and is still active in the Winston-Salem community — and an occasional ACC title to their name.
But this opinion of mine is in the minority. Allegiance here runs along a twopoint axis: either you root for the Duke University Blue Devils or you pull for the UNC-Chapel Hill Tar Heels. The NC State University Wolfpack acts as an outlier in this equation, generating a solid coalition of fans but not nearly the degree of passion evoked by the Tobacco Road rivalry, one of the most storied in the annals of American sport.
And I don’t care for either one of them.
In fact, I’d like to see them both lose. I want to be there when it happens, and see the faces of the players — and the fans! Don’t forget the fans! — when they see defeat is imminent as the clock winds down.
I’m a hater.
I can understand being a Duke fan if you went to Duke, or if someone you love is an alumni. But I will never understand why so many legions of North Carolinians get behind this school, a bastion of elitism in one a poor and crime-ridden city, where a year runs more than $56,000 and the bulk of the student body hails from Long Island and New Jersey, most of whom will upon graduation grab their degrees and flee straight for greener pastures.
basketball program, too, smacks of privilege and favoritism. True, they
consistently field a solid team, and their head coach, Mike Krzyzewski,
is a legend in the sport. But even in their weakest years, Duke seems to
get special consideration in nationwide NCAA rankings and favored
status in its annual tournament, the Final Four.
They score major national TV time, giving them an edge in recruiting and moving guys onto the pros. And the legacy feeds into itself, attracting more young talent every year. Duke is a trust-fund baby, a hothouse flower. Rooting for Duke is like rooting for the New York Yankees. Even worse: It’s like rooting for the bank.
Duke fans come in two stripes: the Duke grad who feels validated when he and his old fraternity brothers watch their alma mater excel at this urban, street game; and the other kind, who seem to believe that, if they only purchase enough logo gear and maybe tattoo a Blue Devil on their arms, the sterling reputation of Duke University will somehow rub off on them.
UNC, at least, is the People’s University, an enlightened paradise in Chapel Hill, potentially open to all North Carolinians who aspire to higher education. But the basketball program exists on a different plane, its players far removed from university life in town. A lengthy list of basketball-related scandals attest to the rift between the university’s stated goals and the activities of the team. The latest, which broke just a few months ago, uncovered a class in Naval weaponry taught by a UNC MBA student and former captain of the US Navy soccer team, which featured neither an attendance policy nor any papers, tests or quizzes. Thirty of the 38 students registered for the class were Carolina athletes, six of them basketball players.
The average Carolina fan probably did spend some time in Chapel Hill — the People’s University has disgorged millions of former students into the general population of the Old North State, all of them constantly blathering about Christopher Street and the Daily Tar Heel and how Michael Jordan always wore his UNC shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform, and how they really get that, man.
The rest of the Carolina fans relate to the democratic ethos of the school, or maybe they just like the school colors. Their principal attribute, their raison d’etre, seems to be that they share a hatred for all things Duke.
But Carolina’s got plenty of fans; they don’t need me.
I’d like to pull for Wake Forest in this ACC Tournament — really I would. But let’s get real: The Demon Deacons come off a losing season, dropping 12 games to ACC opponents with just 6 wins, though admittedly one of them was a high-profile shellacking of top-seeded Miami in February. Plus they’ve got a local kid on the team, CJ Harris straight out of Winston- Salem’s Mount Tabor High School.
But Thursday’s game against Maryland sees a pronounced dearth of Wake fans in the arena to cheer him on. Where the hell are the Tie-Dye Nation? I’ve picked them on my bracket — wishful thinking, perhaps — but the lack of local support makes me reconsider.
Wake is a 10-seed against Maryland’s No, 7 position, and its coach, Jeff Bzdelic, has been the target of a newspaper advertising campaign calling for his ouster. To say they’re on the ropes is an understatement. Maryland’s squad is solid but not outstanding, with a few mid-range scorers, among them a kid from Raleigh named Dez Wells, whose interesting backstory comes into play later in the tournament.
Wake Forest pulls ahead 20-19 in the first half on a reverse layup by Madison Jones with 7 minutes to play, and they stay there for the rest of the half, finishing at 35-30. Harris has hit three 3-pointers and a couple of field goals for 13 of those points.
But Maryland takes the second half with strong play from Wells, who finishes with 21 points, and four other players who score in the double digits.
Harris scores just six more points in the second half, missing every shot from behind the 3-point line.
Maryland will take Duke, the No. 2 seed, tomorrow.
I watch the games on the first day of the tournament from Row 4, Seat 63 of Press Row, unquestionably the worst placement, tucked behind one of the backboards with an obstructed view of the far court. It’s on the end, so I have to deal with the hooples who fill the stadium for the big games.
I say it’s the worst press chair, but if I paid for this seat I’d be elated. I’m close enough to see the players’ faces, hear what they shout to one another, read the writing on the ball. I have an unfettered line of sight to the profile view of one cheerleading squad, and I can individualize each member of every pep band.
I’ve got a bead drawn on Boston College’s Olivier Hanlan when he scores 41 — 4 points shy of the tournament record and a high-water mark in the modern era — against Georgia Tech in the First Round. The record belongs to Lennie Rosenbluth, incidentally, for his 45 points against Clemson to give Carolina an 81-61 rout. It happened in 1957, and people are still talking about it.
Hanlan, a freshman from Quebec, has been putting up good numbers all year, but against the Yellow Jackets he cements his position for the rest of his career, going 5-6 from the foul line and 14-18 from the floor, with eight 3-pointers.
The coliseum fills with red T-shirts before the second game kicks off, the match between NC Sate and Virginia Tech. The Hokies hold the lowest spot in the rankings, with a 4-14 regular-season record against ACC opponents. NC State, on the other hand, came into the season favored to win the conference before Miami started blowing through everybody.
They’ve got a baller named CJ Leslie who is one of three ACC players who ranks in the Top 10 for rebounds, points and field-goal percentage, and a shooter named Scott Wood who can pick off 3-pointers like a Clemson fan shooting squirrels in the backyard with a slingshot and a bag of marbles. They pulled off a high-profile win against Duke in January, though they lost the next meeting 98-85, and put together an impressive 22-9 regular-season record. Plus they benefited from heavy media exposure after the Duke game, when their fans stormed the court and Leslie rescued one of them from the melee, Will Privette, born without a right shinbone, who had fallen from his wheelchair.
My problem with NC State is in the name of their team: the Wolfpack. In 2011 the school sued my alma mater, Loyola New Orleans, over the use of the name for merchandising issues. But Loyola’s been the Wolfpack since the 1920s — NC State didn’t start using the name until 1946. And let’s not forget that Loyola won the whole damn NAIA tournament back in 1945, when we beat Pepperdine 49-35 in the Kansas City, Mo. Municipal Auditorium. Let’s not forget that.
But it’s hard not to feel good for NC State as they pull ahead of Virginia Tech in the second half. Leslie’s good for seven rebounds and 15 points, with a monster stuff at the 6:31 mark against Hokie Joey van Zegeren.
Tonight, after Wake Forest falls to Maryland, Florida State beats Clemson 73-69 in a brutal thumbwrestling match that saw nine lead changes and an average fieldgoal percentage below 50. It’s like a trip to the dentist.
On Day 2 the big guns come out when the Top 4 seeds come into play. No. 1 seed Miami draws Boston College. Miami’s got speed, size and discipline — Boston College will have to play the game of their lives to pull this one off. Miami takes control of the game early, holding the lead by 13 at one point, but a late barrage of action by Hanlan gives Boston College the lead at halftime, 27-25. Miami’s Larkin answers with a second-half burst and his team shoots almost 70 percent from the field. It’s close until the last two minutes, when Miami pulls ahead for good. It’s just as well — though I’m no huge fan of the Hurricanes, they may be my best bet to beat Duke tomorrow, after they take out Maryland. Little did I know my desire to see Duke humiliated on the floor would come early on in the tournament.
NC State is up next, though, with a tough one against No. 4 seed Virginia. Normally Virginia’s a minor player in the ACC landscape, with a single tournament title to its name, in 1976, beating No. 1 seed Carolina from the No. 6 position. They managed to beat the Tar Heels this year, once, and had wins against every other team in the conference save Miami, including a win against NC State in January.
But NC State’s Scott Wood comes alive from the outside, going 7-12 in 3-point shooting for a combined total of 23. Leslie kicks in 17 points and 11 rebounds in the effort.
This is good news on a lot of levels. NC State is still a consistent television draw, even all these years after Jim Valvano’s Cardiac Kids, a 4-seed in ACC tournament rankings, beat No. 1 Carolina in the semifinals in overtime and then took out these same Virginia Cavaliers to win it. They went on to win the NCAA tournament that year with a 6-seed, a great moment in the history of American sports. And American gambling.
It’s good for ticket sales, too — NC State is just down the road apiece, and red Wolfack gear stands out in all sections of the arena, every single game.
It’s good for the team and its fans, too, but there’s a lot more going on here than basketball.
In between sessions I cruise the ACC Hall of Champions at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. I wander the big room between figures of the school mascots in something of an existential malaise. As it stands, I am a man without a team. Surely one of these storied franchises will speak to me — the Tar Heel Ram? The Blue Devil? Those weird, clingy, anthropomorphic he- and she-wolves of NC State?
Perhaps the Maryland Terrapins are my team — I do like the way the pep band plays the “Heroes in a Half Shell” theme from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” And Florida State, it cannot be denied, has the hottest cheerleaders of the bunch. But nothing clicks.
I wander through the ACC Fan Fest set up at the coliseum Pavilion, where hundreds of fans tout team gear as they shoot foul shots and take trampoline slam-dunks amid the midway of carnival food, beer stops and swag booths. They all seem so happy.
When the Duke University Blue Devils men’s basketball team enters a room like this, you know it. It’s not so much a cheer as a roar that emanates from the crowd, if you include the boos from Carolina fans waiting for the second half of the night’s slate of games.
As any Carolina fan can tell you, the only thing that ranks even close to watching Carolina win a game is seeing Duke lose one. Tonight they’ll have the rare pleasure of seeing both in one session.
Duke, the No. 2 seed, is heavily favored over 7-seed Maryland. But this is the ACC, where emotion trumps statistics. Duke’s got the name recognition, the star recruits, the TV and merch numbers, but Maryland has a point guard named Dez Wells whose got plans of his own.
Wells grew up in Raleigh, was a huge Duke fan as a kid. When he worked on his game, it was with dreams of wearing a Duke jersey in the future. But Duke never came calling. Wells found his way to the ACC after some time with the Xavier Musketeers, where he was named Freshman of the Year by the Sporting News last year. He made the jump to Maryland and the ACC, it seems, for just this very moment: a chance to play against Duke in primetime, on the big stage.
By now the upset is a finished chapter in the history books but watching it happen scratches my schadenfreudial itch like a loofah.
Say what you want about Duke, but this is a good basketball team. Forward Mason Plumlee’s hands are among the quickest in the conference and he’s got NBA-quality inside moves. Ryan Kelly, back from an injury that sidelined him last year, is the rare big man who can shoot from the outside. But Kelly can’t hit his threes and Plumlee is held to just 6 points in the first half. Meanwhile, Wells comes alive, scoring 16 of his 30 points in the first half and sinking a perfect 10 of 10 free throws in the second. Forward Jake Layman, who went 0-3 against Wake Forest, hits a couple of key 3-pointers. And they’ve got a 265-pound monster named Shaquille Cleare who jams things up in the paint.
Maryland takes the lead 3-0 after a Layman shot and never loses it, winning 83-74.
The Duke fans first suspect that it’s not going to happen for them tonight at around the two-minute mark. Down 75-67, the Dookies can’t capitalize on turnovers and find themselves in foul trouble. Wells kills them from the free-throw line.
They can’t believe it, these charmed alums and wannabe posers, all affecting the posture of the scorned booster: arms crossed, stern faces, that defiant tilt of the chin. It’s like they’ve just had their birthright stolen.
I was there the night Lehigh Upset Duke in Final Four play last year, and this is nearly as good.
In the stands near me, a little kid peels off his Duke T-shirt to reveal a UNC jersey underneath. Not all fans, it seems, take this binary equation so seriously.
Carolina beats Florida State handily to advance to the semifinals against Maryland on Day 3. This was supposed to be the big UNC-Duke matchup that the tournament seems designed to facilitate. Earlier in the day NC State had gone down to Miami despite a barrage of threes from Scott Wood and 14 points from CJ Leslie, giving the No. 1 seed a championship berth. All that’s left is for Carolina to fulfill its destiny against Maryland and take its rightful place.
Aside from the contingent of Terrapin fans and the fragmented Duke base that remains, no one wants to see the Tar Heels lose more than I do. Would it be too much to ask of the basketball schadenfreude gods to see both Duke and Carolina go down in a single evening?
It would. People don’t hate on Carolina because they suck. Against Maryland, four players stepped up with double-digit scoring, including PJ Hairston, who made a lie of the premise that the Tar Heels view the ACC tournament as mere prelude to the more prestigious Final Four games, for which they are guaranteed an annual spot.
Hairston literally left his blood on the floor of the game against Florida State after suffering the cut to his left hand and plays against Miami with eight stitches holding the gash underneath a wrap of gauze, two of his fingers taped together. Still Hairston drops 13 points, hitting 5 of 8 free throws — his last one seals the deal 79-76.
My enjoyment of the game is hampered by a Carolina fan in the stands next to me, sitting sideways in his chair, screaming displeasure at every call or point that goes against his team, shouting meaningless advice to his guys, criticizing everything about their opponents right down to the pep band.
His woman doesn’t like Maryland’s shoes — each player is wearing one black and one red high-top, which together constitute the Maryland state flag.
“It’s horrible,” she says. I am denied the pleasure of seeing their faces after a Carolina loss.
On Sunday afternoon the play between Carolina and Miami mesmerizes me — the interplay between Hairston and Miami’s Shane Larkin, the exhilarating first-half finish, the uncertainty going into the second half all testifies to what is glorious about college basketball. But the remains of the day belong to Larkin, who sinks eight of eight free throws, six of them in the final minute, to put the game on ice. The Tar Heels play to the final seconds, like they’re fully expecting a miracle spree of points and possessions, but the fans clad in Carolina Blue know the truth with just under 40 seconds left to play, when they abandon their allegiance to UNC and make for the exits en masse in hopes of beating traffic.
For a hater like me, it’s the best possible turn of events.
Though Miami wins the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament, they still pull a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tourney, the first team to win the ACC regular season and the tournament not to be named a No. 1 NCAA seed in history. They’ll play Pacific University on Friday night. Duke, which went into the weekend with a No. 1 ranking, also came out with an NCAA No. 2 seed and will face the University of Albany on Friday. UNC comes into the NCAA an 8-seed and will face 9-seed University of Villanova on Thursday. NC State, also at 8, plays 9-seed Temple University on Friday. Wake Forest, the team of the discerning Triad ACC fan, did not make it this year, but another Triad team did, the NC A&T University Aggies, which earned a play-in spot against Liberty University on Tuesday night. I can definitely get behind an underdog like that.
Photos by Jordan Stowe