Bethlehem Shoals espouses the virtues of liberated fandom, but every March he finds himself back in Chapel Hill, rooting for the team that almost ruined it all.
I am not a college-basketball guy. This year, I’ve figured out how to enjoy the tournament without betraying the NBA. That doesn’t mean, though, that I think it’s a realistic claim about what makes for quality basketball. I plan to have my fun, lose myself in days and days of narcotic broadcast, and then return to the pro game like a penitent after a bender.
But I also plan to do something I do every March, even back when I wanted college ball banished from this earth: at some point, I will start to root for UNC. Vehemently, smugly, and like I’d been watching them since November. I don’t apologize or even do much homework to bring myself up to speed. If the Tar Heels make a run, I’m there, ready to climb on board as if it were my God-given right. And it is, so don’t even try and call me a bandwagon-jumper.
It’s not just that I don’t see anything wrong with coming to the party unarmed, at the very last minute. In my daily life as a sports fan, I feel we spectators should be free to jump from team to team, from player to player, however we see fit. You might even say that I reject the notion of fandom as monogamy.
That’s not how it is with my annual (season permitting) Tar Heel mania. On the contrary, I drop what I’m doing, disregard whatever NBA-bound prospects may be soaking up whatever time I’m spending with the tournament, and make like I’ve never known any other team.
Actually, that’s the point of it.
UNC basketball isn’t just one of the most hallowed college programs in the land. It’s also the closest thing I have to a home team, maybe even a hometown. I grew up a faculty brat in Chapel Hill. My family moved away a few weeks before I left for college, so, basically, my entire childhood and adolescence stays there, frozen in time and always just a bit blurry. The football team wasn’t worth mentioning, even if Lawrence Taylor had played there before I could remember. The Durham Bulls, movie or no movie, were rank amateurs—and in Durham. And Charlotte? I went there once, maybe twice, the entire time I lived in North Carolina.
What’s really strange is that UNC basketball actually helped drive me away from sports for most of my late teens. I didn’t quite get this until I watched ESPN’s The Fab Five. In 1993, Chris Webber’s fateful non-timeout handed the Heels a championship. I was elated. At the same time, I was a product of my generation; I was smitten with the Fab Five, and seeing them go out like that, on a technicality that felt more like a quiet curse than majestic flameout, was no fun. Winning felt great, but I just couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it—or gloat at Webber, who right then and there became a full-fledged tragic figure.
That it happened on the first night of Passover didn’t help matters. The holiday is about many things, but if you want to abstract it in the most ecumenical way possible, it’s about the absolute opposite of what Chris Webber was going through. I wasn’t a believer or anything, but ritual is a hell of a drug, and after several hours of prayer, food, and sneaking more wine than I was supposed to, my mind was certainly in some kind of altered state. By the time the night wound down, I was downright solemn, probably more sympathetic to Michigan’s team (if not their fans, whom I never thought about once). The celebrations on Franklin Street seemed almost sinister.
I put sports aside, found myself some new hobbies, and only came back after a good, long break. And even then, I was never really just about winning and losing. I love Jalen Rose’s line in the documentary about the Fab Five being “bigger than the final score,” since the long-term significance of teams and players—their influence on the game or culture at large—seemed like a major, and underrated, aspect of sports. On top of that, characters like Webber made sports so undeniably human and complex that I just couldn’t ever go back to, as they say, “rooting for laundry.”
That’s what makes my annual UNC ritual so odd. Provided they’re around and kicking, the Heels draw me in like I might have rooted for them pre-1993. It’s a total anomaly in my sports life, and might even count as some kind of nostalgia, or regression. Except for one thing: it’s not about identifying with the team. Nor is it an attempt to exorcise the past. Really, I do it because I can. It’s liberating in its own way—others put hours and hours into building up their bond with a team, but for whatever reason, I feel perfectly entitled to have that as a matter of birthright. In the end, UNC isn’t even really about sports for me. That might explain why my fleeting obsession has so little do with everything else I understand about sports.
—Photo AP/Gerry Broome