by Tim Crothers ’86
What if Michael Jordan missed?
I watched the 1982 championship game perched on the right arm of a rickety three-legged couch in Old East. When Jordan ’86 ascended for his decisive jumper with 17 seconds left,
I didn’t see the result because everybody stood up and pressed forward, tackling whomever obstructed their view until the scene devolved into a giant dogpile.
I simply heard the roar. Our giddy throng untangled just in time to watch Georgetown’s Fred Brown magnanimously pass the ball to James Worthy ’85, and the rush to Franklin Street ensued. I don’t recall much of the next six hours, honestly. It wasn’t so much the celebration that lingers for me, but its aftermath.
I left the party at about 4 a.m., and on the way home I noticed my roommate, Rickey, sitting on the rock wall that divides the campus from Franklin Street, his ever-present white walking cane lying beside him. Rickey is blind. His head cocked back, he’d been listening to a championship celebration. I stopped, sat beside him, closed my eyes, and we soaked in the last remnants of ecstasy together for a while.
Eventually, I left Rickey to his reverie and returned to Old East. I opened my journal, my hands still sticky with Carolina blue paint, and scribbled down my memories.
“Tonight, we won a national championship … ”
A few hours later I woke up, stumbled downstairs and opened The Daily Tar Heel to the story: “And on the seventh try, Dean created national champions.” From that moment on, I dreamed of becoming a sportswriter.
Thirty-five years, four more championships later, I tell my Carolina journalism students every March 1 about the morning I read those words.
For the first time I can remember in my 15 years of teaching, I canceled class on Monday, April 3, when it became clear that the roundtable story discussion I had planned for that afternoon might be more of a monologue. Instead, I had lunch with two of my former students at Sutton’s on Franklin. They are both writers and teachers as well, who had returned to Chapel Hill for the chance to be a part of a championship they weren’t fortunate enough to enjoy as students.
We discussed how this rollercoaster basketball season had begun way back in November, UNC lurking in the shadows of a neighboring school forecast as the consensus favorite to win the national title. We talked about the Maui Invitational and how those Tar Heels looked like they could give Steph Curry and the Warriors a good run. We talked about that miserable sleepwalk at Georgia Tech in December, when my son’s rec team could have given them a good run.
We wondered how that same group could blow out State by 51 points just eight days later. We talked about a team with no surefire NBA lottery picks winning the regular season title in the premier league in the country by two games and then unraveling in the ACC Tournament semifinal as if channeling the Washington Generals. Will the real Tar Heels please stand up?
We talked about how Carolina was lucky to still be playing after some myopic shooting led to close calls earlier in the NCAA Tournament against Arkansas and Kentucky (OMG, Luke!) and Oregon. How much more punishment could Joel Berry’s ankles tolerate? Would Isaiah Hicks show up for the final and would anybody notice? Could Roy Williams ’72 really go one up on his mentor by winning his third NCAA championship, in his 100th tournament game? Could this gaggle of lovable goof-offs, whose grit had been questioned all season, really win yet another game on … toughness?
Finally, inevitably, we talked about the NCAA championship game stories that these two MEJO455 alums had so craved but never gotten a chance to write for The DTH. Then one of them took a text, and they had to bolt to claim the last two seats at a bar for a game that wouldn’t start for eight hours.
I endured the season’s final game at home on my couch surrounded by an anxious wife, an anguished son and a snoozing daughter, no doubt like so many fellow Tar Heels. Screaming at Isaiah. Psychoanalyzing J.J. Marveling at Joel. Celebrating like Theo. As soon as it ended, we opened our front door. We could hear the pandemonium on Franklin Street more than a mile away.
Dressed in his pajamas, my 12-year-old son, Atticus, went with me to the celebration. He jumped a small bonfire. I showed him the spot on the rock wall where Rickey and I had listened together a million years ago. As I was telling him about how I’d written my memories of that night in my journal, I ran into one of my students, which sparked an idea. I emailed my class listserv at 3 o’clock that morning and implored them all to write down their memories of that night as a keepsake.
Junior Justin MacMahan wrote about how he stood on Franklin Street that night, so many memories with his dad, David ’80, flooding back. Justin wrote about how when he was a kid, his father saved newspapers after every big UNC victory just in case his son might grow up to love Tar Heels basketball as much as he did. He wrote about the first UNC game he ever attended on March 1, 2003, the Heels down by eight with a minute left when he turned to his father and asked, “Is there any way we can win?”
And how David had said a rare prayer and Raymond Felton ’06 brought them all the way back. On Justin’s 10th birthday, in 2005, Dad somehow had arranged for a birthday phone call from none other than Raymond Felton, and when it came time for Justin to choose a college, David had gently swayed him toward UNC over Villanova, where he could have gotten his championship a year ago. Justin wrote:
“Now it’s April 3, 2017. My dad and I have just shed the burden of last year’s defeat. I’ve just experienced what it’s like to win a national championship. And now I’m standing on the steps at Chapel Hill’s most famous bar, He’s Not Here. I’m imagining my dad in this same spot when he was a student. My dad didn’t get a national championship in his four years at North Carolina. Most people don’t. I tear up as I stand there thinking about my dad. Just like I’m tearing up as I write this story. And I know he’ll be in tears when he reads it.”
Senior Ryan Wilusz wrote about why he chose to watch the championship game in the Smith Center:
“Nearly everyone’s eyes remained locked on the big screen as Joel Berry shot his final free throws of the season. Nearly everyone watched Theo Pinson bring down that final rebound only to toss the ball right back into the air to kick off the celebration. But not me. For the final seconds of the 2017 NCAA national championship, my eyes were locked on the ceiling — or the roof — whatever you would like to call it. My father was on the crew that assembled the arena. His assignment: Help construct the dome. I’m not sure if I believe in heaven, but every time I walk into the arena I look up at it, and I feel as if he is looking down. I have never felt as certain as I did on Monday.
“I’ll never be able to describe it. The best I can say is that it was absolute emotional confusion in the most amazing kind of way. For the duration of the game and the celebrations that followed, I wasn’t sure if I should laugh, scream, smile or cry. And over the last 24 hours since the final buzzer rang, I’ve done all of the above more than once. If there is such a place as Heaven, I like to think it will be a little something like Monday night in Chapel Hill — everyone celebrating and everyone together. My dad and Dean included.”
What if Joel Berry missed? What if the 2017 celebration never happens? Justin and Ryan and I never have these moments. Who knows? Maybe someone doesn’t meet a future spouse in the jubilant throng on Franklin Street. Maybe some little kid baller doesn’t decide to one day come to Carolina and chase the 2029 national championship. Maybe some 18-year-old freshman who loves sports and writing more than anything doesn’t wake up that Tuesday morning and read the game story:
“The confetti came late, but it was worth the wait. This moment — adorned with tears, then triumph, then euphoria — finally belonged to them. To 10 players hell-bent on avenging a game, a shot and a feeling forever burned into their memories. To five more committed to reaching a stage they had never known. To a man determined to remedy the cruelest ill of his coaching career … ”
Tim Crothers ’86, a lecturer in UNC’s School of Media and Journalism, is the author of three books and hundreds of stories for Sports Illustrated. The words in the final paragraph were written by junior C. Jackson Cowart in the April 4 issue of The Daily Tar Heel.