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To Heels, With Love

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There are no words to describe how I feel about what happened Monday night, so I won’t even try. I’ll simply say, “Congrats, Villanova” and move on.

I do have words to describe how proud I am of this team, from top to bottom, upperclassmen to underclassmen, scholarship players to walk-ons.

I remember 1998 being the first team I really followed and not just because my mom was watching them. I loved that team. I cried the night they lost in the final four in San Antonio, and after tonight, I truly believe the state of Texas is cursed for Carolina teams.

I loved the 2005 team because it was Roy’s first championship and that squad had been through so much.

I loved the 2009 senior class. That group of guys who didn’t even have to speak to each other. They knew what each of them was thinking from a look.

But this team…THIS TEAM…this team knew. They knew what it meant to wear that jersey, to play in that dome, to fight for each other, to BE a Tar Heel. They just made me proud to cheer for them every day. They entered every single game with one thought in mind…win or lose…you gotta take us outta here kicking and screaming. This team didn’t need rings or trophies or hats and shirts or pieces of nets to solidify or determine their worth. They demonstrated it in every way they represented Carolina on and off the court. They did it by doing the unthinkable: they made me love Carolina basketball more than I already did. I didn’t think that was possible.

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I am grateful for Marcus and Brice and Joel and Kennedy and Isaiah and Justin and Nate and Joel (II) and Theo (I didn’t forget you, Theo “where’s my chair at” Pinson). I loved this ride they took us on…the ups and downs and twists and turns were worth it…every bit of it. Just like Marcus, I wouldn’t change a thing or give back any of the losses to change tonight. Well, maybe I’d give back that one in Chapel Hill against that team from 8 miles away, but whatever. It’s all part of the story. It’s all part of the journey. It’s all part of what makes Carolina Basketball great. Vince Carter and Phil Ford who don’t have national championship rings are just as important to The Family as Michael Jordan and James Worthy who do. Now, this 2016 team will be folded into that canvas. A lot is said about that Carolina family, but this group made their own family within it. The rest of the Family could be seen in grand display behind the Carolina bench Monday night as I saw all of them stand in unison, unprompted, to cheer for their own. No one has that. No one ever will.

So maybe it didn’t end the way we hoped. So maybe they aren’t hanging a national championship banner in the rafters. Sure, it would’ve been great to win that game, to see Marcus and the rest of the guys cut down the nets. But, do you know how many Carolina teams in my lifetime alone I have watched who flat-out had the talent to win it all and didn’t or the ones who had the heart to win it all and didn’t or the ones who had both and still didn’t win it all? I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count that high. For crying out loud, that 2009 senior class could’ve walked away with 3 instead of 1 easily in their 4 years, but they didn’t. Even Coach Smith used to say to win a championship you have to have a lot of luck.

Luck. It’s a funny word when you look at it, but when I look back on this year and all the years that came before them, I’m reminded just how lucky I am to be a fan of a program that is consistently considered to make a deep tournament run every year. There are four, maybe five programs in the country you can set your watch to for that. So much pressure is placed on the shoulders of 18-22-year-olds to carry not only the expectations of the current season, but the entirety of a historically successful program as well. The comparisons alone are enough to make anyone crack underneath it all, and no one would’ve blamed them. They didn’t. Instead, this team brushed off those expectations, pulled on those jerseys that represent so much, and fought every damn day for a program, for a school, for a coach, for a fan base, but most importantly for each other. Make no mistake, this Carolina team will be remembered for years to come, but the way they came together to create their little family, to scratch and claw for each other, is remarkably unmatched in Carolina basketball’s over 100-year history. So, when I think of Carolina basketball, this 2016 group is one I will remember with great pride and admiration.

And so, I fight for and with them every season…for The Family…for my Heels, with love.

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The Greatest Man I Never Met

There’s two dates in time that they’ll carve on your stone And everyone knows what they mean, what’s more important Is the time that is known in that little dash there in between

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I learned many lessons from my mother that informed the person I am today. Compassion and love should be offered unconditionally. Thank you notes should be handwritten and prompt. There is no substitute for proper grammar. Willie Mays is the greatest baseball player to ever play the game. Elvis Presley will always be the king of rock and roll.

And Dean Smith might very well be the greatest man who ever lived.

So, it was Sunday morning that I found myself looking at my phone to find a breaking news text from ESPN reporting the passing of the greatest man in the world. My heart fell to my stomach. The blood drained from my face. I felt my blood pressure skyrocket. Yet, my first thought was “call mom,” which I did. I made a call I never wanted to make…EVER.  Then, my own sadness bubbled to the surface because there isn’t a single second of my life when Coach Smith wasn’t a part of it. As I watched and read the stories flood in over the last several days, I found myself nodding my head. Some stories I hadn’t ever heard, but none surprised me because I’d heard a million other ones just like it. Stories that are unfathomable but nevertheless completely true because Coach Smith was one of a kind.

I could tell you all about the 879 wins, the 27 straight 20 win seasons, the one losing season in all 36 years of his head coaching career, the four national players of the year he coached, the Olympic gold medal, the four national coach of the year awards, the ACC regular season titles and tournament championships, the Final Four appearances, and the four college basketball national championships. Wait…what? Yep, I said four. Sure you’ve heard about 1982 and 1993, but maybe you missed that he won a national championship as a player at Kansas in 1952 and coached the Tar Heels to the 1971 NIT championship.

I could tell you the story about how his teams executed the four corners offense so consistently and with such suffocating perfection that the shot clock was implemented in college basketball to level the playing field.

I could tell you about the time he managed to win a game down 8 points with 17 seconds left and no three-point line.

Or maybe you’ve noticed players who just made a basket point to the teammate who passed them the ball. It’s called “thank the passer,” and it belongs to Coach Smith, but you’ll see it everywhere from AAU to high school to college to the pros. He believed no one player was more important than the whole. The name on the front of the jersey was what you played for, not the name on the back. He believed in teams, not stars even though he coached the biggest one of them all.

Oh sure, I could tell you all about how Michael Jordan had to do the same menial tasks every freshman who ever played at Carolina had to do, but through it all, Coach Smith taught him to respect the game.  Coach Smith taught His Airness to be a leader in the 1982 National Championship game with 17 seconds to go.  I could tell you how Michael, as Coach Smith simply called him, wore Carolina shorts under his NBA uniform every.single.game of his career because he was so dedicated to the Carolina Family.  These two men became the state of North Carolina’s favorite sons: one adopted, one native.

You see, Coach Smith didn’t just coach basketball. He changed the way we play it, and he didn’t just coach his players in basketball. He coached them in life.

I can’t name every man who ever played Carolina Basketball, but Coach Smith could. Not only could he name them all, he could tell you the names of their family members, too because he kept in touch with them even after their sons finished their college careers. His secretary could walk into his office and say, “Michael is on the phone,” and he’d know instantly who it was just as instantly as if she’d said Larry or George or James or Phil or Antawn. These men…his men…counted on him for advice, for friendship, for guidance, and he never hesitated to help every one of them in any way he could.

The respect Coach Smith garnered throughout his life is evident in every player he taught. I’ve heard it multiple times over the last several days. Not once have I heard one of his former players refer to him as Dean or even Dean Smith. Every single time, they have called him Coach Smith or Coach. Even if the person asking the question refers to him as Dean Smith, the former player would respond with “Coach Smith…” every…time.

More than 96% of his players graduated even if it meant they had to come back to school during the NBA off season because they’d left school early for the pros. That’s practically unheard of in today’s world where student athletes jump to the NBA after their required one year of college is completed and never look back, but Coach Smith created a family that is recognized the world over not just because of its rich history and influence on the game, but because of the men it produced and the camaraderie they shared.

Yet, for as great a coach he was, Coach Smith was an even better person.

You may have heard that this man…this white man…walked into a well-known Chapel Hill restaurant with a local pastor and a black North Carolina theology student at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It was 1964. Coach Smith had been the Carolina head coach for just three years. He was not yet revered the way he is now, but he walked into that restaurant and quietly sat down. They were asked to leave, and he said, “no,” thus integrating that restaurant and eventually Chapel Hill.

Maybe you’ve even heard about the time he helped a black UNC grad student purchase a home in an all-white neighborhood, but did you know the grad student, Howard Lee, later became the mayor of Chapel Hill, a North Carolina state Senator, and chairman of the state Board of Education? Was Coach Smith responsible for those accomplishments? Probably not, but perhaps knowing Coach Smith was behind him, gave Howard Lee just a little more courage than he already had.

In 1966, Coach Smith signed Charlie Scott as the first black scholarship athlete at UNC helping to spearhead the integration of the ACC. All my life, I thought Charlie Scott’s name was “Charlie Scott First Black Player in the ACC” because the action was so significant in the south that it became his legacy. But, he’s also a high school valedictorian, an Olympic gold medalist, a NBA champion, and a successful businessman, and whether you want to believe it or not, when he and Coach Smith took that step together they paved the way for Bob McAdoo, Walter Davis, Phil Ford, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Michael Jordan, and every African-American basketball player who has played at Carolina or in the ACC after Charlie.

But understand, Coach Smith didn’t do these things with great fanfare. He wanted no recognition. He didn’t spend his time at post game press conferences telling the media what social injustice he was angered about that day. Coach Smith simply believed in decency and fairness and humanity, and he treated people as such because he believed “you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.” I saw multiple former Duke players say Coach Smith was the greatest man they ever met, but that sentiment didn’t stop with them. Members of the media, former players of other schools, NBA stars, and the President of the United States, who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, all had the same thoughts. Absolutely anyone whoever came into contact with him came away with a story they’ll never forget.

Now, Coach Smith wasn’t perfect, and he’d have been the first person to tell you that. In fact, he’d have hated all the commotion over him this week. But in the simple act of being himself and standing up for what he believed in, he became extraordinary while never compromising his convictions. And so I found myself in the last few days trying to figure out how to honor Coach Smith appropriately. What could I do? What could we all do? How could we make sure he’s never forgotten?

And then, it occurred to me. I never met this gracious man, but not a day of my life has gone by when I felt like I didn’t know him. Then, I realized the only reason for that is because his legacy lives in my mother. I heard it in Antawn Jamison. I heard it in King Rice. I heard it in Charlie Scott, and I read it from Charlie Scott’s children. His legacy lives in all of us, and it is our responsibility to carry it forward and share it. So, tell Coach Smith’s story. He certainly left us with enough material. Tell your Coach Smith story.  Shout it from the rooftops. Tell it every day if you have to because Coach Dean Edwards Smith, born in Kansas to public school teachers, died in Chapel Hill Saturday night surrounded by his wife of almost 39 years, his five children, his seven grandchildren, and his great-granddaughter, changed basketball, changed lives, changed the world, and left it a better place than how he found it. He has tossed the ball to us, now. We have to make the shot and thank the passer.

Rest in peace, Coach. 

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Which was worse? You be the judge.

After Monday night’s replacement ref debacle in the Green Bay/Seattle game, I started thinking about another referee debacle that cost a team not only a game, but an Olympic Gold Medal.  So, I thought I’d create a poll and let y’all be the judge.

In case you’re unaware of the 1972 Olympic debacle, here’s the Wikipedia entry on the gold medal game.

In case you were living under a rock Monday night or yesterday or even today, here’s a blog entry from my friend Evan about Monday night’s football game.

Madness

This is how I roll.

This is March…

This is March…

~ where diving for balls an extra couple rows into the stands happens.

~ where the pay off for the chemistry you built with your team during pick up games in the summer happens.

~ where Cinderella finding her slipper happens.

~ where pushing you through the last 5 minutes of the game because of an extra work out you got in on a random off day Tuesday back in December happens.

~ where anything’s possible happens.

~ where rivalries happen.

~ where the basketball gods bringing up past transgressions and achievements from 6 decades ago happens.

~ where one shining moment is also heartbreaking happens.

~ where looking past any opponent will get you a one way ticket home earlier than you expected happens.

~ where mental toughness outweighing size and talent happens.

~ where playing for your team, your school, your state, your family, and your friends happens.

~ where happy and sad tears happens.

~ where changing your itinerary because of half court shots happens.

~ where “one more stop” is all you need to shock the world happens.

~ where hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard happens.

~ where emptying your entire tank happens.

~ where leaving it all on the court happens.

~ where how much of your heart you’re willing to give determines your destination happens.

~ where full commitment to the final buzzer happens.

~ where Madness happens.

Portraits of a Champion

I’ve watched a lot of championship games in my lifetime.  I’ve seen pretty much every reaction a person can have to “winning it all.”  The smiles are never more broad.  The tears are never more free flowing.  The hugs are never more bountiful.  There’s the yelling, the screaming, the jumping up and down, the dancing, the high fives, the words of encouragement to the runners up, and the congratulations to the winners that never seem to end.  Last night, I finally saw something new. 

A Gatorade shower at a basketball game.  Really, I sat there and tried to figure out if I’d ever seen that before.  Of course there’s a reason I don’t think I’ve ever seen it.  Basketball is played on hardwood floors that get slick if they’re wet.  Football (the typical venue for Gatorade showers) is played on a more absorbent surface.  But this…this was meaty.  I was incredibly impressed with Paul Pierce’s guts and Doc Rivers’s thankful reaction:

I fell asleep during the 3rd and 4th quarters.  Apparently, so did the Lakers.  I woke up with 2 minutes left and the lead at near 40 points.  I can’t honestly remember a win that lopsided in a Finals game.  Boston really wanted this one, and I’m really happy for them.  I have a soft spot for talented people like Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen who spend the better parts of their careers on teams with no help.  Basketball isn’t a game that can be won by a single individual (unless you’re playing one on one or against yourself).  It’s a team sport.  Let me repeat that for all the Kobe Bryants and Lebron Jameses out there.  IT’S A TEAM SPORT.  And when all the pieces of the puzzle come together, interlocking just perfectly, you get what I saw last night: a cohesive group of people that wouldn’t for one minute let the lights go out on their dream.

Then you get a celebration that is almost beyond compare.  You could see in their celebration how much they all wanted this, how they had worked their entire careers in order to come together for this one year for this one goal.  It’s not supposed to be this easy.  Organizations aren’t supposed to be able to trade and draft the kind of talent the Celtics have and make it work the first time out of the gate.  It’s supposed to take years to identify team leaders, to understand everyone’s work ethic, to adjust attitudes, to get everyone on the same page, if you will.  But these guys didn’t buy into that.  They believed in what every single one of them came to the NBA to do: win a championship, and that is what carried them through, what gave them the strength to come back from a 24 point deficit in game 4, what enabled them to put 2nd and 3rd string players in the game in the 4th quarter because 30-40 points was a strong enough cushion that the starters could take a load off. 

The celebration when the final seconds ticked off the clock was incredible.  It wasn’t so much about the storied history of the Boston Celtics as it was about what each of those players had been through to get to that point.  I still remember the Chicago Bulls’ 1991 championship.  It was the first of the first three-peat and Michael Jordan’s first.  He clutched that trophy as if he would never let go with his father sitting by his side as proud as a father could ever be. 

And then I remember the 1996 championship, which was the first of the second three-peat.  Michael’s father had been killed three years earlier and the Bulls won the 1996 championship on Father’s Day.  Michael laid face down on the floor of the locker room for what seemed like an eternity sobbing and shaking.  And every one of us who knew anything about that man knew exactly what he was thinking.  “I want my daddy.”  Michael and Scottie and BJ and Steve and John and Bill and Phil and the rest of the Bulls went through a lot together for those six championships, but those two are the ones I remember the most from the six.

Last night, a new memory was made.  I’m hopeful that sometime in the next two or three weeks Kevin Garnett will be able to gather his thoughts and say something coherent, but until then, I completely appreciate the rambling of this interview with Michelle Tafoya.  I often say that the way I feel after a team I follow wins a championship can’t be put into words, and this just seems to prove that there actually are no words for that feeling after all:

What is missing from this clip on YouTube is Kevin’s embrace with Bill Russell.  Kevin simply said, “I got one of my own.  I hope we made you proud.”  Yes, the Boston Celtics are world champions of the NBA.  And they managed, throughout the playoffs and the finals, to Become Legendary: