First things first: check out an absolutely incredible photo gallery from our guy Smith Hardy/smithcameronphotography.org
Seeing the Final Four for the first time was an incredible experience. There are bigger events…Olympics, Super Bowls, the Masters, perhaps. But for someone who grew up in Raleigh, NC shooting hoops on the outdoor goal of my neighbor, a former NC State basketball player….for someone whose older sister took me to my first REAL college basketball experience after staying with her in Chapel Hill for the night (it was Virginia-UNC, Jeff Lebo was on the ticket)….for someone who has gotten to know a lot of great people who live, work, and play college basketball….and for someone who suffers from recency bias….I’m not sure the experience of seeing two closely contested–if not perfectly played–national semifinal games from near the court will ever be topped.
I wish I could be a better reporter and less of a fan (of the GAME, not the Tar Heels….but ok, at this point I have no problem admitting who I wanted to see win on Saturday, mainly to ensure we got a Monday game that made this not-inexpensive trip more worthwhile. I assure you that while I’d love to see UNC win Monday, it won’t matter to me as much as winning Saturday night. Selfishly, I got mine. It’s on UNC’s players/staff to go get theirs). But the truth is, I was in fan mode the whole time, even as I tried to play it cool once I realize my ticket was a LOT better than I thought it was and I’d be sitting behind Bobby Hurley and next to Miles Simon for most of the evening.
BOBBY HURLEY! I vividly remember him running off the court to the bathroom in the Final Four and now I’m telling his kid that I thought his Dad was a star the same way he thinks Larry Fitzgerald is. (Bubba Cunningham remembered it, too, and I couldn’t help but think there was a bit of the rivalry in play when Bubba brought up Hurley’s famous locker room trot when he came over to thank the Arizona State head coach for letting UNC use the Sun Devils’ facilities.)
MILES SIMON! The only time I’ve ever won a March Madness pool was as a senior in high school when Miles Simon led Arizona past Kentucky in the finals. I won $150 and it felt like a million. If they sold beer at the NCAA sites (they don’t, a bit surprising for an outfit that has few scruples when it comes to making more money) I would have bought him one. Instead I had to settle for discussing whether or not UNC should’ve gone 2-for-1 when they had the ball with 1 minute remaining in the first half (they should have, but it worked out anyway).
There were more crazy sightings, from the expected–like, all the UNC alumni you could think of and head coaches like Mike Brey and Jamie Dixon sitting unnoticed and unmolested as young autograph seekers sought bigger prizes–to the try-not-to-look-dumbfounded, like when Odell Beckham chuckled noticing I had slipped my sunglasses on inside the stadium as a nod/mock to his wearing his indoors all night (for the record, he did remove them to address Jerry Colangelo and his wife; OBJ was great with fans the entire time I observed him.)
But there was also basketball to be a fan of. One of the professional writers will do a better job of telling the story of the game. I was too busy trying to study and watch every little tree to truly appreciate the forest of what happened during Oregon-UNC. I remember thinking UNC looked like they were in a lot of trouble early. I remember thinking Nate Britt saved the first half (with the help of the quiet giant Kennedy Meeks again being a beast inside and Justin Jackson creating new angles from which to toss the ball in the hoop). I remember thinking Carolina was cruising and figuring they would run away with it–Miles Simon thought so, too. And I remember the dread that set in when you realized Oregon might not miss another free throw, and UNC might not make another one.
But, again, more than the arc of the game or its bizarre, dramatic ending, it’s small details that will forever be etched in my brain: Roy Williams looking to his assistants before the first of the final free throw attempts and saying “It’s 5, right? He’s taking the shot.” indicating who UNC needed to be most aware of when Oregon attempted a final shot that never transpired. Officials Ron Groover and Ted Valentine discussing what happened on the play where the ball pinballed through arms and legs and out of bounds and the refs had to make the rarest of admissions, “I don’t know.” It was the national media buzzing by–Jim Gray asking for interviews, first from Larry Fitzgerald, then later Kris Jenkins. I realized Jim Gray doesn’t get to watch much of the games he works. It was once again seeing my friends in the local media being the ones on the scene and in the seats when the biggest games of the year were being played.
When I worked at Camp Sea Gull, sometimes you’d find the youngest kids were not the ones affected by homesickness. They were almost too naive and unaware to miss the comforts of home and realize the magnitude of being away for the first time from the only people who have anxiously watched over their lives. I have to think that’s the only way 18-22 year old players can not get caught up in how big the Final Four stage is, and what an impact winning or losing will have on the rest of their lives. If they had to play knowing their childhood heroes, their Bobby Hurleys and Miles Simons and all the rest are right there waiting to see who is going to be next in line for history, I gotta think it would make it that much harder.
Perhaps the thing that most affirmed how special this was for me was a kid, I’m guessing 11 years old, decked out in Oregon gear–hat, warm-up shirt two sizes too big, basketball shorts, horrendous Oregon socks and shoes…the whole outfit. During warm-ups he had moved down to my row and was shouting out each player by name as they shot. He was so happy he was bouncing. Over and over again he called their names out, despite being smart enough to realize they couldn’t hear him, even from that close. He didn’t care. He was so damn excited and the bounding and the yelling was just helping him get some of the nervous energy out. Eventually he disappeared back to his seat a few rows behind me.
After the game ended and I took in the handshakes and reactions, I turned to look at the slow-moving crowd exiting the stadium. Like several other Oregon fans, Oregon Kid was still sitting in his seat not wanting to leave. He was also crying. Not sobbing, just crying. His Dad was standing next to him and was also a bit teary–I’m pretty sure not from the game but from seeing his son. Oregon Kid’s grandparents were sitting patiently next to him, without much expression.
I don’t like seeing kids cry. I promise I don’t. But I enjoyed this scene because it confirmed I was not crazy to think this was special. Only things that are special can bring out true emotion. I remembered being Oregon Kid and being old enough to know that, no, my team losing did not mean the world was ending, but that, yes, it fucking hurt. You love the game and you really love your team and it just fucking feels awful when they come this far and this close. It was a perfect reminder to me of what a great sport this is, what an amazing event the single elimination NCAA Tournament is, and how big the Final Four is, especially when you look at it up close.
UNC plays Gonzaga Monday night. It should be fun.