When it’s more than just a game, part II

The follow up to the OG ‘when it’s more than just a game

I’m scared we’re going to fall off of the bar’s wooden bench. We’re jumping and screaming and hugging and throwing our arms up and clutching our heads and trying to make sense of what just happened. Is this real? Is the game completely over, no evil 4.7 seconds lingering? Are we actually National Champions? It’s loud—in the bar, in the streets, everywhere. Yet it’s also peaceful. All of Chapel Hill exhaling in unison for the first time in 12 months. Everyone in the town is swept into the streets by the wholeness of the exhale, the fullness of its relief. Finally, we are no longer the heartbreak. We are the comeback story.

There are two minutes left on the clock. I don’t think we’re going to win. Maybe I’m a pessimist, or maybe it’s a defense mechanism, but I’m not going to let myself believe, not when we’re this close but still this far. Last year, with the game also neck-and-neck in the final minutes, I let myself believe. The boys stormed back, and with the disappearance of UNC’s deficit came the disappearance of my doubts. When Marcus hit his miracle double-clutch three, my belief turned into conviction—I knew we were going to win. It was perfect and it was how it was supposed to be. And then we lost.

So now, as the seconds tick away, I don’t allow myself to build hope. Obviously my lone prayer before tip wasn’t enough to ensure victory, so I decide I should pray again. Pray to Michael Jordan, pray to Dean Smith, pray to Mia Hamm, pray to Julius Peppers, just pray to all the Tar Heel greats out there, regardless of sport. Cover all of your bases. Plea with the universe. Bargain with the basketball gods. Whatever it takes.

Two minutes melt into one minute, and now, slowly but surely, the final 60 seconds trickle away. Joel musters his best Marcus impression and drains a clutch three. Isaiah muscles his way into the lane and drives in a powerful one-handed shot. Meeks blocks an open Gonzaga drive in the final moments of his collegiate career. JJ sprints the floor and slams home a breakaway dunk. The bar explodes just as the usually-stoic JJ hangs from the rim and finally lets out an emotional cry of his own. This is it. This is happening. Gonzaga’s prayer remains unanswered, and Chapel Hill’s year’s worth of prayers are realized, at last.

It’s an incredibly cleansing feeling, to have so many doubts and tensions and worries erased in a single moment. The game is over. We did it. Now, I’m only worried of breaking or falling off of this bench and the bar charging me an exorbitant fee to fix it which I would probably pay anyway because we just won the freaking National Championship, we just captured what so barely slipped through our white-knuckled fingers on this day last year. So despite my doubt in the bench’s strength, we keep jumping and screaming and hugging and then we’re running, we’re pouring into the streets as a mass exodus, and when I say we I mean myself and maybe 10 other people I know plus a measly 55,000 strangers whom I’ve never loved more.

My throat is raw, my legs are shaking, and I’m still clutching my half-full pint glass, but we keep running. If I took a moment to stop and stare at the light blue hordes rapidly engulfing the University’s main roads, the cathartic nature of the moment and the overflowing eruption of joy probably would’ve made me cry. But we’ve waited long enough. So into the perfect night we continue to run.

It’s ten hours earlier, and I’m sitting in a bar with friends, trying to entertain ourselves until UNC and Gonzaga tip off at the god-awful time of 9:20 p.m. Tip is still at least seven hours away—a year, a lifetime, an eternity away—and yet, somehow, it still feels slightly too close.

The 40 minutes of a high-stakes game are not particularly fun when you’re invested in the end result. They are grueling and agonizing and filled with exasperated sighs and huffs and puffs and more curse words than I probably use in the rest of the month combined. Every minute is torturous in it’s own addicting way. And sometimes, admittedly, I wonder, why do I care so much? Why do so many people care so much?

You hear a lot of non-sports fiends say, “it’s just a game.” And to a certain extent, that’s true. It’s just a game. It’s just basketball. It’s just glorified recreation. There are really no larger implications, no resonating effects, no deeper meanings. It’s fun. It’s entertainment. It’s just a game.

But maybe, just maybe, a certain group of people, a certain setting, and a certain combination of circumstances can collide at exactly the right moment, transforming that mere game into a sort of movement that transcends the very narrow world of college sports.

And all of a sudden, it’s so much more than just a game.

This year’s final game and entire March Madness run felt different than last year’s. This year, throughout the tournament, it was so clearly never just a game. It was vengeance, and redemption, and the act of coming full circle, and the slow and sweet unfurling of poetic justice. It was a pursuit of greatness, but also a pursuit of healing, and, finally, closure.

And Monday night wasn’t about 40 sloppy minutes of basketball. It was about the sheer, pure will and determination that began simmering as soon as last season’s final buzzer sounded. It was about realizing potential before it’s too late (thank you Kennedy), and overcoming adversity (thank you Joel and Joel’s shitty ankles), and discovering leadership ability (thank you JJ), and taking advantage of opportunity (thank you Luuuuuuuuuke), and just having fun (thank you Theo). It was about Marcus, and Brice, and Joel.

When that final buzzer sounded, we didn’t celebrate the last 40 minutes. When that final buzzer sounded, we celebrated an entire community finally ridding itself of its demons, drowning them in beer and champagne and burning them in makeshift bonfires and shooting them into the skies with the fireworks exploding over campus. We celebrated the past year of agony and ‘what ifs’ finally coming to a sweet, sweet end.

Maybe we’re crazy, but we are lucky to have this team and this program that manage to transcend play and represent so much more.

For this community, the game is a sacred space, an unspoken understanding, a unifying and beckoning force. It’s a porch light that draws thousands of fans and alumni back home. It’s the fire in your belly that makes you sprint into the streets even if your legs are shaking and scream at the top of your lungs even if your throat refuses to release any more sound.

Above all, it’s an organic display of human emotion and connection, both within the microcosm of the team and, perhaps even more beautifully, within the macrocosm of the community.

It wasn’t just a game, and now, cemented in Carolina lure and the Dean Dome rafters for decades to come, it will surely never be just a game.

It was a rare and beautiful collision of a perfect cast, a perfect time, a perfect backdrop, and a perfect ending.

It was incredibly special.

It was just a game. It’s always just a game.

And maybe it is.

But, if we’re really lucky, maybe it isn’t.

This season, it wasn’t just a game. And to have experienced that, yes, again—we are all so very lucky.