Stranger in a Strange Land
He wrapped his arms around me without asking, just in front of Sutton’s Drugstore on Franklin Street, the hangover still doing exactly what its name implies as it stretched above the entire town like a light but immovable blanket. People moved through Chapel Hill like zombies, staring ahead of them only to avoid running into everything. There was no intent, there was no motivation. There was only stunned disbelief.
My confusion grew as he squeezed me tighter, pinning my arms to my sides.
“Congratulations, man. You guys really deserved it.” He began to cry a bit as he held me. Why was this person I’d never seen before hugging me? Why was he crying? And what did I deserve?
“I’m devastated. But what a game, man. What a game.”
It dawned on me then.
I was wearing one of my few Villanova shirts and we were merely weeks removed from our squad’s instantly legendary win, or their squad’s unfathomably heart wrenching loss, depending on who you asked.
In 4.7 now-famous seconds, The University Of North Carolina’s hallowed men’s basketball team went from National Champions for the sixth time to National Runners Up for the fifth, while our Villanova Wildcats, on the arch of a pristine stroke of a Kris Jenkins three, claimed their second national title.
Most sports fans would agree that it was an amazing outcome to one of the most beautiful basketball games ever played between the two best teams that year’s tournament had produced.
No one was robbed. No one lost on a lousy foul or a phantom travel. No asterisks could be applied and there was little grey area for the talking heads to debate. It was basketball at its most beautiful. It was everything we love about college hoops.
It was perfect.
Selection Sunday came and the brackets were filled. We had been building up steam over the waning weeks of Big East play, despite losing in the final of our conference tournament to a Seton Hall team that always seems to have our number.
I called my father that evening.
“We’re going to play Carolina in the final.”
“Yeah?” He retorted. “Lotta basketball games to be played between now and then.”
He was right.
Despite our landing a two-seed, we still had to get through the second round, which hasn’t always proven a given in the Jay Wright era. Beyond that would be potential match ups with a lightning-quick Miami squad and the tournament’s top overall seed, the Kansas Jayhawks, with their Player of the Year candidate Perry Ellis and future PoY winner Frank Mason III. Should we emerge from our bracket, which few predicted, a vicious Oklahoma team, the same squad who’d handed us our worst loss of the year in the early part of the season, would likely await us in the Final Four. If shutting down Perry Ellis wasn’t enough of a challenge, Oklahoma possessed a nigh-unstoppable weapon in that season’s soon-to-be-crowned Player of the Year in Buddy Hield.
Still, I knew.
“Mark my words, Pop.”
“Well just don’t let them know you’re a ‘Nova alum down there,” he said, alluding to my years spent studying in Philadelphia as a die-hard New York Giants fan, which can be rather hazardous to your health.
“Don’t worry, Pop. These people aren’t like that,” I promised.
Truth is, I had no idea what these people were like. I knew they were Southern. I knew their kindness, hospitality and concern was incredible and often overwhelming. I knew, after having traversed the country dozens of times making music, that these were the nicest people in America.
But I knew how fervently they loved their Tar Heels. I knew that few things mattered more than Heels basketball. I knew that I now lived in one of the most important basketball towns on the face of the Earth. And I knew that my Wildcats would be cutting down the nets over their Tar Heels in a matter of weeks.
We sat at a high top table in one of Chapel Hill’s more raucous sports bars. As my wife and I knew our residence in our townhouse was temporary, we never had cable installed, thus I was relegated to sports refugee status whenever the Giants or the Wildcats played. As they are the only two teams for whom I will tune in to every single game, regardless of time, location or engagement, I found myself streaming illegally the less desirable games and posting up at a sports bar for the marquee match ups.
We tipped off in the earlier of the Final Four’s two games, thus the bar was only halfway full when we arrived. The Heels wouldn’t take the court for four more hours but their fans steadily filled the tables and bar stools as our game commenced.
In an effort to quell my nerves, I began drinking beers at a furious rate as I recounted the last Final Four game we played, incidentally against the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. My wife gently chided me.
“Don’t get so drunk you don’t remember the game.”
There wasn’t much to remember. From the first tip-off, it was a bloodbath. Our boys stepped on the Sooners’ throats and didn’t let up for forty flawless minutes of basketball. By the time the final buzzer rang out, we had won by the widest margin in Final Four history.
As the young Wildcats milled about the court in Houston, congratulating one another, my phone began buzzing. Two of my closest friends from college were planning to fly to Houston for the final and they wanted me to join.
“Ah shit.” I texted back. “I’d love to but I’m in between tours right now and definitely can’t afford a thousand dollar boys weekend.
“Plus, I wanna be here in town when we beat their asses.”
“You gonna watch at a bar?”
“Nah,” I replied. “I’m not trying to be an asshole. Plus, I won’t be able to enjoy it in a sea of Heels fans.”
Those very fans were now packed into every corner of the sports bar. A sea of Carolina Blue took over with my one navy shirt sticking out like a sore thumb. A neighbor tapped on my shoulder in the moments before the Tar Heels tipped off. He looked like he’d seen a ghost.
“Man. I hope we win tonight, but I really, really don’t think anyone wants to play ‘Nova right now,” he said, handing me a congratulatory shot.
“Gotta get through Syracuse first,” I told him with a smile. We touched glasses and downed the shot.
“True. But I don’t think that’s gonna be a problem,” he said.
“I hope not. Fuck Jim Boeheim,” I responded.
“FUCK JIM BOEHEIM!” He yelled, somehow producing another shot of whiskey for himself.
“Just don’t get too drunk you don’t remember the game,” I said. He smiled and downed the shot.
We’d beaten Oklahoma senseless. We’d shut down Perry Ellis and his Jayhawks like no one had been able to that entire season. We trounced Miami and now were headed to our second National Championship game.
I called my father.
“Remember what I said on Selection Sunday?”
“Oh yeah. Think we’re gonna win?”
“If they play half as good as they did against Oklahoma, there’s no way they can lose.”
“Just be careful,” he said again. “Don’t get into any fights.”
“Pop. These people aren’t like that,” I reminded him with a laugh.
A story I find myself recounting time and again down here is how the Tar Heels were actually my first love in college basketball. Back in Jersey, college sports is generally a non-starter. Sure, we have Rutgers and Princeton. But Rutgers and Princeton barely elicit low-grade passion, let alone mania.
Before my sister enrolled in our shared alma-mater in the late-90s, I didn’t even know what Villanova was. I may have heard of it in passing but never took note and certainly had no idea of its relationship to college basketball.
Back then we had the Tar Heels. We had Eric Montross, who I modeled my inside moves after on the playground. We had Dante Calabria, to whom I was devoted thanks to his standing as one of the only Italian-Americans on a major Division One basketball squad. We had Vince Carter, who was not of this world. We had Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace and Antwan Jamison. We had Kenny “The Jet” Smith, J.R. Reid and Rick Fox. We had Dean Smith. And of course we had Michael Jordan.
We didn’t have small, private schools outside of Philadelphia whose claim to fame was that they were the lowest seed ever to win a National Championship. No ten-year-old on the blacktop pretended he was Ed Pinckney or Gary McLain. No ten-year-old imagined being recruited by Coach Mass or Steve Lappas.
When I threw up those shots or crossed over (poorly, of course) those imaginary defenders, I wasn’t at the Pavilion. I was hitting game winners at the Dean Dome. I was running alongside the greatest college basketball players of all time.
Of course, that all changed once my sister became herself a Villanova Wildcat. She made the cheerleading team her freshman year and we soon found ourselves on the hard wooden benches of The Pavilion’s student section regularly. My parents would pack the van with my friends and me and we’d take the two hour drive to leafy Ardmore, Pennsylvania. We’d have ample tickets but always sneak in through the back entrance, behind the football stadium, near the statue of the great Jumbo Elliott, through the labyrinth belly of the Pavilion just for fun.
We’d watch Brooks Sales, Jermaine Medley, Brian Lynch and even the awkward Rafal Bigus, committing their moves, their strokes and their tendencies to memory.
Soon I was John Celestand or Malik Allen. Soon it was The Pavilion that became the site of so many imagined conquests. Soon the blue wasn’t of the Carolina hue, but Villanova’s navy and white that dotted the drawers of my dresser.
My love for the Villanova men’s basketball team grew ever deeper after I transferred to ‘Nova after a year in a Philadelphia art school. Now these giants of the hardwood were my classmates. Some even became friends. Randy Foye, Allen Ray, Will Sheridan, Mike Nardi and the little bulldog Kyle Lowry. “They” became “Us” in way that only your college’s team can. We were the Villanova Wildcats.
And while it waned, my love for the Tar Heels never disappeared. I’d still tune in for the Duke and State games. I’d still track their seeding come tournament time and turn my focus their way once ‘Nova was bounced from the brackets (bouncings which, incidentally, came twice at the hands of the Tar Heels).
My love for the Tar Heels has blossomed again considering our move to Chapel Hill almost three years ago. It’s relatively easy to enjoy two teams when they play in different conferences. It’s even easier when they are the two greatest conferences in the history of any college sports.
As I tell my Tar Heel friends, as long as their not playing ‘Nova, I’m all in on the Heels. And as I tell my ‘Nova friends who sometimes feel as though I’ve somehow spurned them, “You try living a block from the Dean Dome and see how fast you start rooting for those Heels.”
He released his grip and apologized for hugging me on Chapel Hill’s main drag without asking. He wiped the tears from his eyes and again told me how truly happy he was for me. He apologized for making a scene. I assured him that it was okay, reminded him that Carolina was bringing back the core of that very team and would likely cruise to the following year’s Final Four. I told him how happy I am to live in this beautiful little town, I told him that he was lucky to be a fan of a team whose won so many National Championships, the police have a protocol for what to do in the minutes, hours and days following such a win. I told him that most schools don’t get one National Championship and that he was crying over not getting a sixth. I told him to remember that we were the better team that night, that we took the Heels off of their game more than they did ours. I told him that while either team could have won that game, we were the team that deserved to win that game. I told him I appreciated his kindness and applauded the fact that no one in town was overtly angry when they found out my ties to the team that tore their hearts out in Houston.
We hugged once more and parted ways, wishing each other luck in the seasons to come.
I love this town. I love its charm. I love its climate. I love its people and its politics and its history. I love that it feels a little like the Northeast, if the Northeast weren’t completely overrun by cocksuckers, sonsofbitches and so much fucking traffic. I love that some people call it The Southern Part Of Heaven. I love how fanatically, how passionately, how faithfully and how unreasonably the people of Chapel Hill love their Tar Heels. I love their relationship to college basketball. I love how, like any fan who spends far too much energy giving a damn about what a bunch of eighteen-to-twenty-two-year olds accomplish, they constantly call for Roy Williams’ head despite the fact that he’s now won more National Championships than the venerable Dean Smith. I love the food and the air and Franklin Street. I love the weirdness of Carrboro and the serenity of Battle Park and Merritt’s Pasture. I love living in Chapel Hill and I’m not sure I’ll ever leave. And because I can never not love a thing I loved so deeply when I was a little boy, I still love the Tar Heels.
But I love my Villanova Wildcats a whole lot more.
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