Our house guest simply did not understand why it was that I kept excusing myself from last Monday night's dinner party, allegedly to do the dishes but actually to catch glimpses of the basketball game between Georgetown University and the school that she and I had attended lo these many years ago. Not until the next morning, when she saw the news of the famous victory stripped across the very front page of the newspaper, did the full import of it dawn upon her. "Oh, mah goodness," she murmured in her most alluring Tar Heel drawl. "Ah didn't realize Carolina won something so big."
It was big, all right, and it sure does feel good. After a full quarter-century, one in which the brass ring was snatched away by various upstarts and pretenders and interlopers, the championship of the entire nation, Hawaii and Alaska most definitely included, is back where it belongs: At the First State University, that institution of highest learning situated in the Southern Part of Heaven, the garden spot of the universe where the dogwood and magnolia flower everlastingly, where the beer is poured from bottomless pitchers, and where no auto is allowed on the streets unless its bumper sticker announces, "IF GOD IS NOT A TAR HEEL, WHY IS THE SKY CAROLINA BLUE?" Roll 'em down, you Tar Heel warriors! Or, as we put it elsewhere in the "Carolina Fight Song": Aye zigga zoomba!
These words are written, I realize, to a readership in which Georgetown fans predominate. To them I can only say: Sorry about that. You have a splendid coach and a splendid team and a splendid school, and someday no doubt you will be allowed to take the championship, on loan for a year from Blue Heaven. But 1982 is our year, indeed was ordained as our year by the fates. For the 1982 national championship game was played 25 years, almost to the day, after the game that transformed Carolina basketball from a game into a religion; the only suitable way to celebrate this silver anniversary was with another NCAA championship trophy.
As it happens, by an odd and gratifying quirk of circumstance my own initiation into Carolina basketball took place on that same evening in March 1957. I was 17 years old, a senior in preparatory school, at home in Southside Virginia on spring vacation. My college prospects were bleak; my rejection notices were already in the works at Princeton and Washington and Lee, both of which accurately viewed my secondary-school transcript as a textbook example of underachievement. My father, who had friends in North Carolina, was attempting to interest me in the university at Chapel Hill. "This place," as described by the incomparable Frank Deford in his recent novel "Everybody's All-American," "was known as Carolina (it most particularly did not include South Carolina, any more than that Carolina included North Carolina), and as best I can spell it phonetically, it was pronounced Kowlinah." Deford continues:
"You must remember that this was just at the beginnings of television, and my place, this Kowlinah, still felt different from all other places. It was before everybody all spoke like the 6 o'clock news and lived in ranch-style houses and ate at the salad bar. There was still a sense of being, a sense of Carolina."
There was also, at that particular moment, a sense of wild, near-uncontrollable excitement. The Carolina basketball team, which for much of its history had played second fiddle to the Wolfpack of North Carolina State (a.k.a. Moo U), had rolled up a 30-game winning streak and was out in Kansas City, a member of what is now known as the "Final Four," playing for the national title. The team, coached by the erstwhile New Yorker Frank McGuire, had a starting five recruited entirely from the New York area. That four were Catholics and one a Jew was tough medicine for fundamentalist, Bible-thumping North Carolina to swallow. But as these guys from Subwayland began to win and win and win, Carolina fell madly in love with them.
So madly in love that something unprecedented took place: A special television hookup was arranged in order to bring real, live pictures of the games back to the folks in North Carolina--and to those in Virginia who lived close enough to the Carolina line to receive signals from Durham or Greensboro. At the time I was not a basketball fan--but I was a TV fan, all the more so since my parents refused to buy a set and thus merely heightened the medium's allure. There was a set in the recreation room of the boarding school of which my father was headmaster, and since the girls were on spring break I could watch it.
The semifinal game against Michigan State, which Carolina won in three pulsating overtimes, had me writhing in excitement--alone in the dark, in the basement of a large, gloomy building of which I was, that evening, the sole occupant. But thrilling though that game was, it was assumed to be the end of the road. The next evening Carolina had to play Kansas for the championship--and Kansas had Wilt Chamberlain, at that time the most awesome player ever to have participated in the college game. The consensus was that Carolina's bubble would be burst.
The consensus, as is so often true in sport, was wrong. In a twist of plot that no novelist would have the chutzpah to invent, Carolina played and won another three-overtime game. Sitting there in that recreation room--or, to be more accurate, leaping up and down in that room--I became a convert, a true believer. I have been one ever since. I am not a Tar Heel born, nor am I a Tar Heel bred; but when I die, I'll be a Tar Heel dead. A few days after that game my father and I went to Chapel Hill; I liked it and, far more remarkable, it liked me. In the fall I enrolled, and the four most important years of my life were under way.
So it was that one afternoon in December of 1957 I sat with about 5,000 other people in the portable wooden stands of Woollen Gymnasium, cheering the national champions as they began the defense of their title. Lenny Rosenbluth had graduated and Joe Quigg was injured, but the others were there: Tommy Kearns, Pete Brennan and Bobby Cunningham, racing onto the court, bursting through a paper banner, receiving the timbers-shivering cheers of their fans. They won that afternoon, but over the rest of the season they proved themselves to be, though heroic, quite mortal; the championship left Chapel Hill in March of 1958, and did not return until last Monday night. But the legend of that 1957 team has never faded--has if anything grown even richer, as Frank Deford demonstrated in his brilliant recollection of the team in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated.
For me, the allure of Carolina basketball has never faded. I don't wear funny hats or paint my face blue, but I follow the Heels with passion and persistence and unflagging faith. In this large and important part of my life, there are two ruling passions: Carolina Tar Heel basketball and Baltimore Oriole baseball. Other interests come and go, but these roll on as implacably as the mighty Mississippi. So what an inexpressible joy it is that on this first Monday of April I can look back one week to my basketball team's great triumph, and ahead a few hours to my baseball team's opening game. One championship season has ended; now another begins.