What Mitch Kupchak remembers most about the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament is not the shots, rebounds, or scores. In his day, getting there was all the fun.
"We would go to the games in a bus," recalled Kupchak, the 1976 Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year at North Carolina and now the Washington Bullets' sixth man. "The signs would be up two miles before we got to the (Greensboro) Coliseum. They'd say, 'Need 2, Need 4,' and how much they'd be willing to pay. Every year they'd be out there. It was unbelievable."
As it was when he and his teammates got ready to play.
"Nobody would be wearing normal clothes," Kupchak said."There'd be dark red blazers with tiger paws. Everybody would wear their school colors. It's not the same when it's at Capital Centre, though. This isn't the center of ACC country, and there's not as much tradition. Greensboro was like Mardi Gras."
But there was little celebrating for the Tar Heels. Despite some of the best team's in the school's history. Kupchak and friends won the tournament only once in four years. In 1973, Wake Forest edged Carolina in the first round. The next year, Maryland beat UNC by 20 in the first round. In 1975, with David Thompson's North Carolina State team an off-the-board favorite, the Tar Heels upset the Wolfpack in the final. In Kupchak's senior year, Carolina entered the tournament ranked third in the country, but lost the final to upstart Virginia.
Kupchak, in spirit, will be at Capital Centre Thursday, living and dying with his alma mater.
"Are you kiddin?" he said from Chicago, where the Bullets began their current road trip. "I would have missed this trip all together if I could. In fact, I feel a pulled hamstring coming on right now. I guess I'll have to settle for Saturday night. I'll have just enough time to go home, change into my blue blazer and watch Carolina pound somebody."
Billy Packer will be there, watching alma mater Wake Forest and working as color commentator. A two-time all-ACC guard, Packer, like Kupchak, remembers more than the games.
"(Fomer coach) Bones (McKinney) used to sell the players' participation passes and we'd have to sneak into the games," Packer said, laughing. "In my junior year (1961) he locked the door before one of the games, which he always did to psych us up. We were so ready to play that we knocked Allie Hart, one of the captains, through the door, broke a water cooler and cut his hand.
"Bones left it to the captains to get us ready. Every game was the game of your life, because there was no other place to go. ACC teams didn't play in the NIT, and only the tournament winner went to the NCAA. If you lost, that was it."
The dreaded moment came during Packer's sophomore year, when the Deacons lost the final to Duke, which finished fifth during the regular season and had been embarrassed twice by Wake. But the Deacons won the next two years, avenging their loss to the Blue Devils in 1961 and whipping Clemson in 1962.
"I remember the loss to Duke," Packer said. "They played a 1-1-3 zone which Bones had taught to (Duke Coach) Vic Bubas three weeks before. I don't think I've seen it since. But coaches talked to each other a little differently in those days."
If Packer recalls a defeat most vividly, the opposite is true of Wally Walker. He was the key player for the Virginia team that shocked Carolina, and the basketball world, by winning the tournament title in 1976.
"It was incredible. A great experience for all of us," said Walker, a reserve with the Seattle SuperSonics. "History might look at us winning as a fluke," but we were really playing well that last part of the season. It was a case of basically young team coming together."
That was the last time the tournament was played at Capital Centre -- Maryland Terrapin country, one might suppose.
Not entirely, according to Walker.
"You have fans there from all eight teams," he said. "Even though it's Maryland's backyard, there are a lot of people there who want to see them lose."
Tom McMillen, who never was on a tournament winner with Maryland, said: "It's like a communal atmosphere. The teams, the supporters, the alumni, come hell or high water, they're all going to come out the victor. It's almost medieval."
McMillen, a member of the Atlanta Hawks, played in what some observers like to call one of the greatest college basketball games ever played: North Carolina State 103, Maryland 100 in double overtime for the 1974 championship in Greensboro, N.C.
"It stands out as such a well-played game," said McMillen. "For that kind of game, the turnovers were remarkably low. Given the pressure, it was remarkable.
"The night before, we beat North Carolina convincingly," said McMillen. "When we came out for the last game, everyone thought we'd be tired. But we played loose, very well. It think it was the crowd, an abusive, partisan North Carolina crowd. But the fans really appreciated quality."