Growing up, there are certain things that seemed equally unimaginable yet also inevitable. When I was in high school, I knew I’d eventually go away to college and move away from home, though at 15 or 16 the thought of leaving my little hometown, flying free of my parents’ protective nest and living independent of them was frightfully inconceivable.
I always knew I’d get married, but as a teenager, I couldn’t tell you what she’d look like or how we’d meet or when I’d be ready to become a grownup (OK, fine, that hasn’t exactly happened yet). But even when it was shrouded in mystery and uncertainty, I knew it would happen.
I knew that, as life changed and we all got older, my best friends and I would remain bonded, but that our interactions would not be nearly as frequent and that the days of pulling the gang together at a moment’s notice, every single weekend, would become more difficult and eventually impossible—even as I told my Dad that we’d all be different than his best buddies, the ones he barely saw anymore even though they all still lived in Connecticut.
But there was one thing that remained wholly incomprehensible to me, one thing I could not see on the horizon no matter how hard and long I squinted: The day that I would root for Hofstra against North Carolina in a men’s basketball game—even if the possibility was one of the first things my roommate and I talked about upon meeting in the fall of 1993.
“What would you do if Hofstra played North Carolina?” future Loyal Reader John asked the dork across the room dressed from head to toe in Tar Heels garb. “Who would you root for?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But it’s never going to happen.”
“Let’s say it does—let’s say we make the NCAA Tournament as a 16 seed and play North Carolina in the first round. Who would you root for?”
“Dude, that is not going to happen.”
“C’mon. Just say it does. Who do you root for?”
I paused. I couldn’t conceptualize Hofstra reaching the NCAA Tournament, even as a sub-.500 team from a lowly conference that would be fed to a perennial power in the first round. We were in something called the East Coast Conference back then, a piecemeal league whose champion didn’t even get an automatic bid, and our chances of escaping Division I purgatory were murky at best.
Hofstra was so deep in the throes of irrelevance that it wasn’t even possible to imagine the Flying Dutchmen playing the Tar Heels in November or December and taking a terrible beating in exchange for a big payday. We were that far off the radar—so anonymous that national powers wouldn’t even take pity on us in a glorified scrimmage.
“C’mon man. You’ve got to root for your school!”
It was like asking me what I’d do if I won the lottery, take the one-time payment or spread it out over 25 years, except less realistic. It was never going to happen.
“Yeah—yeah, I guess I would,” I said.
I didn’t believe myself. Rooting against North Carolina? Utter insanity. Who would ever root against his most favorite of favorite teams?
North Carolina was the first great love of my life. It began like all great loves, with a seemingly inconsequential moment. In March 1986, my seventh-grade homeroom teacher asked a few of the sports fans if we’d like to participate in an NCAA Tournament pool. I went home, filled out a bracket and, employing neither rhyme nor reason, settled on North Carolina as my national champ.
With a rooting interest established, I watched the Tournament more intently than ever. North Carolina reached the Sweet Sixteen—an annual occurrence back then—but played Louisville late on a Thursday night. I couldn’t stay up to watch the game, and come Friday morning, I raced to the kitchen table, grabbed the sports section of The Hartford Courant and was crushed to see Louisville had won going away.
I was hooked. Pretty soon, I had a wardrobe full of Tar Heels clothes and a bedroom wall filled with UNC newspaper and magazine clippings. I’d tape NCAA Tournament games. I’d talk trash for weeks leading up to the twice-yearly games with Duke, which somehow had a sizable fan base at my high school. After a lopsided UNC win over Duke during my junior year, I made a videotape mocking the biggest Duke fan at school and gave it to him. I believed every year that the Tar Heels would win the national championship, and mourned for days when they fell short.
Did I mention the wardrobe? My hats were UNC hats. My running clothes were UNC T-shirts and sweats. My school clothes were UNC T-shirts and sweatshirts. I loved everything about UNC, from the regality of Dean Smith to the old-fashioned “scoreboard”—it was actually hand-operated, like the one a gym teacher would use to keep score during volleyball and basketball—at Carmichael Auditorium, which was the Tar Heels’ home before the “Dean Dome” was built.
The first Saturday of the 1990 tournament—when Rick Fox hit a beautiful backdoor layup at the buzzer to beat no. 1 Oklahoma and extend UNC’s record streak of Sweet Sixteen appearances—was one of the best days of my 16-year-old life.
The first Saturday in April 1991 was one of the very worst days of my 17-year-old life. Not only did UNC lose to Kansas in the first Final Four game, but Duke—goddamn Duke, whose March choke jobs allowed me to have the final word in any argument—beat unbeaten and seemingly unbeatable UNLV in the second game. I was at a party and the only person in a house of about 80 people rooting for those criminals at UNLV. Do you know how much fun it is to be mocked by several dozen drunk teenagers? Not fun. Two nights later, Duke won the national title. Bad night.
I had a much better night 104 weeks later, when North Carolina made all the heartache worth it by beating Michigan, 77-72, in a national title game best known for Chris Webber pulling a Southern Illinois. As the Tar Heels hit the technical free throws to ice the win, I ran screaming through my good friend Dan’s basement, my right pointer finger held aloft like I was some kind of junior Joe Willie Namath, as his Dad stared at me and wondered if I was on drugs. It was my last chance to enjoy a national championship while still living at home, and North Carolina didn’t let me down. The next day, I bought all the newspapers I could find and went to Eblens and begin piling up championship memorabilia.
I remained just as passionate about North Carolina during my Hofstra years—hell, it wasn’t like I had to worry about the two schools playing, right? When the Tar Heels’ defense of their national championship ended with a loss to Boston College in the Round of 32 in 1994, I screamed so loud and threw so much stuff in my room that the resident assistant had to make sure everything was OK. In 1995, I insisted that a spring break car trip include a stop in Chapel Hill so I could visit the Mecca and get all sorts of swag.
But after I graduated in 1996, I knew something was different. I was changing. While I still wore Tar Heels garb morning, noon and night, I knew, deep down, I couldn’t keep rooting for a school to which I had no attachment. This wasn’t like a Connecticut resident rooting for UConn—that was understandable. But rooting for the Tar Heels while living in Connecticut and holding a degree from Hofstra—whose men’s basketball program, by the way, was not only still in Division I but in a pretty good mid-major conference in which it could contend? That was not good fandom. That was the sporting equivalent of the 22-year-old guy still hanging out at his local high school.
The Tar Heels made the Final Four again in 1997, and I felt…nothing. I wanted to exult, but I couldn’t. There were no hard feelings, but we’d grown apart, me and North Carolina. I couldn’t have two loves, even if I was as convinced as I was in 1993 that my two loves would never cross paths.
Today, they do.
My relationship with North Carolina stretched from junior high school through college, endured from Reagan through Clinton, bridged the span from my gawky and stringy-haired phase to, umm, a phase that was less gawky and stringy-haired. It began when I was still able to make local basketball teams and lasted well beyond the point in which the closest I could get to the court was press row. It was a passionate relationship and a mutually satisfying one in which my loyalty was tested but ultimately rewarded.
And today, when the incomprehensible becomes reality, none of that will mean a thing to me, and I will wonder how I ever had to ponder the question John posed 17 years ago this fall and marvel at how easily seven once-inconceivable letters flow from my fingers and spill from my mouth.
Beat UNC. Beat UNC. Beat UNC.