We moved to North Carolina from New Jersey a decade ago.  The first neighbor I met, an elderly man, spoke Southern.  He approached from across the street, but kept both arms by his side, not reaching out to shake hands.  His pronunciation made single syllable words sound like three.  “Whose si—ii—de are ya aw—ww-n?” I thought he meant the Civil War.

I must have appeared startled because he hastened to add:  “Y’know, Caroliiiiiina or Doook?  Basketba – aa – ll is what Ahhhhm talkin’ about.”

Relieved, I laughed and said:  “That’s easy.  Our son goes to UNC.”  For a second, though, it occurred to me he might be a Duke fan.  But he clasped my arm, offered a broad smile, and declared:  “We’re gonna get along ju – uu—st fi – ii –ne.”




Having moved from New Jersey, I didn’t consider college basketball to be an object of passion.  In my experience, no one lost sleep over the result of Rutgers versus Seton Hall.  In Philadelphia, where I grew up, professional sports dominated the sporting scene.  College basketball commanded some attention during the dead months of January and February, when the Eagles and Phillies rested.  Still, coverage was limited; it focused on infrequent match-ups between the local “Big-5” schools:  St. Joe’s, LaSalle, Penn, Temple and Villanova.  I rooted for Penn because my brother, Barry, went there.  However, I never thought less of people who preferred one of the other schools, certainly not the way UNC and Duke fans disdain each other.




I didn’t play much basketball as a youngster.  For reasons never known to me I always stubbed my fingers when I “shot hoops.”   Around age eight a group of us occasionally played at a friend named Mark’s house where a wooden backboard with peeling paint hung flat against the wall of a garage.   All of us were appropriately height-challenged; the short and adjustable fiberglass backboards enjoyed by kids nowadays hadn’t been invented.  Frustration inevitably caused us to quit and resume playing something baseball-related.  Alternatively, if we were tired of playing, Mark’s family had an enormous, 16-inch television.

When Mark moved away around age ten, my basketball career came to a merciful end.  It didn’t resume until intramural play during college. Alas, no magical transformation had occurred though I was modestly taller than most.  I still stubbed my fingers and evidenced no special talent.




Now that I’ve lived in ”The Triangle” for ten years I can honestly say I am well versed on all-things related to UNC basketball.  I’ve visited their museum, I’ve attended several games in person and I can recite the years of their national championships.  I have opinions, however half-baked, about each of the players.  Not only me, but my wife, Katie, also has formed opinions based upon even less expertise than I.  In part, this is due to our present desperation to discuss ANYTHING other than politics.  Heck, we’ve even taken to discussing the football team on occasion, and few people who follow UNC sports have sunk that low.

Fortunately for us, supporting UNC basketball from 2009 to the first half of 2019 has been a winning proposition, like rooting for the Yankees in baseball or Ken Jennings in Jeopardy.  This season, however, the script is flipped.  All of last season’s top players graduated, exhausted college eligibility or chose to forsake their “educations” for greener pastures. When I say “greener,” the connection to NBA money is intentional.

The remaining spare pieces from last year are not particularly competent, and the top freshman recruit is now injured.  The situation is so dire the coach has resorted to utilizing several walk-ons in actual, meaningful minutes of game play.  For the uninitiated, walk-ons are the guys who sit at the far end of the bench and perform as cheerleaders during games.  Besides offering encouragement to their abler teammates, their roles on top teams are to fill out a practice squad and do well enough in class to prop up the team grade point average.  They almost NEVER play in an actual game.

Walk-ons are an enduring mystery.  However far down the bench they sit, most of them doubtless starred in high school.  These kids were masters of their driveway basketball hoops.  Yet, their high schools were not in the crucible where future NBA players are forged.  Rather, they hail from far-off suburbs or rural areas with small schools and relatively weak competition.   Some might have achieved stardom at a small college, but they’ve chosen to be cheerleaders at an elite program instead.  Apparently, the level of play at the top is in a different universe, because these hitherto excellent athletes suffer humiliating stage fright.  They can’t pass.  They can’t catch.  They definitely can’t shoot.  The hoop is a standard size, no matter where you play, but for walk-ons at UNC, it appears to be smaller than a golf hole.




Our neighbor lived long enough to see UNC’s most recent national championship, in 2017.  He died a happy man shortly thereafter.  UNC plays Yale this evening.  According to our local newspaper (yes, there still is one), Yale is expected to win. In this sense only, it is good the gentleman is deceased; the ignominy of a defeat at the hands of an Ivy League school might have killed him.