Chapel Hill and Basketball


By Laurie Paolicelli

Top of the Hill Chapel Hill is a great restaurant brewery and provides a birds eye view of this college town.

The great cities of the world have at least one distinguishing quality, without which they would cease to be truly great. Imagine San Francisco without its hills; Paris without its art; Chicago without its . . . wind. And imagine, if you will, Chapel Hill without its basketball. Not only would this tiny yet somehow expansive town, whose population nearly doubles every fall when the students return, cease to be great, it might simply cease to be. This year will be an exciting basketball season as North Carolina enters it as No. 1 in the preseason AP Poll. The Tar Heels return four starters from a team that reached the National Championship Game last season. This is big, and this is fun: whether you’re a fan or not, basketball may be the real Chapel Hill brand.

Dean. E Smith Center. Photo credit: UNC Athletic Communications.

To celebrate UNC’s No. 1 ranking, the Tar Heels re-made a famous Sports Illustrated cover that featured Dean Smith and the 1981-82 Tar Heels.

Here’s a look:

The updated cover features Leaky Black, Caleb Love, RJ Davis, and Armando Bacot. Coach Hubert Davis is featured, as well.

The original cover has coach Dean Smith alongside players Sam Perkins, Matt Doherty, Jimmy Black, and James Worthy. The fifth starter on that team was a freshman by the name of Michael Jordan. UNC won the National Championship that season.

This is North Carolina’s first time to be ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll since the 2015-16 season.

The Tar Heels open the 2022-23 campaign against UNCW on Nov. 7.

Basketball was not invented in Chapel Hill but face it: this is where it was perfected. There’s a direct lineage from James Naismith’s peach baskets to Phog Allen, coach to our own Dean Smith, who retired in 1997. In addition to being, arguably, the greatest coach of all time, Smith championed civil rights and progressive causes; along with William Friday, he remains a presiding spirit of the soul of Chapel Hill, moral, intelligent and liberal. Now it’s Hubert Davis’ time. Davis played for Smith and seems to have inherited his code, and the love he had for his players.


Tar Heels Head Coach Hubert Davis. Photo credit: UNC Athletic Communications.

And yet, though it would seem so, not everything in Chapel Hill revolves around basketball. This is the home, after all, of the oldest state university in the country: we’ve had lots of time to develop a culture, and the one we came up with is pretty good. The Ackland Art Museum, just off Franklin Street, boasts a wonderful collection of art and changing exhibits. The music scene here rivals that of Seattle and Athens. The Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro has a show every night. Chapel Hill and its environs also hosts the greatest number of wonderful writers per capita – poets, essayists and novelists – than any other place in the country, maybe in the world.

The closer you are to the University the chances increase that you’ll be eating dinner with a television or five above your head. But the farther away you get from Franklin Street the more likely you are to find restaurants whose specialty is – surprisingly – their food. What a concept. In these sorts of restaurants, there is no television for basketball, which can be a little disconcerting at first. Then you realize that even the most ardent lover needs to be alone for a while, apart from the object of his affection. This is when you go to a place like Lantern, Hawthorne and Wood, Kitchen, Tallula’s – a necessary respite.

Italian Pizzeria 3, or IP3 as known by insiders, is popular with players, locals and visitors.

And yet, eventually it all comes back to one thing, doesn’t it? After all the eating, the reading, the university experience: to this Chapel Hill, where the air is so saturated with the hopes and dreams of our basketball team, and where each possession is granted the importance that usually accompanies a proposal of marriage – breath-holding, heart-pounding anxiety. We’re what you call fans, and win or lose this is what we remain. After each tough loss there is a minor mourning; after a win, we are all a bit lighter. Everything is better. A season has the arc of a short, but sweet, meaningful relationship, the highs and the lows, the amazing victories and heartbreaking defeats – and an ending. It always comes to an end, sometimes sooner than it should, but never later. This is why March is such a maddening month for us, because we know that what we have shared is about to be over, and we want it to last as long as it possibly can, to the very last game, and not a moment before.

UNC Basketball Fans at the “Dean Dome”. Photo credit: UNC Athletic Communications.




Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.

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