By Laurie Paolicelli
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, North Carolina, without its basketball team. 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 in fact cease to be altogether. So integral and interwoven is the ethos of Carolina basketball with the basic structure of the town, its shops and bars and restaurants, its way of being, that, If some alien species descended from the skies and declared the sport of basketball henceforth illegal throughout the university, this town probably would crumble into a ghostly dust, or persist in an eerie, abandoned state, the same way the empty and dead gold-mining towns in Colorado and Arizona and California persist, like remnants of ancient cultures, or testaments to human folly. Even this year, especially this year, when we are allowed to watch the beginning of the next dynasty, bumpy starts and all, we remain buoyed by the glory of our past, and the hope of a resplendent future.
Basketball is that important to us. Forget, for a moment, the imposing shadow of Duke, eleven miles away; they’re still called the City of Medicine. Chapel Hill is basketball. Carolina basketball – or what you might call Chapel Hill basketball – is like love itself: each season marks the beginning of what one hopes will be a beautiful relationship. But then reality sets in: while love may be a perfect thing, the object of your love rarely is. There are flaws, always. Still, basketball is the greatest sport, nearly perfect, and by the same token Chapel Hill is a nearly perfect place. And this is true even if you don’t like basketball, the same way Rome can be beautiful, even if you’re not a practicing Catholic.
Basketball was not invented in Chapel Hill, and it’s no longer where the best is played, but face it: this is where it was perfected. There’s a direct lineage from James Naismith’s peach baskets to Fogg Allen, to Dean Smith in Kansas. Smith stunned everybody by retiring in 1997. He carried on the love affair that was created by Frank McGuire in 1957 – the love affair that this town has with basketball, that is – not only by doing it well, and winning, but also by being a good man – a moral, intelligent, Liberal presence, which was a breath of fresh air in the world of athletics.
Beat Duke. Always, beat Duke. But this year especially. For the usual suspects and one in particular: Hubert Davis. Give him this gift. In Chapel Hill the air is saturated with the hopes and dreams of our basketball team (please, beat Duke), and each possession is granted the importance that usually accompanies a proposal of marriage – breath-holding, heart-pounding anxiety.
And of course, there is the deep and abiding empathy we have for our players, for those boys in light blue wearing the invisible white hats, fighting for all that is good and right in the world, the way good should fight evil, on the basketball court, with no loss of life or limb, with referees and out of bounds and foul shots for when things get out of control. We love them, our team, and we are held together by this common love. We’re what you call fans, and win or lose this is what we remain. After each tough loss there is a mourning, a common vocabulary of grief; after a win, we are all a bit lighter, smiles come quicker. Everything is better, then. It is a romance, and with it comes the requisite hardships. That’s what a season of basketball is here – a season of love with a team, with certain shots, with certain games, with certain players; it has the arc of a short, but sweet and 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.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.