Friday, October 12, 2007

Life on Tobacco Road


I arrived in The Triangle on Monday, but I wasn't officially welcomed until Friday night.

To the common person, Oct. 12 is just a normal Friday. The end of the work week. A time to relax, perhaps sip a few adult beverages and prepare for the weekend's activities.

In Chapel Hill, however — and, I'm sure, on other select campuses throughout the country — the night of Oct. 12 was special. The air was cooler, the intensity was palpable.

Yep, it was the first night of college basketball practice. The first chance for Tar Heels fans to see their beloved 'Heels.

There's an important football game in Chapel Hill Saturday — a matchup between rivals No. 7 South Carolina (led by locally hated Steve Spurrier) and UNC. There's been plenty of talk about it on the radio waves around here.

But even as just a five-day resident of Tobacco Road, it's become pretty clear to me just how important college hoops is — even more than three weeks before the first game that counts.

The Dean Smith Center was packed to capacity — that's approximately 21,750 fans decked out in sky blue — as UNC alum and popular "SportsCenter" anchor Stuart Scott MCd "Late Night with Roy (Williams)," the 'Heels comedic opening practice of the promising season.

Fans from courtside to the upper nosebleeds sat through three hours of entertainment, which began with some yawn-inducing skits by the women's team. But when the men's team was introduced one by one, with each player walking down an aisle to a rousing standing ovation, I got chills.

I thought to myself, How are these players able to stay level-headed with all the love heaped upon them? How do they deal with the pressure? Or the expectations, considering that many pundits consider UNC the No. 1 team in the country entering the season?

Coming from Ann Arbor, I know how attached a city can become to a college team. Heck, 110,000-plus fans pack Michigan Stadium for a game against cupcake Eastern Michigan.

But it's just a different feeling down here. These 19-year-old basketball players can't hide behind a helmet — or an offensive line. They're exposed on the court. Their names will be etched into UNC's fine history.

As Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina's potential national player of the year, said during Thursday's media day, UNC's tradition is one of the program's key recruiting tools. Both UNC and Duke sell themselves. These programs don't recruit players who shy away from the spotlight.

Which explains why no Tar Heel was hesitant to perform goofy dances and skits on the Dean Dome's floor Friday night. There was shaking, strutting, joking and — finally — playing in the form of a rather dramatic 37-37 tie between the white and blue team.

Even though many of the fans had slipped out by the game's end, I found myself sitting on the edge of my nosebleed seat as Ty Lawson's final-second shot clanged off the back iron, icing the meaningless tie.

I couldn't help it. It may still be mid-October — what we call in Ann Arbor the middle of football season. In places like Boston, postseason baseball grabs all the headlines.

But down here, on Tobacco Road, people are already talking basketball. Seriously.

Which makes we wonder, What will the atmosphere be come March?

1 comment:

Sportsattitude said...

I had the pleasure of attending the ACC Tournament a couple of times, and I tell you, there is nothing like all those fans taking their places throughout the arena in those early rounds, teaming up and getting behind underdogs...or rooting for one enemy when they're playing another enemy they hate just a bit more, etc. Passionate doesn't even begin to describe it. Great atmosphere all season long, but especially when the Tourney comes around.