ACC ladies take it to the hoop

by Jon Kir

On the afternoon of May 8, 1953, representatives from seven prestigious schools met at the Sedgefield Inn just outside of Greensboro. Earlier that morning Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, NC State, South Carolina and Wake Forest had all withdrawn from the Southern Conference. They wanted a finer, more competitive collective with less teams and hopefully more spectators. It was a collegiate pilgrimage to the new world as these brave teams seceded from the union to pursue a more meaningful existence outside of their bulky and diluted conference. But on this fateful afternoon at the Sedgefield Inn, the seven representatives drew up a set of bylaws and shortly thereafter, on June 14, reconvened in Raleigh, and the Atlantic Coast Conference was born with a handshake, changing not only college sports forever, but the South itself.

Because in the South, college basketball is king.

Since then, many a talented gladiator has passed through the halls of this collegiate corporation, from Tim Duncan to James Worthy to Michael Jordan. North Carolina is arguably the nexus of this organism, with a third of the ACC teams residing within the state. And the Greensboro Coliseum, just miles from where the ACC was conceived, has always seemed as good a place as any to hold the tournament – until now. With the recent expansion of the ACC from nine teams to 12 (University of Miami and Virginia Tech were added in 2004, and Boston College in 2005), the ACC had more refined tastes to cater to. Greensboro might have enough drive-thru windows and motels for the local yokels, but to ACC newcomers, parched for seafood-based chowders or the familiar taste of la Vida Loca, Greensboro was not cutting it. After last years Men’s ACC Tournament, letters to the editor poured into the Greensboro News & Record regarding Greensboro’s lack of restaurants, hotels and assorted accommodations for whiny foreigners. The ACC conceded and drew up a plan that would split hosting duties among several different cities, bringing the tourney back to the motherland every four years or so, making it less like Christmas in March and more like the Olympics.

So as the Men’s ACC moseys on down the road this year to Florida, the Women’s ACC Tournament establishes a complete monopoly on the Gate City. This is its story.

It’s 10 o’clock in the morning as I’m handed my press credentials for a weekend of women’s athletics. I’m on the right track, but seemingly the wrong train. I was here last year, working as a runner for ESPN during the entire men’s tournament, an odd job I picked up in college and never felt compelled to part with. After all, tickets aren’t cheap. So what if you have to make a few photocopies to watch the entire tournament from the floor? To my surprise, the first game of the women’s tourney was sold out. When I reached the floor I discovered why. For several elementary school students, the match-up between No. 12 Wake Forrest and No. 5 Florida State is one enormous field trip.

“In my class we teach our kids their ABC’s,” brags Calvin Parker, a teacher at Oak Hill Elementary School in High Point. “Anybody But Carolina.” Parker is among hundreds of teachers who are getting the morning off to watch basketball and eat bagged lunches. Throughout the coliseum, students are transported in single file to their designated seats, pre-stocked with plastic pom-poms. Most of the kids are having a hard time sitting still as players from both teams take the floor. Teachers’ assistants and chaperones pace the aisles keeping the tiny spectators in line. After tipoff, it’s madness. Nothing can describe the piercing screams resonating from this three-foot tall mass of tweens. They scream when someone scores. They scream when some one doesn’t score. The earsplitting sound resembles the pixilated roar of the synthetic crowd inside a hand-held video game. The ACC has heightened the excitement for the youngsters by seizing every chance they can to hurl goodies into the stands. Air guns launch XL T-shirts into every corner of the coliseum while a Chick-fil-A dirigible glides overhead, releasing plush bovine Beanie Babies into the throngs of thirsty children. At times there’s no telling if the shrieks are a result of a fast break or the small-scale riots caused by the miniature basketballs being lobbed into the crowd. This assemblage is a perfect match – who else is going to wake up early on a Thursday to go watch women’s basketball?

You’ll find once you’ve seen a concert from the comfort of backstage, it’s hard to return to the stands. It is the same way with basketball. During college, as a photographer for UNC’s Daily Tarheel newspaper, I would often shoot men’s basketball games just for the courtside seat. It’s a level of intensity that is unrivaled by a televised encounter or catching a match from the mezzanine. To feel the rumble of the Nike mid-tops as they stampede down the floor is a sensation second only to playing the game. Plus you don’t have to work out.

And the perks don’t stop on the court. The Greensboro Coliseum in particular has fantastic accommodations for members of the press, including all-you-can-eat popcorn, candy and Klondike Bars. There are catered meals, bottled water and even video games, located in a communal game room just a few feet from the entrance to the floor. There’s a media room with televisions, internet, coffee – it’s quite pleasant, and overly distracting. I missed more than a few crucial plays over the course of the weekend, and I have ice cream and air hockey to blame.

Friday, a slightly more mature crowd had assembled at the coliseum including, but not limited to, high school students, intramural basketball teams and adults willing to take a sick day from work. Gina Chapman, a teacher at Southwest Guilford High School, accompanied 25 of her students as part of a Delta Epsilon Chi student business conference being held down the road at the Joseph S. Koury Convention Center. The group would be staying at the Sheraton through the weekend.

“We could have commuted back and forth each day,” said Chapman amidst a throng of enthusiastic students, “but I wanted them to get the whole experience. So we sold a heck of a lot of candy and raised a lot of money and we’re having a great time.”

The second day was the tournament premiere of top-ranked Carolina, NC State, Duke and Maryland. Maryland went all the way last year to win the NCAA championship and is still reputed to play a good game of ball. Duke’s roster featured ACC player of the year Lindsey Harding, and the team remained undefeated, ending the season with an impressive 30-0 record. NC State had had an emotional season with coach Kay Yow fighting a tooth-and-nail battle with breast cancer and her team fighting a successful battle on the court. Carolina is just Carolina. Go Tarheels.

After a day of observation, I was starting to make some evaluations on women’s basketball. It’s as stylish as the men’s interpretation, but they call more fouls and more times outs. The game is not as fast paced, and dunking is out of the question. But who comes to see women’s basketball voluntarily? A lot of the female attendees in particular don’t just like women’s basketball – they like women.

But there are a fair number of men in attendance as well. Many appreciate the humbleness of the sport in an age where even men’s college basketball has become nothing more than a showroom for the NBA. A lot of the dads in attendance have daughters that play and have found it is easier for their girls to relate to other female athletes. Carolina Fire Cracker Ivory Latta, the team’s co-captain out of McConnells, SC is a cartoon version of herself, constantly animated whether on the bench or at the baseline. She holds so many distinctions she’s a walking record. Perhaps her most impressive achievement is being the all-time leading scorer – for both men or women – in her home state. Although only 5-foot-6, she’s not short on personality, often dancing down the floor to the delight of her tiny fans.

“The kids just love Ivory,” jokes Sylvia Hatchell regarding her star guard. “I guess mainly cause she can look them in the eye.” Hatchell, who has been Chapel Hill’s head coach for 20 years, knows players like Latta are what will fuel the game’s development.

“Just a few years ago, there were not female role models like [Latta],” she says. “Now the little girls, they’re seeing the players on TV. The men were the role models before because they saw them on TV. Now the women’s games are televised, too.”

But to understand exactly what makes Latta so special you have to talk to Latta herself, who throughout the tournament I took joy in imagining in curlers and house slippers, thinking they would suit her personality far more than the standard uniform. When asked why she thought she was so popular among the kids she had a simple reply:

“I’m just out there having fun. When those kids see somebody out there having fun, they can definitely look up to them as a role model and be like, ‘Yeah – I wanna to do the same thing she’s doing.'”

Friday night I was dying to see what kind of nightlife the women’s ACC tournament might stir up. But there were no sports fans to be found at the Time-Out Saloon, the Triad’s resource for girl-on-girl action off the court. Last year the men’s tournament brought plenty of honorary ballers to Club Fifth Season, located on the first floor of the Sheraton at Four Seasons Mall. But this year, the party’s attendees were far younger, years away from gaining legal entry into either of these hot spots. At 11 p.m. the indoor pool at the Sheraton was full of vivacious youth splashing and cannonballing the night away. Awkward adolescents sat in noisy clusters by the hotel bar, drinking ginger ales and eating mozzarella sticks. I saw a room service employee heading into the elevator with a pizza and six cartons of chocolate milk. It was perhaps the most exclusive party in the Triad. You were definitely going to have to know somebody to fall in with this crowd.

The final day of the tournament was a big day for Carolina. The day before, the Tarheels had defeated the national champions, sending the Terrapins packing their monogrammed bags. NC State had executed an upset of their own, beating the unbeatable Duke Blue Devils 70-65. Both had been well-executed, high scoring games. But with a majority of out of towners opting to sell their tickets and take early flights home, this was going to be an old fashioned Carolina cage match – either way, a victory for the Old North State.

Although all tournaments must come to an end, I had to admit I was going to miss the courtside action, Mrs. Pac-Man and the imaginary relationships I had formed with many of the players on and off the court. Carrie Whitehurst, No. 33 for the Clemson Tigers but No. 1 in my heart, was simply stunning and could have walked off the court at any point into a high-fashion photo shoot without missing a beat. And NC State’s team captain Danielle Wilhelm, although she spent most of the tournament courtside, had beautiful eyes and the alluring countenance of a cheerleader. Most of these girls have the athleticism and grace to be cheerleaders. Instead they have created full-time positions for themselves on the court. And they’re not restricted to the sidelines.

To make a long story short, Carolina won the basketball game. Both teams played well, but in the end Carolina was able to pull ahead and secure a commanding lead. Once the buzzer binged, the team stormed the floor. The parents, who typically sit in the rows directly behind the bench, screamed for their daughters from within a sea of camera flashes. After the confetti had settled and the trophies were awarded, each team member lined up behind a set of portable stairs to ceremoniously cut down the net. ACC player of the week Ivory Latta was the first to serrate her portion with the ceremonial golden scissors. Afterwards she turned around, string in hand and exclaimed, “Let’s go to Outback! Who wants lobster tail!?!”

A few hours later and almost a hundred miles east, the Lady Tarheels would join the men at half court during their final game of the season. The Lady ‘Heels brought their trophy home and shared it with their honorary family inside an overstuffed Dean Dome. The men would go on to beat their arch rivals Duke University, serving them their worst loss of the season. It was a big day for Carolina. But the Carolina girls were far more than a halftime show for their Tarheel brethren. It may debatable whether or not Carolina girls are truly the best in the world, but one thing’s for sure. They’re the best in our world.