Sometimes devotion and sometimes deceit

by Jeff Sykes

I don’t think I’ve ever cried over a football game. Despite the passion and energy I put in to cheering for my favorite teams on the gridiron, it’s nothing compared to how much I’ve loved Carolina basketball over the years.

Given the dramatic finish to Monday night’s national title game, which UNC lost to a phenomenal Villanova team, there’s not much else I could possibly write in this space right now. I really wanted to be able to write about how much joy this year’s team brought me in the last four weeks. I can still do some of that, but the taste will be bittersweet.

And bittersweet is sort of the de facto aesthetic of my existence. It’s the bitterness that reminds us just how sweet this life can be at times.

I remember the sweetness of discovering Carolina basketball at my Papa Ransome’s feet. He worked at a furniture plant in Winston-Salem and lived in a tiny duplex apartment on West End Boulevard, the part that overlooked the industrial wasteland of Chatman Road. It was a tiny place, as I’ve said, and smelled of stale cigarettes and cat litter. To get fresh air I would often walk down the sidewalk to what’s now called Downtown Park. There was a playground there, a few hundred yards away from Crystal Towers, near where the body of Deborah Sykes would be found a few years later.

It’s strange how things run together in memory.

But it was there in my grandfather’s tiny duplex apartment that I first recall seeing a Carolina basketball game. The image of the state in the middle of the floor caught my attention. “Hey, that’s where I live,” my six or seven year old brain thought. I was hooked.

ACC basketball was king around here back then. I’ve pondered in recent weeks just how much that’s changed. It’s sort of Generation X’s version of walking to school both ways in the snow, backward.

“Back in my day,” we’ll say to these Millenials, “every ACC game was a battle. The ACC tourney was the stuff of legends. You had to win or go home. You had to be something special to make the Big Dance.”

And that’s true. Before the advent of binge-watching several seasons of your favorite zombie show, a live television broadcast of a sporting event was a big deal. It was a major event. That midseason State-Carolina game was huge.

As I recall, I watched several seasons of UNC basketball before I began to realize that Dean Smith was kind of a big deal too. This was before Dicky V. would be on ESPN every night calling Smith “the Michelangelo of college basketball.” He was just the coach.

Actually, the first time I cried over a basketball game was not at the end of a Carolina game. It was the end of the 1979 NCAA title game. I’d watched this goofy looking, lanky white guy with the blond hair shred teams on television a few times. Larry Bird was amazing to watch. I hadn’t seen a guy that tall shooting from that far away. In his conference games they used a red, white and blue ball, which made the games that much more interesting. I tuned in to the title game that year not knowing the first thing about this guy Earvin Johnson, with the big smile and the nickname “Magic”.

I was eight years old then. My dad made me go to bed right as the game ended and I lay in the bed tearing up and then later crying myself to sleep. I didn’t think it was possible for Bird to lose a game. I was already in love with basketball then. We played it every day at recess. In my neighborhood, basketball united kids from 8 to 18. My dad and I watched the 1978 and 1979 NBA Finals together in the basement of our new home he built for us. I watched the 1980 NCAA finals by myself. I don’t think my dad was interested in Louisville or UCLA.

But the next year was a big one.

Carolina did well. Despite the fact that my mother made us go to a Saturday afternoon church concert somewhere in Greensboro, thus making me miss the Final Four game against Virginia, the Tar Heels prevailed and were slated to face Indiana on Monday night. We were out of school that day, either for Easter Monday or Spring Break, and I was throwing a baseball outside when my older neighbor David came down and said the president had been shot.

We went to David’s house and watched the news. At some point they said the president was ok, but it might jeopardize that night’s game between UNC and Indiana in Philadelphia.

The game went on and Indiana ultimately won by double digits, led by some freshman named Isaiah Thomas. I sat on the steps leading up from the basement to the living room and cried with my head between my hands during the game’s final minutes, as Indiana continued to hit free throws and the clock grew dim.

I was 10 then, much as my son is 10 now and turning 11 today. Life was good and I had nothing to be sad about. Why I loved a game and a team so much that I would openly weep when they lost escapes me, except perhaps that I was dealing with the emotions of moving into the scary world of adolescence and the childhood memories of Carolina joy seemed fleeting.

What did I know? I was 10. I had no way of knowing that in one short year I would be on the porch screaming at the top of my lungs, flipping the lights off and on and ultimately banging my mother’s spaghetti pot in the yard with a wooden spoon. Yes, yes I was trying to wake the neighbors because they were all Wake Forest fans.

They say I called my grandfather on the phone and asked him if “we could go party.” My grandmother always got a big kick out of telling that story over the years. I must’ve heard Brent Mussberger or Gary Bender say something about “a party on Bourbon Street” on the television that night and thought it sounded like a good idea.

My grandfather would be dead six months later and I still cry about that at the drop of a hat.

Joy and pain. That’s what this life is about. We love basketball because it makes so much sense. There’s physics and geometry involved, in addition to the sheer effort and will to power demonstrated by players the world over. You can play press, flex, motion or four around one. You can man up or switch to the 2-3 zone, mix in a 1-3-1 with a half-court trap.

The last time I cried about a Carolina basketball game was in 1984 when Duke’s upstarts beat Jordan and Perkins in the ACC semis. I went to the back stoop this time because I had been in the living room. It was warm out and spring was beginning to march forward. I had moments before been pacing up and down the hallway, going into different rooms, making different deals with the man upstairs if he could only see Jordan through this one.

He didn’t. I sat on the back stoop tearing up, thinking of my grandfather and how I wished we could go to a party. I don’t think I’d been to a party by then. I was 13 and my parents had become religious following the early deaths of their fathers, giving up their weekend boozing when I was often dropped off with my grand parentals on a Friday afternoon.

Now it was all God all the time and rules and sin and guilt. I worried if I would go to hell because I lusted after Robin or Christie in my eighth-grade class. Older teens at church and the Baptist school I was sent to beat me up and made me miserable and I blamed it on Christianity and generally hated existence for the next 20 years.

In those years I wrestled with my life-long struggle with depression and developed a history of substance abuse. I saw the inside of places you never want to go and paid a steep price for it. But in all those years, each March my madness was tempered just a bit by the national basketball frenzy. There was The Jet and Scott Williams, J.R. Reid and Rick Fox, Montross and George Lynch, Stackhouse and Wallace, and the joy of all joys: Antawn and Vince.

Something I loved and that never changed. Something I loved that came back to me every year. Something I loved that brought me great joy tinged with a hint of sadness.

The shine’s been knocked off the Carolina basketball program in recent years. No one knows if Roy Williams and Dean Smith will lose banners and hundreds of victories for using players involved in the academic fraud that ran rampant, thus gutting the myth of “the Carolina Way.” Our state’s become a mockery of backwardness and bigotry in recent years, flames stoked again last month with the unnecessary passage of HB2, which limits the ability of cities to promote non-discriminatory policies that protect minority populations, including our trans-gender neighbors.

Because of the academic fraud and recently weak Carolina teams, I hadn’t paid them much attention this year. The pre-season ranking was great, but when they lost to Northern Iowa on the road I tuned it out. I was in Nashville the night of the final Duke-Carolina game and was pleasantly surprised that they won. I decided to watch the ACC tourney and expected a loss to Virginia. I went in to the NCAA tourney expecting an early exit, but they kept on winning.

The last two weeks have been highstakes games and I’ve celebrated each basket and defensive stop like I was a kid again. I put so much emotion into the last four games that I literally felt drained as I woke up Tuesday morning.

It’s a bittersweet feeling and I tell myself each year that I’m not doing it anymore.

But there’s something about this game, about that basketball team and about those childhood memories that bring me back every year.

I’m literally crushed that Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige didn’t’ go out on top. But I can’t tell you how much pure joy those two, along with Joel Berry II and even Joel James, have brought me during the last month.

I hope the NCAA punishment comes down swift and accurate for the university’s academic fraud. If it costs the basketball team banners and victories and scholarships, then so be it.

We need to get on with the pain so we can begin to reclaim that oh so sweet joy. !