Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Tar Horn

It was weird.  I attended the NCAA Men's college basketball game played Saturday, December 18th, at Greensboro Coliseum between The University of North Carolina Tar Heels and The University of Texas Longhorns.  I am a Tar Heel fan and a Longhorn alum.  The Longhorns won, with less than two seconds left.  It was an excellent game, hard fought and well-played on both sides, and with an few more seconds on the clock it could have gone the other way.  It was one of those games that makes college basketball so compelling to watch.

I wore burnt orange to this game this year (burnt orange is the team color of The University of Texas at Austin), even though I am a very dedicated University of North Carolina Tar Heels fan.  I also attended this game last year when it was held at Dallas Cowboys stadium, which was almost as much of a home court for Texas as Greensboro Colliseum is for the Tar Heels.  I wore Carolina blue for that one. 

Wearing Carolina blue for that game was entirely natural, I barely gave it a second thought.  It was just like going to any game, I am almost always decked-out in Carolina blue when I attend a college basketball game.  This year, as I was going to a Tar Heel game which was more or less on their home court as they played my Alma Mater, I decided I *should* wear the colors of my Alma Mater.  So, I did.

It was disturbingly weird.  As much as I intended to, I couldn't cheer for the Longhorns with any genuine enthusiasm, so as the game got close I found myself cheering on the Tar Heels, much to the confusion of those around me--why was the guy in burnt orange cheering for the Tar Heels?

Why indeed?   This is a tale about unexamined notions and imagined expectations. 

I felt like I should go in burnt orange.  I was going with three UNC alums, and I felt like I was betraying my Alma Mater if I didn't at least make an appearance of loyalty, especially on what is essentially an away court for my Alma Mater.  I felt wearing Carolina blue would have been less than genuine, like I was pretending to be something (a UNC alum) I'm not. 

Bullshit.  It was actually exactly the other way around.

Let me tell the tale of how I became a fan of UNC basketball.  At the University of Texas I had the good fortune to take a year-long course in the history of the US Civil Rights movement.  Since it stretched over two semesters we could examine a lot of different aspects of this topic in detail.

In January we got to intercollegiate sports.  To make a long story as short as possible, Dean Smith, the long-time legendary coach of the Tar Heels, was a pioneer in the integration of intercollegiate athletics.  His father played the first black player on a high school basketball team, under threat of his own resignation (and they won the state championship).  Carrying on that proud family tradition of righteous courage, in the late 1950's Coach Smith defied popular opinion, his school administration, and even probably put his own life and limb at risk in order to do the right thing and treat college athletes the same regardless of their skin pigmentation.  He stood down a whites-only restaurant in Chapel Hill in 1959 by bringing a black college student along with him (and a local minister) to eat one evening.  He recruited the first black player to the Tar Heels at a time when the ACC was all white.  Dean Smith did not waver, he took his Christian ideals, and his American ideals, seriously.

The timing for these revelations in my life was very fortuitous from a college basketball standpoint.  It was the 1981-1982 school year, and UNC had a promising sophomore playing for them named Michael Jordan, along with another guy with some game named James Worthy.  I decided to watch a few games and I was hooked.  The Tar Heels won the national championship that year, beating Georgetown 63-62 with a now-legendary final winning jump-shot by Jordan.  It was a good year to become a Tar Heel fan.  I quickly caught on to the fact that UNC basketball was guided by simple ideals:  play hard, play together, have fun.

I was no fan of the four corners offense, a creation of Coach Smith's earlier in his career, it's existence led to the shot clock, but I forgave him for that.  I liked the style of basketball UNC played and they were in the midst of several seasons of great college basketball.

UT was not.  UT's basketball team was never very good while I lived in Austin.  It's a football school, and a baseball school.  Even when the basketball team played well, no one really cared.

So, I've kept up with the Tar Heels ever since.  For years and years I kept my fandom more or less to myself. I didn't have any friends who were Tar Heel fans until I moved to NYC in 1999.  At my first job in NYC the woman who led the organization was a UNC alum, we discovered our mutual interest and quickly bonded over it.  She is now my closest friend, in some ways the Tar Heels are responsible for one of the most important friendships of my life.

But, since I was not a UNC alum, I realize now that in spite of my dedication as a fan all those years (I am sure that until my first visit to North Carolina in May 2010 that I was the most rabid Tar Heel fan who had never stepped foot in the state), subconsciously I felt a little like a pretender, somehow less of a real fan because I did not attend UNC.  I felt a bit like a party crasher, an uninvited guest, because I had *chosen* to be a Tar Heel, I was not Tar Heel born and bred.

I can't believe I took all that so seriously, (in fairness to myself, it was sub-conscious) as if there was some kind of litmus test I needed to pass, some sort of authenticity check I failed!  Examined in the light of day, everyone knows that one chooses fan loyalties freely, it isn't assigned to you, or granted as a privilege of birth.  It's just college basketball, after all.  But, until I wore burnt orange to a Tar Heel game, this self-doubt was buried beneath the surface.

I harbor no desire to have attended UNC rather than UT-Austin, no regret for my choice of schools.  I consider the education I received at UT to be world-class, I love Austin, and spending 20 years of my life there made me into the man I am today.  But, I am a UNC basketball fan.  This loyalty is heart-felt, it goes a little beyond just a preference to support a particular team, it goes to my resonance with Dean Smith's values, my admiration of him for truly having the courage of his convictions and my gratitude for many, many seasons of great college basketball.

Also, I have to say, it's also pretty fun to "hate" Duke, which is part-and-parcel of being a Tar Heel.  Duke is over-run with the kind of self-impressed, arrogant, frat-boys I developed a enthusiastic distaste for while a student at UT-Austin (which is similarly over-run with these assholes), and I don't sincerely believe that Mike Krzyzewski, as good a coach as he is, is the kind of man who would have singularly confronted The Pines restaurant in Chapel Hill as Dean Smith did, but I concede I really don't know that.

I can sit down with any Tar Heel fan my age or younger and go toe-to-toe with stories, knowledge and insight about the teams and players, current and past.  I witnessed the 2009 national championship game in person.  I have plenty of credibility as a Tar Heel fan, and I did graduate from The University of Texas at Austin, so as few can can legitimately say...

I am a Tar Horn.