I filled out my first NCAA March Madness bracket this year. And until Sunday night, I was doing pretty well.
I was betting on University of Kentucky for the championship. Going to middle school in rural Owen County, Wildcat blue was the rage against the despised University of Louisville. I went to one game at Rupp Arena with my friend, Jesse, and his dad, and I grasped the mania — the electric thrill of the home crowd when a Kentucky player made a break down the lane and scored basket — but I confess that I didn’t really get it. Even though I was never basketball crazy, there was a brief moment in my adolescence when even I harbored the impossible dream. Despite my most ardent efforts to toss a ball into an oversized hoop nailed to the side of the barn on a court fashioned from a narrow, graveled lane long past sunset, I was never going to be a player. And by the time I entered high school, my one true creed was hating the crowd, and so I couldn’t love UK.
I carried that ambivalence and lukewarm loyalty with me when I moved to North Carolina in 1997, and found a bar in Durham to watch the championship, where Kentucky went down in defeat that year to Arizona. Through the years, I’ve remained unmoved by the great Carolina-Duke rivalry that defines life for many of my fellow North Carolinians, and I’ve never especially warmed to State or Wake either.
After 20 years, I’ve finally settled on a team, and the reasons why tell me that hate is a stronger emotion than love. Something has jarred loose in my brain or fundamentally shifted in my constitution lately. I’m out of sorts with the world right now, and my basic nature dictates that I cannot join the crowd and root for the home team. Sports fandom is at root about identity, and so for me that has almost everything to do with politics.
I’ll explain. As a transplant, North Carolina always represented a beacon of enlightened progressivism in the solid South. That status is clearly no longer deserved, thanks to the numerous benighted laws passed by the retrograde GOP-controlled legislature since 2013. I thought once upon a time that North Carolina was special, but Phil Berger has repeatedly proven me wrong. Meanwhile, I’m beginning to feel that my home state needs me: Poor Kentuckians, they hated Obama so much that their Democratic governor had to change the name of the Affordable Care Act to Kynect to sell it to them. They wound up with one of the best exchanges in the country, but they voted a tea party Republican into the governor’s office who pledged to repeal Obamacare. But their new governor found it impossible to take away insurance from a third of the population who didn’t realize their benefits were the very thing they were supposed to hate. They’ve been voting more and more conservative, and fell hard for Trump’s promise to bring back their coalmining jobs. They may be wrong, but I’m standing with them.
On March 24, the Triad City Beat team made a special accommodation for the guests at our third anniversary party in Winston-Salem to screen the Carolina game. I didn’t pay much attention, but hoped out of spite that Butler, a fine team from Indiana, would upset Carolina. When Carolina dispatched Butler and Kentucky won its match against UCLA, I realized my flirtation with basketball fandom had suddenly gotten very real. This was the moment of truth: No. 2 seed Kentucky against No. 1 seed Carolina in the Elite Eight, and only one of them was getting through.
Before I get too deep into tribal fervor, allow me to express my admiration for Coach Roy Williams, a fundamentally decent man — and that’s the highest praise I can imagine. He deserves recognition for speaking out against HB 2 in the context of rival Duke’s Round 2 loss to South Carolina in Greenville. “I think it’s wrong to deny them opportunities to play at home,” Coach Williams said. “We’ve had some. We’ve had some tremendous wins, for us, Duke, State, everybody having a home crowd with us. Duke paid the price this weekend because they had a very significant road crowd there. But the biggest thing is, guys, it’s just not right.”
But on Sunday, my color was 100 percent Wildcat blue. During the second half when Kentucky started pulling ahead of Carolina, I ran in to the bedroom to announce the score to my wife, who also doesn’t care about basketball. Impulsively, I blurted to my 3-year-old daughter: “Come here. I want you to see this.”
We watched Kentucky’s Malik Monk swish a three-pointer to tie the game with 7.8 seconds left and then the heartbreaking reversal when Luke Maye executed a stunning buzzer-beater to end Kentucky’s run.
“Just because you don’t win every time,” I told my daughter, “it doesn’t mean you’re not right.”