by Anthony Harrison
When my friend Aaron posted on a Facebook sports group, I did a double take. But his post was authentic.
He had a spare ticket to the first and second rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in Raleigh, and he was giving it away.
“Seriously, I really don’t want to go through the hassle of selling it,” Aaron clarified.
A flurry of ecstatic affirmatives from yours truly, and I readied myself to head east for a college basketball pilgrimage.
You see, while I wasn’t always the biggest “sports guy” on the planet, I’ve always harbored a special love for college basketball. Back in the mid-’90s, I remember watching March Madness — the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, the NCAA, the now less-illustrious National Invitational Tournament — with my dad and his friends in somebody’s den. It made me feel like I belonged to the adults’ gang. The national tournament also coincided with our trips Down East to fish, either for bass around Lake Mattamuskeet or for shad in the Tar River and its blackwater tributaries.
Fond memories surround my history with the NCAA tournament; now, I had the opportunity to make memories at the tourney.
I awoke on the first Thursday injected with the nervous excitement of a teen about to graduate from high school. It was a similar feeling — the idea that you’re about to embark on a new course in life, but it doesn’t seem real.
Zooming east on Interstate 40, that adrenaline kept me positively on edge. Then, I turned onto the off-ramp leading to the PNC Arena, and a banner hanging over the road welcomed basketball fans to the tournament.
The reality of the moment hit me like a sock full of nickels to the face, and I must admit I vented my glee by literally screaming out the window and smacking the steering wheel.
I met Aaron at the east entrance, and we passed through security, rounded the concourse and found our seats.
We had spectacular placement — a few rows behind the basket, maybe 30 feet from the court.
The first game between Texas Tech and Butler University didn’t attract too many spectators, and the Butler supporters initially couldn’t compete with the impressive number of Red Raiders fans in the arena.
The relatively low attendance surprised both of us.
“Why — if you have a ticket for both sessions — why wouldn’t you go to all the games?” Aaron asked rhetorically. “Isn’t this 8-9 game going to be more exciting than a 1-16?”
In the case of this game, that was certainly true.
The crowd applauded great plays by both sides, swaying with the game’s wavering shifts in momentum, rooting in one moment for the Raiders and in the next for the Bulldogs. But after the Bulldogs led at the half, the arena fell for the underdog and rooted for Butler, even though the game stayed close.
“There’s a good chance we see a buzzer-beater,” Aaron predicted.
But starting around the eight-minute mark, Butler guard Kelan Martin went on an amazing tear, scoring eight points in 49 seconds and helping the Bulldogs pull away from Texas Tech.
“See ya later, Texas Tech!” a Butler supporter taunted from a few rows ahead of us. “Classic!”
I rooted for Butler, too — I had them going to the Sweet 16 in some of my brackets.
After my bracket collapsed on the second day of the tournament, Aaron asked me as Butler faced UVA in the second round, “Don’t you want to see them lose so you can say, ‘This is my inverse bracket?’”
“No,” I replied. “I made my choices, and I stand by them.”
I also stood by my team, no matter what.
Until that weekend, I had never seen the UNC-Chapel Hill Tar Heels play basketball. Football? Yes. Women’s lacrosse? Sure.
But Carolina basketball tickets are one of the hottest commodities in the state.
As I watched the Heels warming up — saw guard Marcus Paige and forward Brice Johnson up close — I could hardly believe my eyes, and I felt that same disbelieving giddiness as when I turned into the arena.
While I was loud and proud and remain Tar Heel born and Tar Heel bred, I have to admit something: Heels fans are pricks.
Case in point: During the first round, a man approximately as broad as my bedframe dressed in Carolina blue stood in front of me for the entirety of the second half of the first game. He blocked not only my view, but the view of the kid seated behind me and two women two rows back.
Maybe I’ll have a better view next year, when the first two rounds will be in Greensboro.
Were the self-absorbed Carolina fans and the midnight rocket-speed drive back home to write recaps worth the overall experience?
Listen: In my short time as a sportswriter, I’ve witnessed some exciting, important, even historical sporting events. I’ve glimpsed Tiger Woods play in the Wyndham Championship. I caught the ascent of the Carolina Panthers’ best-ever season. I’ve even seen the longest-ever game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.
None of it compares to this past weekend.