Big surprise, I know: Local North Carolina White Guy Loves College Basketball. But it wasn’t always so.
I grew up a strict adherent to the cult of Michael Jordan. We’re talking a life-size cardboard cutout, Space Jam sleeping bag and a dogged commitment to practicing turnaround jumpers and threes on the neighbors’ driveway hoop.
The only pro basketball game I’ve ever attended, I cheered against the home team in the nosebleeds of the Boston Garden, pulling instead for my man Michael. He, of course, delivered.
I long ago gave up on the dream of playing in the NBA, the only professional aspiration I remember holding as a minor, but meeting Michael Jordan is still tops on my personal bucket list. (Seriously, I’m still trying to devise a way to exploit my title as a journalist to end up in the same room as him — maybe there’s hope thanks to the Greensboro Swarm.) I eventually transitioned to watching the rise of the Red Sox and Patriots, and the only sport I truly love started fading into the background.
When I moved to North Carolina 10 years ago, locals quickly informed me that I needed to pick a side in the state’s college basketball obsession, and I kind of pitied them for lacking real (read: pro) teams to cheer for.
But again, I followed Michael Jordan, picking Carolina and never looking back.
I’ve watched a fair amount of college basketball since then — not by locals’ standards, just compared to my past consumption. Even while taking classes at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, I root against the Blue Devils.
I attended part of the ACC tournament last year, both the men’s and women’s, and this year saw UNC play at the Dean Dome for the first time (I cheered against my home team again, watching Carolina slaughter UNCG). Thanks to our former sports writer, Jeff “Jarf” “Da God” Laughlin, I watched a chunk of last year’s NCAA tourney, but 2016 is the first time I immersed myself in it.
With 20 minutes before the opening tip-off, I filled out my first bracket, with little reason behind my choices. Somehow I picked a few big upsets, like Northern Iowa who won the first round with an insane half-court bomb, Hawai’i — which I was delighted to learn later goes by the Rainbow Warriors — and also Gonzaga and Arkansas-Little Rock.
Like everyone else, I didn’t expect Middle Tennessee or Yale to win. But I also called some stupid upsets that never arrived, forecasting that Kentucky would lose in the first round and St. Joseph’s — an 8-seed school I’d never heard of — would knock out top-ranked Oregon in the second bout.
The thing is, they almost did.
In watching Carolina win the ACC tournament this year, I found great pleasure in the fast-paced, play-your-heart-out style of basketball that the NBA is often lacking. But even though the conference is stacked with phenomenal teams this year, the tourney looked like a knockoff of the real deal when I let the NCAA matchups consume me this weekend.
For me, basketball lost its glow, its unbridled excitement after MJ’s reign in the ’90s. It’s a joy to watch Steph Curry play, entrancing even, especially when he drains a long three, breaks a defender’s ankles or sinks a buzzer-beating bomb.
But the NCAA tournament — with moments like Texas Tech’s humanly impossible double-digit comeback in 44 seconds to send a game into overtime, then another, and ultimately a win — is hypnotizing, magical, dazzling. The unthinkable happens, and then it happens again and again and again. That may be visible in individual NBA players, but not a team, not every single play.
The NCAA tourney, I’m now convinced, is the greatest expression of what makes basketball the greatest game on earth.
Except, of course, for Michael Jordan.