In 1982, the Tar Heels won the NCAA championship.
I sat in the den with my dad and watched the game with him on a Magnavox television that weighed more than I did. I didn’t know anything about basketball, except that all the players wore tiny shorts and tube socks that went up to their knees.
It was a rare occasion when my dad had the night off from work, and the two of us sat on the couch together, watching players whose names I didn’t know run back and forth.
I tried to stay interested. Then, at the end of the game, Michael Jordan launched his winning shot. My dad, who is normally reserved, jumped up, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, and started chanting the fight song — rah, rah, Car’lina-lina! He grabbed me, and I jumped up, too, both of us spinning around in the den, listening to the words “North Carolina! North Carolina!” come out of the TV, over and over.
The next day, everyone at Farmer School, where I was in the sixth grade, went crazy. For some reason, back then, we all identified with one of two teams: State or Carolina. Probably not a one of us had ever been to Raleigh or Chapel Hill — and I know none of us had ever heard of, say, Wake Forest — but that didn’t matter. All year long, we paraded down the halls in our Carolina blue ankle socks and our cherry-red Wolfpack T-shirts, and we traced the schools’ logos on the fronts of our spiral notebooks.
The day after Carolina won, the principal at Farmer School played the fight song — rah, rah, Car’lina-lina — over the intercom. We cheered from our classroom seats. A few days later, Carolina Canners came out with grape-flavored Carolina Blue Soda. It was in a blue can, and the drink inside was blue, too, and everyone at my school — even the State fans — walked across the field to Farmer Store at lunchtime to buy one.
For people like me, growing up in a rural county without a university or even a big city nearby, that game catapulted basketball into something more than just basketball. It gave us something larger to connect to, something that went beyond the borders of our own county. As kids, we identified with larger-than-life symbols, like basketball players who made memorable jump shots.
Looking back, I realize we claimed our allegiance blindly. There was no particular reason for us, at age 12, to be State fans or Carolina fans, except that we watched our parents, who taught us how to be.
My dad stood up and cheered for UNC’s win that night because he went to school there. I remember the story he told me about hitchhiking from Asheboro to Chapel Hill. He didn’t have a car, and he didn’t have any other means of getting there. He went to UNC for two years and fell in love with it. Just before his third year, he found out that my grandparents didn’t have enough money to send him back. He had to quit and go to work.
A half-century has gone by since then, and I suppose he’s let go of his disappointment of not being able to return to a place that meant so much to him. But I understand why he still pulls for a win every year.
When we trace our beloved icons back to their origins, we realize it’s not the places or the things themselves that are important; it’s the memories they represent. As much as we love our lighthouses, our barbecue, our basketball, something else matters more.
It’s those summers spent in the shadow of Cape Hatteras, when both of our grandparents were still living. It’s the chicken biscuit from Biscuitville on the way home after church and the bottle of Cheerwine opened at the end of a long day working outside. It’s our mother’s sweet voice singing softly to Doc Watson’s “Keep on the Sunny Side,” when she thought no one was listening.
And it’s the basketball game that we watched for the first time with our dad, the one that made him — and us, too — stand up and cheer.