basketball

Of all the games in ACC basketball history, the ones I remember most fondly took place decades ago outside my grandfather’s weather-worn, red barn off Old Westfield Road in Pilot Mountain.

A rusted rim hung there, a little crooked and without a net, not far from my grandfather’s woodworking shop and the garden where he grew green beans by the bushel. My cousins, bless their hearts, were mostly North Carolina State fans, loud and proud and bigger than me, a scrawny but scrappy Tar Heel. On that small patch of Carolina clay, we faced off until the sun sank below the pines and dusk descended on the nearby pastures.

It was the same back home in Hickory, at a driveway hoop where the lanky boy next door and I often teamed up against my father and uncle. We were always Carolina; they were always Duke. Right vs. Wrong. Good vs. Evil. Nothing could have been more important than squeaking out a win before the dinner call came and my father parked his truck back in its spot underneath the backboard.

Those showdowns persisted in winter and summer. We played when the dogwoods were blooming and when autumn leaves covered the court. We played during halftime of the real ACC games, often reenacting what unfolded minutes earlier inside Reynolds Coliseum or Carmichael Auditorium or Cameron Indoor Stadium.

No spectators ever came. No bands played. No cheerleaders cheered. No cameras flashed. Dick Vitale never showed up to proclaim how awesome, baby, it all was. But to us, the backyard battles seemed nothing less than another chapter in the eternal rivalries we’d watched play out for as long as any of us could remember.

They were just part of the many ways in which ACC basketball permeated every corner of daily life. We debated it around the dinner table and during church. We argued about it over BLTs at the Windy City Grill. We waited eagerly each year for the day in March when teachers would flip on the early rounds of the ACC tournament right there in the classroom — it was, after all, a vital part of a well-rounded North Carolina education.

I didn’t realize then that it hadn’t always been this way, that a handful of visionaries came south long before I was born, bringing with them the big-time college basketball that we fiercely loved. I had no inkling of the charismatic coaches, the barrier-breaking black athletes, the beloved superstars who paved the way for my own youthful enchantment and that of thousands of other boys in thousands of other driveways, from Waynesville to Wilmington.

ACC basketball had just always been there and always would be, like the swinging bridge on Grandfather Mountain, like the lighthouse on Ocracoke Island. Other states had their own college basketball dynasties. Other conferences had loyal followings. But we knew we were uniquely blessed. Basketball was like barbecue and banana pudding — other places had their own versions, but our recipe just worked out a little better.

•••

Irwin Smallwood remembers the night the ACC was born in early May 1953. Representatives from seven schools — Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest, Maryland, South Carolina, and Clemson — met on the second floor of the Sedgefield Inn in Greensboro and decided to break from the sprawling Southern Conference.

“It was an interesting night,” recalls Smallwood, now 86, who spent nearly half a century as a writer and editor for the Greensboro News & Record. “They opened the door about 1:15 a.m., and the smoke poured out, and they said it was a done deal.”

Back then, football still ruled in North Carolina, as it did in the rest of the South. But that had already begun to change, largely because of Everett Case, a former high school coach from Indiana who arrived at N.C. State after World War II and wasted little time turning college basketball into a secular religion.

“His ambition was to put a hoop on every barn in eastern North Carolina, and he damn near did it,” Smallwood says.

Case dominated his rivals and dazzled crowds in those early years with a fast-paced, run-and-gun style of play, but he was more than just a basketball coach. He was an innovator and one of the game’s finest showmen. He brought traditions with him from Indiana that are still familiar today, including cutting down the nets after a big win and pregame introductions for players. He made sure an organ player provided music during timeouts.

More important, Case was the driving force behind the completion of the 12,000-seat Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh and the mastermind of the long-running Dixie Classic, in which the state’s “Big Four” teams — N.C. State, North Carolina, Duke, and Wake Forest — faced off against top teams from elsewhere in the country. The wildly popular event — a precursor to the ACC tournament, another Case creation, which began in 1954 — put North Carolina hoops on the national map.

“Big-time basketball has come to North Carolina to stay,” the Saturday Evening Post proclaimed in 1951.

That same year, The News & Observer published an article that read, “Since the little man came here from Indiana … basketball has almost supplanted politics as the favorite topic of conversation in the North Carolina capital. This interest … is evident all across the state, which has reacted by building scores of additional high school gyms and insisting on better coaching material. Game attendance has picked up everywhere and makeshift goals have been erected in the most unlikely places — on trees, on the sides of barns, in tobacco warehouses — where budding collegiate stars spend their weekends working to perfect their basketball technique.”

Part of Case’s genius lay in his recognition that North Carolina, with no pro teams and no major population centers, ached for a sport it could embrace, from the tobacco farms Down East to the mountain hollows far west.

“North Carolina had little in the way of sports to brag about,” says Ron Green Sr., a longtime sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer who retired in 1999. “No major sports teams, not much big-time college basketball or football. Lots of minor league baseball, good stock car racing, but nothing on the scale of today’s racing, high school sports, some so-so pro golf tournaments, stuff like that. Nothing exciting. Nothing glamorous. Nothing. Then along came Everett Case, bringing with him a wealth of college basketball talent and igniting an explosion of interest in the state. Other schools raced to catch up.”

Tired of getting their brains beat in by Case, the other schools started looking for hotshot coaches of their own.

In 1952, a New Yorker named Frank McGuire arrived in Chapel Hill, and recruits from up north followed him south. In his first game against Case the following year, McGuire snapped a 15-game losing streak against N.C. State. The two men stoked the rivalry for years to come.

In 1957, McGuire and his Tar Heels — the five starters were all New Yorkers, including four Catholics and a Jew from the Bronx named Lennie Rosenbluth — captivated North Carolina with an undefeated season and a Hollywood-style championship run. After beating Michigan State in a triple-overtime game in the national semifinal, the Tar Heels defeated Kansas and superstar Wilt Chamberlain in another triple-overtime game the following night.

“It was like a brushfire going across the state. People who weren’t basketball fans became fans,” recalls Woody Durham, who was 15 then and later spent four decades as the Tar Heels’ radio play-by-play announcer. “It brought the excitement to ACC basketball that still exists.”

Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford once wrote that before that storybook 1957 championship, “ACC basketball was popular” in the state. Afterward, he wrote, “It was woven into the fabric of North Carolina society.”

Before long, Duke hired Vic Bubas, an Indiana basketball star who played for Case at N.C. State. Bubas proved himself a master at recruiting top prospects from across the country and took the Blue Devils to three Final Fours.

Wake Forest hired Horace Albert “Bones” McKinney, an ordained Baptist minister and a college star in his own right. McKinney coached the Demon Deacons to one Final Four and emerged as one of the ACC’s most colorful characters. He once strapped himself to his chair with a seatbelt to avoid getting a technical foul for leaping off the bench.

The early days weren’t without their problems. The Dixie Classic came to an unceremonious end in 1961 after a point-shaving scandal involving players from N.C. State and North Carolina. Both schools also got smacked with recruiting violations.

In addition, the ACC remained an all-white enterprise for years. Black players on teams who came to North Carolina to play, such as Cincinatti’s Oscar Robertson, couldn’t stay in local hotels with the white players on their teams. Some of the best in-state players went to North Carolina Central, Winston-Salem State, and other historically black schools.

“The racial integration of the conference was a gradual and painful process, and it did not occur without abusive behavior by some fans,” wrote J. Samuel Walker in his book, ACC Basketball: The Story of the Rivalries, Traditions and Scandals of the First Two Decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference. “In 1965, Billy Jones, a sophomore at Maryland, made the first appearance by a black player on an ACC varsity basketball team, and not until 1971 had all eight ACC schools followed suit.”

Bethany Bradsher, author of The Classic: How Everett Case and His Tournament Brought Big-Time Basketball to the South, recounts how it wasn’t uncommon to hear “Dixie” playing before games, with it’s stark opening lines, “I wish I was in the land of cotton …”

“We can pine for those days, and we can say it was amazing, but there were some things that were really broken and really wrong,” Bradsher says.

Nevertheless, she says, the problems facing the ACC weren’t altogether uncommon at the time, and the conference soon pushed past its scandals. Duke recruited C.B. Claiborne. UNC recruited Charlie Scott. More black players soon followed, unquestionably raising the level of play in the league.

In relatively short order, the seeds that Case and other outsiders planted took root. North Carolinians wholeheartedly embraced college basketball.

“It became part of the culture, really. It grew on people in this state,” Durham says. “It was handed down from generation to generation.”

•••

The ACC of Everett Case and Frank McGuire not only survived, but also grew more iconic in the decades that followed. The league kept flourishing, and North Carolinians’ pride in their basketball teams deepened over time.

But why?

Perhaps it was the tension-filled, winner-take-all spectacle of the ACC tournament, which for many years offered the only ticket into the NCAA tournament. “To our area, it hits with as much or more impact than the World Series or Super Bowl,” longtime Duke athletic director Eddie Cameron once said of the tournament.

Perhaps it was the television contracts that spread ACC basketball not only throughout the state, but also to a national audience.

Perhaps it was the legendary coaches who built a national reputation for having high-caliber teams that played with class. At UNC, Dean Smith coached in 11 Final Fours, and won two national championships and more games than anyone ever had. At Duke, Mike Krzyzewski won three national titles and surpassed Smith’s win record in 2011. Jim Valvano became a towering figure at N.C. State and added a national title of his own.

“One thing about the ACC that really set it apart was that you had quality, championship-level basketball, but you had kids actually going to class,” says Brad Daugherty, who grew up in Black Mountain and later became one of the most celebrated centers to pass through UNC. “Character goes a long way.”

Perhaps it was the players who captured imaginations across the country. David Thompson’s gravity-defying days at N.C. State. Michael Jordan’s debut at UNC. Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, and Grant Hill’s Duke dynasty. Tim Duncan’s run at Wake Forest. Billy Cunningham. Tommy Burleson. Len Bias. Phil Ford. Ralph Sampson. James Worthy. Horace Grant. Chris Corchiani. Elton Brand. Joe Smith. Chris Paul. Tyler Hansbrough. To name one is to overlook 100 others.

Perhaps it was the rivalries that raged — that continue to rage — up and down Tobacco Road, the ones that unite some households and divide others, the ones that have become the stuff of national lore.

For decades, the State-Carolina rivalry nurtured by Case and McGuire trumped all others. Both schools had loyal followings. Both produced riveting players. Both had resounding successes beyond the ACC, with State winning national championships in 1974 and 1983, and Carolina winning in 1982.

As N.C. State’s program wavered and increasing television coverage broadcast the annual clashes between Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski around the country, the Carolina-Duke rivalry grew in prominence and became one of the country’s most compelling and heated. “Duke and Carolina are only eight miles apart, but it’s a national game. That’s all you need to know,” Smallwood says.

Daugherty, who later became the top pick in the NBA draft, still remembers vividly what those rivalries felt like from inside the lines. “You walk out and see 20,000 people just rabid about it. It’s almost too much to comprehend,” he says. “Basketball is bigger than anything. It’s not lost on you when you’re there.”

Perhaps it’s the national championships: 10 since 1980. Perhaps it’s the national players of the year: 15 during the same stretch. Perhaps it’s the steady stream of ACC stars who have populated the NBA.

Perhaps it’s because some of the most replayed moments in college basketball history belong to ACC teams: Jordan’s game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA championship; Lorenzo Charles’s dunk in 1983 that won the title for N.C. State; Laettner’s last-second miracle against Kentucky in 1992.

Perhaps, of course, it is the sum of all those pieces.

“Again and again, we were validated,” Smallwood says. “Human nature is, we all like to be associated with something that’s big-time. We were a state without the Red Sox or the Yankees or the Redskins. … What do we have that the rest of the world doesn’t have? We’ve got our basketball, thank you very much.”

•••

“I hope we never take it for granted. It really is something,” Woody Durham, whose familiar voice filled countless nights of my youth, told me one morning in March.

He’d just returned from the ACC tournament in Atlanta and was lamenting that it lacked some of the tension and excitement it possessed when he first went more than 50 years ago as a college junior. There were plenty of empty seats now, he said, unlike the days when it was the hottest ticket around. Teams with decent enough records know they have stamped their tickets to the Big Dance, so the conference tournament means just another stop on the schedule.

I’d also been wrestling with the question of change. Has the ACC really changed in fundamental and troubling ways over time, or does the past just always seem simpler and more enchanting in retrospect? Was ACC basketball’s mystique intact, or would it somehow fade in an era of ESPN3 and Twitter and iPhones?

After all, many of the raucous, old arenas have fallen silent, only to be replaced by cavernous stadiums and corporate sponsors. Rivalries change and fall away. The league continues to expand; Syracuse and Pitt joined in 2014, bringing the number of teams to 14 and further stretching the league’s once intimate boundaries.

College basketball itself has become less regionalized and more commercialized. Athletic departments have become massive businesses. Coaches have become millionaires many times over. The best players stay only a year, maybe two, before bolting to the pros.

“Some of this progress I don’t think is all that progressive,” says Bradsher, who lives with her family in Greenville. “You lose some of that regional flavor and the things that make it special. The more commercial it becomes, the people who lose are the people who treasure those traditions.”

But here was Woody Durham, fretting a little himself but quickly offering a reminder that there is something special in the blessed brand of basketball along Tobacco Road. That it can still shake up our souls. That it can still return us to the red barns of our past.

I hope we don’t take it for granted. It really is something.

Daugherty feels just as certain. Back home in Asheville, he still encounters boys in their Duke and Carolina gear; he still passes the dreamers playing on their driveway hoops, just as Everett Case envisioned. “I see them all the time,” Daugherty says. “It’s still a part of the culture.”

Green, the former Observer columnist, also keeps the faith. As long as we still care, he says, the magic will remain.

“Times have changed,” Green says. “But we still love our college basketball, still paint our faces and stomp our feet and sing school songs and go shouting into the night when our team wins a big one. It’s our sport.”

Titles on Tobacco Road

In 1957, a young man from New York hit two free throws with six seconds remaining in triple overtime to propel UNC to a national championship. It was the first national championship by a North Carolina university during the NCAA tournament era. That young man, Joe Quigg, went on to settle down in Fayetteville and become a dentist. And that young basketball tradition, Tobacco Road basketball, has gone on to win 10 more championships since then. Every year, we feel like we can win another. Our state’s college basketball teams have claimed more titles than any other state but California. And we’re the only state to have three schools to win championships since the night Quigg hit those free throws in 1957.

— Michael Graff

National championships by state since 1957

California – 12 (UCLA 11, Cal 1)
North Carolina – 11 (UNC 5, Duke 4, N.C. State 2)
Kentucky – 8 (UK 5, Louisville 3)
Indiana – 3 (Indiana 3)

The Icon within the Icon: Michael Jordan

Before the NBA championships and the All-Star games, before the Nike commercials and the Dream Team, before the highlight reels that replayed his acrobatics week after week, before the retirements and unretirements, there was the magical night in New Orleans.

Mike Jordan had talent and promise. But on March 29, 1982, he was still just a skinny kid from Wilmington, a UNC freshman playing second fiddle to the likes of James Worthy and Sam Perkins.

That all changed the moment the ball left his hands with 17 seconds remaining in the NCAA national championship game against Georgetown and sailed through the net for the game winner. A superstar was born in the Superdome.

That shot would have been enough. That solitary moment would have solidified his place in ACC lore and given its storied history another splendid story. But Jordan had a greater gift yet for North Carolina, one that unfolded in the years to come.

That night in New Orleans was, more than anything, a beginning. In the years that followed, Jordan ventured into the world and became the best basketball player anyone had ever seen. He lit up scoreboards and dazzled fans from Boston to Barcelona, from Charlotte to Chicago.

Along the way, he became North Carolina basketball’s supreme ambassador. He was the ACC’s finest export, its trump card. The spotlight that shone on him reflected back home on Tobacco Road. His greatness was our greatness; his victories, our victories.

Michael Jordan had his missteps and failures. He never was one for speeches and public pronouncements. But his talent was a language all its own. Year after year, night after night, he waded into far-flung arenas and preached the gospel of North Carolina basketball to the world.

No one has ever preached it better.

— Brady Dennis

Brady Dennis, a 2000 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, is a staff writer for The Washington Post.

This story was published on

Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post. He was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for a series on the financial crisis and received a 2006 Ernie Pyle Award for human-interest writing for a series of stories called “300 Words.” He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.