Thank You, Heels
Around midnight, following UNC’s heart-breaking loss to Villanova at the buzzer, I met up with some fellow Tar Heel alums and had a beer in an attempt to commiserate over the shocking ending we had just witnessed. It was as you’d expect, a somber occasion, but it provided, for me, clarity in an otherwise depressing evening.
When most sports teams lose, there’s not only the sadness we felt Monday night, but often a great deal of frustration, either with coaching, the players, or the program in general. Monday night was different. There wasn’t any anger from any Carolina fans I saw, just sadness. And nearly universally, that feeling wasn’t just on a personal level, but far and away a feeling of emptiness realizing that Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, and Joel James would never get the championship they deserved.
It was less “I can’t believe we lost” and more “I just feel for Marcus” or “Brice deserves this.”
The Carolina community watched these players grow and develop in an era where the best college players dart to the draft as soon as their stock guarantees them a first-round selection. It also watched them carry the program during one of its darkest stretches in decades. In a time where UNC faced scrutiny from the national media, the NCAA, and rival programs over its academic-athletic scandal, these players were beacons of integrity on and off the court. UNC couldn’t have dreamed up a better representative during the past four years than Marcus Paige—not only a dynamic athlete, but also an Academic All-American, someone more than willing to be a spokesperson for the program and, from all accounts on campus, a great human being.
It would have been easy for alumni and students alike to divest their emotions from a basketball program whose future remains unclear. Instead, over the past four years, we’ve doubled down on it because of these young men. We all know where we were when Marcus Paige nearly single-handedly beat NC State his sophomore year. We’ll always remember Brice Johnson’s 39-23 game against FSU. We’ll still smile every time we see a highlight of Joel James’ unexpectedly smooth shot and remember his celebratory antics. We’ll never forget beating Duke after they refused to drive eight miles in snow, despite plenty of advanced notice.
Our disappointment is a testament to these young men making us care as much as we do. To feel as bad as I do (and I imagine those reading this feel the same way), I had to have cared an awful lot about this team. And that, in and of itself, is something special. It stings right now and it will sting for a while. As a close friend put it, between losing in the manner we did and realizing that the senior class is departing after this last game, “it feels like we’ve been broken up with.”
But the pain from the title game’s finish pales in comparison to hearing Marcus Paige say, “I have to take this jersey off, and I never get to put it back on.” Seeing the team get emotional after the loss hurts more than thinking about a sixth NCAA title. Fans didn’t just want a national title, they wanted this team to win a national title.
That pain will fade. We’ll see the Jenkins shot highlight for the next thirty years (it’s coming folks, best to realize that now) and we’ll bring up how Paige’s shot to tie the game was even better. We’ll start analyzing future recruiting classes and prospects, trying to figure out which teams will draft Brice and Marcus (fingers crossed for Golden State or San Antonio—any place they can win the championship they so justly deserve), and speculating how Carolina will fare in an ACC featuring Duke’s top recruiting class ever. We won’t forget the 2016 national championship game, but it won’t feel as if our heart was ripped from our chest every time we hear the name “Kris Jenkins” or “Ryan Arcidiacono.” We’ll hope that maybe Marcus will find his way back to Carolina bench as a coach one day.
But for now, we should thank the team, especially the seniors who gave us everything the past four years.
Thank you for this incredible ride. Thank you for a wild season, for beating Duke at Cameron, for outlasting an incredibly tough Virginia team in the ACC Championship, for escaping the “Region of Death” and making another Final Four, and for taking us to the brink of another national title.
And, more importantly, thank you for being the people you are. Thank you for making us believe in you. Thank you for letting us hurt with you.
As I left the bar Monday night, I turned back to my friends and said “we’ll get them next time.”
Carolina has been in the Final Four each decade the past eight decades. We feature an NBA alumni base that is virtually unrivaled by any other program. We still have Coach Roy Williams at the helm and he still needs that third title. We will (likely) return 6 of 8 players who played extensive minutes in an NCAA Championship game and will only continue to grow over the coming summer.
Despite possible NCAA sanctions, Carolina’s future remains bright and that’s because of the light the seniors provided in its darkest hours.
I’m confident that the University of North Carolina will win more NCAA titles in the future.
Right now, I just wish that future team included Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, and Joel James.
Thank you, boys. Thanks for everything.