The Night of the Unspeakable

There is a climax to every story. There is rising action and a resolution, but it is the climax that keeps you from putting the book down.

For some, this is a moment of great joy. It is cutting down nets and donning rings of silver.

For others, this is a moment of immense pain. It is one less banner in the rafters and a bullet hole sent straight through the heart of destiny.

For the North Carolina men’s basketball community, the night of April 4th, 2016, is a climax they will never forget, no matter how hard they try.

They will remember the hope of a Tar Heel five-point lead at halftime, the despair as Villanova ran away in the second-half and the elation following the Marcus Paige 3-pointer.

It was an evening that everyone in Tar Heel nation had marked on the calendar since the first tip of the basketball in November. It was an evening where legends roamed the hardwood. It was an evening where the boys in Carolina Blue could become immortal.

It was the night of the unspeakable.

***

Jeff Jones sat on the front steps of the University United Methodist Church minutes after Michael Jordan and the UNC basketball team won the 1982 NCAA Championship.

He rushed to Franklin Street, but as blue paint was flung and claustrophobia sunk in, he found himself watching the thousands of students from the elevated church steps.

“I remember being in the middle of the crowd,” Jones said. “The feeling of euphoria was pretty awesome.”

Jones was a freshman at UNC, then, and had been a Tar Heel fanatic since his childhood. Thirty-four years after that March evening when he sat on the church steps, he can still tell you every detail about the day Jordan shook his hand. It was an English 42 recitation, Film Criticism, in a tiny room in Hamilton Hall. Jordan walked in, sat beside him, turned and smiled, “Hi, I’m Michael.”

He remembers the minute details of Carolina basketball. A Walter Davis bandaged hand after the 1977 ACC Championship. A James Worthy missed free throw in 1982. A sleepless night after a season-ending loss to Georgia in 1983. The pain, the joy, they are all still fresh in his mind.

Jones, 53 years old, now, remembers watching the 2016 game from his home just as easily as when he cheered the Tar Heels on from Carmichael Arena.

“I kept thinking this is it — it’s over with,” Jones said, recounting the moment when Villanova held a six-point lead with less than two minutes to play.

But then Marcus Paige hit “The Shot” to tie the game. Falling to the floor, on one foot, almost posing for the camera, the fate of the season hung in the air, in the shape of an orange sphere.

“I’ve seen so many of those Carolina games where we made amazing comebacks,” Jones said. “But that’s one of the greatest shots I’ve ever seen.”

***

Pat James sat center court, three rows back, with his fingers glued to his keyboard when Villanova inbounded the ball with 4.7 seconds left.

After Paige’s shot, he rested for a moment, taking it all in, but then looked right back at his screen.

“When Marcus hit the shot, first it’s kind of hard not to take in the spectacle of it,” James said. “I don’t think anyone could predict what happened next.”

As the sports editor of the Daily Tar Heel and a senior at UNC, the intersection of work and fandom was never more evident. He had two tweets prepared for the DTH’s sports account: one, if the Tar Heels lost, the other if the game went to overtime.

“As soon as Ryan Arcidiacono passed the ball to (Villanova forward Kris) Jenkins, I was already editing the losing tweet,” James said. “I knew it was going in.”

Swish.

“I hit send, I stood up, they celebrate, and I’m watching it all happen as I’m packing my bag,” he said. “I wanted to get out as quick as I could, but I also didn’t care to watch it, as well, from a fan stand point.”

James was the first one out of the media section, hurtling toward the locker room. He pre-wrote part of his story, but after that ending, a blank canvas awaited him as he walked in a room of heartbroken men.

“I had to go over and shake (UNC sports information director Steve) Kirschner’s hand to tell him thank you,” James said, “And in that corner on the left side is Hubert Davis with his hands in his face and there’s Roy [Williams] shaking his head.”

As a senior, covering the last basketball game of his career as the sports editor, the gravity of the moment began to sink in. Sure, he would cover a few baseball games, and yes, he would edit plenty more stories — but this was it. This was what the whole year had built up to. Now he must write.

And how can you do that, in a moment like this? How is it possible to put the emotions, the memories, the power of that game, into words?

“All day, you’re thinking about it,” James said. “Eventually you’re going to have to put your fingers on the keyboard and pound this thing out.”

“While hopefully I’ll get to cover some big stuff down the road, what could possibly get bigger than this?”

***

Marcus Paige sat in the back of the locker room, Gatorade towel draped around his sweating neck, with dozens of microphones in his face.

The point guard had surely spent many nights dreaming about that moment. The moment where he could hit a shot, acrobatic and beautiful, that would give his team a chance to win at the most crucial moment of the game, with his back firmly against the wall.

And he did.

Yet, here he sits, with tears in his eyes.

“That was supposed to be our moment,” Paige said. “I’m going to see it, and it’s going to hurt every time.”

He would never make another 3-pointer, as a Tar Heel. He would never run down the court calling a play, as a Tar Heel. He would never sprint out of the tunnel to a roaring crowd in the Dean Smith Center wearing no. 5, as a Tar Heel.

“It’s hard,” Paige said, “because at some point tonight I have to take this jersey off, and I never get to put it back on.”

For four years, Paige worked every day for the chance to sit in that locker room and take questions from reporters. It’s what motivated him. The awards were great, the kind words were fine, the regular season wins were important. But a national championship — that’s what kept Paige up at night.

He couldn’t help but look back at his time in Carolina Blue. The wins and the losses and the laughs and the tears. His jersey would be in the rafters in the Smith Center with dozens of others, but was that enough?

“You had to get to this level to be considered and to be remembered,” Paige said.

“There’s not a whole lot of guys that have done better than us if you think about it. It’s hard to say now because we were so close to being at the top of the mountain.”

Look down, Marcus. Look how far you climbed.

***

Julianne Strickland sat in the back of a black Nissan Sentra somewhere on a highway in Texas at 3:00 a.m., when someone finally brought it up.

What was it? Maybe it was Paige’s shot. Maybe it was the wrong shade of blue confetti pouring over them as the buzzer sounded. Maybe it was the aching feet from standing in the April, Texas heat. Until that moment, there was silence. Yes, a passing comment about getting gas or stopping to use the restroom, but not a word about the game.

Strickland dared the silence, “I thought we had it won.”

The sophomore and four other friends made the 21-hour trek to Houston to see the Final Four and National Championship games. They took turns driving, slept at a friend’s house at Rice University, and were the first people in line at 8:00 a.m. for the national championship.

“When I bought my tickets I had no clue how I was going to get there or where I would stay,” Strickland said, “But I just trusted that everything would work out.”

Back in the car, her head leaned against the rear window, with a Brice Johnson jersey on, the memories rushed back. From the second row of NRG Stadium, she witnessed one of the greatest endings in the history of the illustrious game of basketball.

“It went from one of the greatest moment of our lives to the worst,” she said.

But there’s no regret for Strickland. She would do it all over again in a heartbeat. What is a five-page paper, what is a good night’s sleep, what is a hundred bucks, to memories made?

“It’s like loving family members — no matter how many times you get upset or disappointed with them, they’re still your family,” Strickland said. “Yeah, my heart felt like it was ripped in two, but I can’t stop loving this team.”

“I will always cheer for those players because they make it feel like I’m part of their family.”

-da
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