Tuesday, March 10, 2015

At Tournament Time, We're All Family

At this year's ACC tournament in Greensboro, 1987 Everett Case Award winner Vinny Del Negro will be celebrated as NC State's ACC Legend. Which reminded me of the most unusual tournament title I ever semi-covered.

Celebrating an ACC championship.
When I was growing up in North Carolina during the 1970s and ‘80s, ACC basketball was not just a pastime. It was a family reunion.

You didn’t even have to be in the host city to bring all the aunts and uncles and cousins together to watch, because it was on every television in the state.

In school, hoops superseded studies. Teachers would roll in televisions on carts during our afternoon classes on the tournament’s opening day, and if you think we got in trouble for talking during class, you can’t imagine the consequences of saying something while Jim Thacker and Billy Packer were describing the action on the Jefferson-Pilot broadcast.We knew the words to "Sail With the Pilot," long before we mastered the middle school alma mater.

Even later on, when my youngest son was born on semifinal Saturday in 2004, just before NC State lost a 19-point halftime lead to Maryland, the ACC tournament was a day we just gathered to see what would happen. (Truthfully, my son almost didn’t make it through his first day, as I needed something to chuck at the television as State's lead slowly evaporated. Luckily, I had the remote control in my hand.)

When I was growing up, we never actually attended the tournament. We were way too poor and unconnected, back when ACC tickets were the hardest thing to get in sports this side of passes to the Masters. But we always watched. Every game.

During my days as a reporter, it was always a highlight to cover the tournament. I never expected to hear my name on the public address system, in front of a coliseum full of rabid fans. Yet, on March 5, 1987, at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, I was a student reporter covering my second tournament, watching North Carolina dismantle Maryland in the opening game.

That's when an usher tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was Tim Teeler of the NC State student newspaper, echoing an announcement made in the arena. Close enough.

“Your dad wants you to call home,” he said.

My stomach dropped, because this had to be bad news. In the time before texts, email or social media, getting a call like that was devastating.

And it was. My maternal grandfather had died of a heart attack that morning, just a couple of days after my mom dragged me from my brief spring break vacation to spend a little time with him. I’m glad she did.

There were hasty travel arrangements to make. I couldn’t fly home until Sunday morning, but surely my reporting duties would be done by then. After all, NC State was limping into the tournament with 14 regular-season losses. It was just a matter of getting a few quotes from head coach Jim Valvano and his players to wrap up a once-promising season.

That season was marked with turmoil, as point guard guard Kenny Drummond abruptly left the team midseason. During one late-season stretch, the Pack lost 10 of 12 games. After a season-opening win over Navy in the Tip-Off Classic in Springfield, Massachusetts, where reserve player and hometown hero Vinny Del Negro was a surprise winner of the MVP award, tension and dissention ran rampant on the squad. At one point, Valvano’s team lost six in a row—to Kansas, Virginia, Oklahoma, DePaul and North Carolina.

The Pack finished the regular season 17-14 overall (6-8 in the ACC) and was seeded sixth in the eight-team league heading into the tournament. That wasn’t really unusual for Valvano’s teams at NC State—only twice in his 10 years did he have 10 conference wins and those came in 1988 and ’89.

So there was no need to expect something special in the ’87 tournament, especially since top-ranked North Carolina was all but guaranteed to win it that year. The Tar Heels won all 14 regular-season ACC games, beat Maryland and Virginia in the first two rounds of the tournament and were eager to get another blowout against NC State after 96-78 and 95-79 wins earlier in the year.

Valvano, king of the postseason upsets, pulled another rabbit out of his headband. The Pack beat Duke, a 1986 Final Four participant, in overtime in the first round. It beat seventh-seeded Wake Forest in double-overtime on Saturday, earning the right to face the Tar Heels in the title game.

But my plane for Charlotte left at 7 that Sunday morning, the title game was 1 and the funeral was at 3. No way I could make all of them.

At the funeral home, the director kept disappearing and coming back with score updates. Just after we gathered as a family, hugged each other and said one goodbye prayer, he told me Carolina had taken the lead in a close game. As I rode in my Carolina-crazy brother-in-law’s truck to the church, second in the funeral procession, we guiltily turned on the radio. Someone was taping the game on one of those fancy new video recording devices that were all the rage back then, but we just had to know what was happening, even if we were too ashamed to let my parents and sisters up ahead know what we were listening to.

Three miles away from the church, State took the lead. As we turned into the parking lot, Del Negro drained two free throws to put the Pack ahead by one with just seconds to play. Kelsey Weems guarded All-American guard Kenny Smith and the Tar Heels missed two game-winning shots. When Mike Giomi grabbed the game’s final rebound, the Wolfpack recorded its 10th ACC title, tying it with UNC for the most among conference schools.

I couldn’t let anyone know what we had been doing, so there was no celebrating. My mom stepped out of the car and stood beside her father’s casket. I took my place as a pallbearer, consumed with conflicted sadness and suppressed joy.

Before we started, my mom leaned over, squeezed my hand and said, “They did it, didn’t they?”

I never expected a hearse to have a perfectly good radio.

In North Carolina, ACC basketball is family, with all the highs and the lows, the births and the deaths, the joys and the sorrows.

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