Presented by our friends at Bailey's Fine Jewelry
For the last six weeks, I have traveled across North Carolina with my co-founders, Ryan Stancil and Baxter Miller, to meet fans of the state’s big four iconic basketball programs. Seeking stories of fandom, we’ve shared nachos, chicken livers and a few beers with Tar Heels, Wolfpackers, Demon Deacons and Blue Devils. As Carolina alums, we have joked, commiserated, talked trash and philosophized about what college basketball fandom means here.
Turns out, it means many things.
Following a team gives us something to look forward to week in and week out. College basketball in North Carolina distracts us from the seasonal blues so many of us face. (I have lived in the Midwest and can tell you—empirical evidence would surely support this anecdotal claim—North Carolinians’ dislike of the cold is unparalleled.) Shorter days, colder temperatures and leafless trees are easier to deal with when we have a team to watch, read, complain and boast about.
Fandom allows us to be a part of something particular. The epic story of our team spans decades, but every year we meet a new cast of characters who can shape our program's destiny. With new players and at times—God forbid or God willing—new coaches, there is possibility for success and possibility for failure. Elite programs may grow in prowess, or they may fall. Storied underdogs may rise again. We can hope. We can pray.
Bound up in our program’s stories are our identities. We project ourselves onto our team's reputation. You may identify with the stereotypes of your team—wine and cheese or tractors and Carhartts—or defy them.
Some of us, like me, were indoctrinated into fandom, others self-selected, even defected. Your team may fortify or challenge relationships with your family. It will certainly introduce you to a larger, extended one. You may have dreamt of and actualized attending your school. You may have helped build it. You may have attended a rival school.
Being a fan of one of the big four college basketball teams in North Carolina inherently connects you to other North Carolinians. Any college matchup between these teams guarantees conversation for at least a day or two. Some of these matchups provide fodder for years. It also connects you to broader narratives in the state. Dean Smith’s recruitment and acceptance of Charlie Scott had huge implications for changing race relations here and beyond. Jim Valvano’s spirited work lives on in the tremendous efforts of the Jimmy V Foundation, which has immeasurably changed the national dialogue about cancer.
College basketball fandom means something powerful here.
We met all kinds of fans on our journeys, and we want you to meet them too.
In this week's edition of Bit + Grain, we take you on a visual and sonic tour of fans across the state. You also meet more intimately two fans, Jeff Currie and Anna Feagan, who speak to you in detail about their take on fandom.
We hope you see some of yourself and a lot of North Carolina in these stories.
We Happened to be Born Here... Thank God!
by Jefferson Wayne Currie, II
Wilson (Wilson County), NC
Below, a family heirloom gift to Jeff from friend Lewis Everette. Signed by the '74 National Championship team.
I wasn't even 2 years old in 1974, when state won the Championship, but it has always seemed like I was right there watching it. My parents always talked about it like it we were all there together on the edge or our seats with anticipation and excitement. How they described it, how beautiful and hard fought the games were, the skill and talent of the team—it was like the best basketball that ever was ended when those players from the 1970’s all eventually graduated.
I was born an NC State fan at eleven minutes after one in the afternoon on September 15, 1972 in Raleigh. Isn’t that how it normally happens? Isn’t the reason we love college basketball is because we happened to be born here, instead of in Alabama?
I know we are all thankful for that.
Both of my parents are State fans, though my daddy grew up in a Carolina family from Sampson County. My mama is Lumbee, and her family is originally from Scotland and Robeson Counties. Together they raised a household of Wolfpack loving boys.
“Those weekday night games are some of the most vivid memories of my childhood.”
For my parents and most State fans raised in the 1950s, the love of basketball in North Carolina came from Everett Case. He was the father of the Dixie Classic, a tournament that was often better than the NCAA’s. He and State’s success in the late 1940s and early 1950s created an “arms race” among State, Wake, Duke and Carolina in the Old North State. A pursuit of basketball dominance. Because of him, North Carolina will always be one of a handful of states where basketball will always be the game, the sport.
So I grew up an NC State fan, but in addition to being a fan, I grew up with respect for history, tradition and the roots of my allegiance to State. I know why I love college basketball.
I didn’t go to many games growing up. Before my generation, no one in my family had ever attended college much less an ACC school. We weren’t Wolfpack Club members. We didn’t have enough money to donate or buy season tickets. The State basketball moments that stand out to me are the 7 or 9 p.m. winter weekday night games from my childhood when everything stopped at my house, and we all gathered around the TV to see Billy Packer, Jim Thacker and Bones McKinney welcome us to a Jefferson-Pilot—then Raycom—production of Atlantic Coast Conference Basketball. Back then it was State, Wake, Carolina, Duke, Maryland, Virginia and Clemson…then a little later Georgia Tech.
There was no ESPN at my house. The paper was like the Bible with news about games and stats. My parents would let me and my brothers stay up late because it was ACC basketball and really, it was the middle of winter and there was nothing happening in rural North Carolina after 7 p.m. in the late 70s and early 80s. It didn’t matter who was playing whom, because all the games really mattered, although it was always an extra special night when State took the court.
Those weekday night games are some of my most vivid memories of childhood.
I think I grew up during the best era of ACC basketball, and I was at Reynolds Coliseum when NC State returned from Albuquerque, New Mexico, after winning the National Championship in 1983. I celebrated the crowning moment of Valvano’s—and our team’s—history, and I’ve watched the ACC become an entirely different animal.
What has stayed familiar though, is my group of fans. I know my group of Wolfpack fans well, and I can tell you: State fans don’t care. We follow our team, and we love our team no matter what. We are students of the game. We are part of the masses. We know we lose a bunch. We hear the taunts of Carolina fans, poking fun at how many years it has been since we beat them at their place (we did in 2015), but it doesn’t really bother me, and I don’t think it bothers most other State fans either. After so many years of mediocrity, you may think we are bitter, but we aren’t. The truth is as a State fan, we have taken the worst that can happen and we still don’t care. We don’t care because we love State.
When I really think about it, I’d rather not win all the time because it seems to make you forget what it’s like to enjoy a good win and to take a tough defeat. A few years ago, Carolina had a certain coach that just could not seem to win. Carolina fans stopped going to games. Say what you will about State fans, but we would never abandon our team. If we were going to do that, we would have already.
State has been mediocre to bad with a few flashes of hope for 25 years, but, it’s my team. We can lose every game for the next 25 years, and I’m still going to be excited to get tickets to a game, and I’m still going to talk junk to Carolina fans.
Win or lose, I don't care. I'm a State fan.
An Alternative Education
by Anna E. Feagan
Columbus (Polk County, NC)
Anna's lucky jersey, the honored #40, once sported by late 90s early 2000s shooting guard, Joseph Forte, and recent fan favorite, Harrison Barnes
College basketball lore is told in the hills of the West to the capes of the East. Tobacco road stretches well beyond the Triangle. It’s the pavement that connects us, literally and figuratively. It’s the element in which being a North Carolinian is built upon and it is how we determine good from evil.
My story isn't unique. It's one that countless children blessed to grow up in the state of North Carolina have felt, breathed and lived. It's akin to Sweet Tea in our veins, Duke's Mayonnaise on our tomato sandwiches, and dogwood trees in our backyards. It's a story about college basketball, the sport that binds us season in, season out.
Growing up I was allowed to voluntarily miss one day of school per year. No ifs, ands or buts about it. My mother would write my empathetic teacher a note and that was that.
I’m the daughter of a high school principal, granddaughter of an elementary school teacher, niece of a retired librarian and cousin of an education lawyer—a proud product of the North Carolina public school system. Thus, missing a day of school for any reason was a big deal.
For 12 years, I played hooky the day following the Duke at Carolina match-up. Win or loss. Ecstasy or pain. The day after was our day of rest. A day of reflection, but frankly, a day to eat at Elmo’s Diner. As a twenty-five-year-old young professional, I half-expect to be given this day out of human decency. But alas, the rest of the nation doesn’t revolve around Austin Rivers draining a last-second dagger, or Marvin Williams’ epic put-back, or Tyler Hansbrough’s 4-0 bout in Cameron Indoor. And for that, my heart pangs for them.
I didn’t grow up in a family of exaggerated wealth. This has since allowed me to realize how special it was for us to religiously attend this celebrated game. We might not have lived particularly large, but we had priorities, damnit.
The pilgrimage from Columbus, NC, to Chapel Hill takes roughly 3 hours and 29 minutes if you take I-74 to I-85, but if you choose the more scenic I-64 to I-40 route, it will add exactly 8 precious minutes to your travel time. Word to the wise: The preferred method is a polarizing topic in our family so, for both our sakes, let’s assume we traveled the former.
On game day, we would leave school early (another permissible transgression) and begin our familial trek. More than likely my brother and I would be at odds, arguing about who could cite more state capitals and/or presidents (we were cool, I think?). Since it was almost always a 9 p.m. EST game, we would stock up on necessary provisions at Bridges Barbecue (Red, if you must ask) in Shelby.
Then like clockwork, I would wail to use the restroom somewhere between Salisbury and Lexington, even though I had previously assured my parents I was fine before leaving the restaurant. Around Greensboro, the car would go silent. By Burlington, it would be even more silent. And as we would pass Mebane, it was as if we were holding a vigil. We all had the same sadistic thought, but no one was brave enough to voice it: What happens if we lose?
Upon arrival in Chapel Hill, our self-prescribed mecca, we would merely continue the traditions. Drive down Franklin: check. Get a Tar Heel face tattoo at the Shrunken Head: check. Walk across a chilly campus: check. Arrive at the Smith Center an hour before tip-off: check. Listen to the Woody Durham pregame show: check. Find Ramses: check. Beg for Dippin’ Dots: check.
As a child of the nineties, there was no Tweeting, no Instagramming, no Snapchatting or even texting. We would simply sit together as a family and soak up the noise, relish in the sea of heavenly blue and prepare for the ensuing two hours of unbelievable joy, or dare I say it, agonizing defeat.
Each game was unique. Each team was elite in its own way. But, the air inside was permanently heavy and the stakes reliably high. Our belief in the deity known as Dean Smith should’ve always been sufficient to guarantee victory, but life is funny in that bad things happen to good people. Once we were there, all we could do was watch.
I hope those after me can experience anything as unforgettable as witnessing Ed Cota command a floor, senior bench players (now better known as “Blue Steel”) line up as starters in the most-hyped game of the year, Vince Carter as a young Vince Carter, proper Southern grandmothers wearing graphic T’s advising “Duck Fuke,” and the crowning moment of the rivalry – the Blood Bath of 2007.
For 40 minutes, the Smith Center was my classroom. Carolina basketball, better yet, Carolina gave me identity. It taught me baby blue looks good on everyone, no matter the skin tone. It taught me the luxury of a public education, the true meaning of equal opportunity, and that Carolina is as it was meant to be, a university of the people. But maybe most important of all, it taught me never to hate beyond the final whistle.
I am Anna Feagan, and I am a Tar Heel.