Thad Williamson Interview

Former <I>Inside Carolina</I> and <I></I> writer and lifelong observer of North Carolina basketball Thad Williamson was recently interviewed by Andrew Jones on the SportsWAAV on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington.

Williamson is the author of the book More Than a Game, which is about what makes North Carolina basketball so special. He has also authored What Comes Next? Proposals for a Different Society (National Center for Economic and Security Alternatives), and Making a Place for Community: A Policy Primer for the 21st Century (Routledge Press, due out summer 2002), co-authored with David Imbroscio and Gar Alperovitz. Williamson has also have written for over a dozen other periodicals and journals on a range of issues (economic policy, security policy, etc.). He is currently a doctoral student in political theory at Harvard University.

Williamson grew up in Chapel Hill and was a family friend of former Tar Heel coach Bill Guthridge. In his youth, Williamson ran the hand-operated scoreboard in Carmichael Auditorium and the early days of the Smith Center.

Here is the transcript from the interview with Thad Williamson.

(note: this interview was conducted before the season began)

Andrew Jones – Basically tell our listeners what the book is about?

Thad Williamson – The full title is why it means so much to so many people. The thesis of the book is Carolina fans have a lot in common with fans of any other team, a State fan or a Duke fan. But largely because of Dean Smith and what he stood for there is a sort of deeper component that isn't just about wins and losses that has really touched a lot of fans. I don't think it's usual for fans of a sports team to say, ‘Hey, following this team has made me a better person.' And yet I found a lot of Carolina fans that said exactly that. So really what the book is about, on the one hand an account of how I grew up as a fan in Chapel Hill and how I came to learn things about the team and incorporate it in my life. And secondly, it's a look at a whole bunch of Carolina fans and how they deal with those same questions. I did a survey of 600 fans and 15 people kept pretty detailed diaries over the course of a season. So it is really just an attempt to tie all of that together and to get most of the people that read to ask ‘why sports is so important to me and does it play a good role in my life, does it play not so good a role, how can it be better rather than worse?'

AJ – Basketball success aside, what were some of the common themes that people said why the program and coach Smith meant so much to them?

TW – Two things that leapt out over and over were loyalty, especially loyalty from Dean Smith toward his players and toward other coaches on the staff, and integrity are the big ones. Other people mentioned things like the way the team competed in games that they never gave up. That was really important for a lot of people. Some people reported that they had met a player or coach and had a good experience. Some people talked about Dean Smith's political views. Being a pretty flaming liberal at North Carolina with a lot of liberal fans, that was really an important thing. Even people that weren't liberal appreciated that he had pretty strong moral views and the fact that he was really committed to doing things the right way in every aspect.

AJ –All of those things help make up who he was as a man and, hence, as a coach and you could see it in his program.

TW – One of the things I was thinking about is that both Smith and Guthridge, two men from Kansas, grew up having a lot of traditional moral values that people from North Carolina can relate to. And yet at the same time they grew up not in the segregated south and under totally different circumstances with a worldview that was in some ways more progressive than anything that was going on in North Carolina in 1962.

AJ –What things do you take with you in your memories growing up watching Carolina basketball and why does it mean so much to you?

TW – The biggest thing it meant to me was something that I was always optimistic about and always felt happy about is that I always thought they were going to win the next game. I wasn't that way at all in a lot of other areas in my life. The deepest level that's what it really meant to me. But it was a real thrill to get to see those teams and those players up close and I think it helped me get sense at an early age that these are real people, that these aren't like Hollywood movie stars, that these are real flesh and blood people. And both working at the games and having known Guthridge to some extent as a kid contributed to that sense. And just being in Carmichael Auditorium, the passion that was there, night in and night out even for games against a Howard or someone. It was still a special feeling in the air and didn't have a sense of complacency that is in the Smith center about half the time. That was really special too. You can't compare that level of passion and emotion that you feel in those games to anything else you experience in your life as a 13- or 14-year-old. So that was a thrill, too.

AJ – How long did it take you to write the book and how did you go about compiling notes and what type of ideas did you use?

TW –Basically, it's taken me about a year to write it. I had the idea last October and I thought it was a good moment to write it with the transition from Guthridge to Doherty. So I started out with a lot of ideas and talking to family members, who are all big Carolina fans, and they have a lot of thoughts but it got deeper as I did the survey online. Eighty-six questions and we put that up there on on a Friday night and by the next morning I had like a 150 that came in overnight. And people were telling me all unbelievably personal stuff. All kinds of anecdotes, going to games with their fathers. One guy spread his father's ashes on the Smith Center floor as sort of a last testimonial at his father's request. Things that that would blow your mind. That really broadened it and the people that kept the diaries, that was real interesting, too. I got a sense of how other people, who didn't grow up in Chapel Hill and grew up somewhere else, how they dealt with it in their lives. And for me, someone who grew up as a Chapel Hill person, it was a chance to see how people outside of Chapel Hill, people that didn't have the same experience as me with the team, think about it. I definitely learned a lot about it.

AJ – We are big uniform guys, so what did you honestly think about the uniforms that had the block "NC" on the jersey?

TW – I am glad they pushed it back. I don't know what the circumstances were but I think it had something to do with Alexander Julian and Michael Jordan about why they did that. I think it's better to have the "North Carolina" on there. I don't think it had anything to do with why Carolina struggled so much that year. Andrew (You), made a point it didn't help the overall morale of fans in dealing with the tough times that the team went through. It was like one more thing that was under a curse. As it turned out the uniforms didn't matter at all because they went to a Final Four. I am glad they went back to the old uniforms. Now if I had my druthers they'd go back to uniforms they wore back in the 70's and 80's.

AJ – What did you think when they went to the argyle on the side?

TW – I wasn't that psyched about it but I wasn't that psyched when they went from wearing those light blue converse to Nike. And that is one of those things that there are going to be changes in the program and its not only going to be stuff like this, basically cosmetic, some of it is going to be more real like a brand new head coach like Doherty. And a real question in the future is that there are going to be changes but how much of the sort of central ethos that Dean Smith created is going to survive and that is really an interesting thing to think about.

AJ – I want to jump back to the input you got from the fans and the guy who spread his father's ashes on the Smith Center floor. But a lot of people listening are sports fans but perhaps not passionate about a team. There is a big difference about the common sports fan and the one that is passionate. What is it about that passion that drives people to do something like that?

TW – I agree in the U.S. it is more attached to college especially in the south. I think it's an attachment to place, where to identify. The state of North Carolina, UNC, ‘I'm sort of a part of that because I am a person that lives in North Carolina.' I think part of it is identifying with the young kids because they are not pros and making mistakes but seem to get it done, or at least North Carolina has. And I think there is something attractive about that. But I think you have to go back deeper, decades ago, to how this all got started because as time goes on it reproduces itself and feeds off itself. Fathers are taking their kids to the games. You know 70 percent of the people in the survey said they definitely plan to have their kids be (UNC) fans.

AJ – Thad, you've lived in places outside of North Carolina. What is the perception of UNC basketball outside the ACC region?

TW – I think among the basketball people it is unbelievably positive. You can see it the way Red Auerbach (of the Celtics) was so excited to get Joseph Forte (in last June's NBA Draft) and the fact that he had been at Carolina was a big deal there. Anyone in New York City who cares about basketball definitely perks up when you mention Carolina. But the average person, here in Boston, they are aware of it but it is more TV and the people that are into basketball who really appreciate it much, and other parts of the country.

AJ – Lets talk about this year's team. Say if Julius Peppers and Ronald Curry don't play, how difficult is it going to be for them to continue on the amazing streaks they are in the process of?

TW – It will be really hard without Curry and even without Peppers. Without either of them will be tough to keep third place going. A team like Virginia or Wake Forest seem to drop a couple of games you don't think they are going to and maybe Carolina can get an upset or two.

AJ – Especially with Virginia not having Majestic Mapp at point guard.

TW – It's actually funny. You talk about some of the ignorance outside of the ACC. There was a New York Times article a couple of (weeks) ago which the guy talked about Majestic Mapp being back and completely missed the boat. But it will be tough for Carolina especially if Curry doesn't come back. I think they'll keep the tournament thing going and I think they'll probably keep the 20-win thing going.

AJ – A lot of people think the Heels will be better off without Curry.

TW – I don't think so because if you look at last year they got dramatically better as soon as Curry stepped on the court. I think as far as Boone, it is a little unfortunate because playing alongside Forte would be more effective because he wouldn't have as much responsibility to be a creative force on offense and could concentrate on being a good solid defender and someone who doesn't make mistakes with the ball which is basically what he is. But without Forte there they do need the creative force and Curry is a more of a north-south player and can take it to the basket. And I think the two of them together can be a reasonable tandem and hopefully Melvin Scott will come along, too, and you can have three guys that can play.

AJ – It doesn't look like Brian Morrison is going to get much time at the point, they are pretty settled with him playing the two so that means they need more of a stabilizing influence at the point. Plus Curry would bring a toughness to the team that will help fight through some of the struggles they are going to have.

TW – I agree with that. In sheer athleticism, you talk about beginning to compete with Duke's backcourt. First of all, Carolina is going to need every body they can for that but Curry is the one guy in the conference that can physically halfway contain Jason Williams for part of a game, which is what you probably have to do to beat Duke.


Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He also in his fourth year as a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at:

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