Excerpted from Chapter One of More Than a Game.
At some point in early fall, I learned that I was going to be taken on for a job at the games, either wiping up the floor or helping turn the wooden scoreboard at the end of the Carolina bench. My parents didn't tell me exactly how it came about, but I had an inkling that it probably had involved a conversation between my dad and Bill Guthridge. I still have never inquired into the details, preferring to view it as just this remarkable stroke of good fortune. The job fit the definition of a totally unearned privilege, but I had no intentions of giving it back on that account.
Even so, I don't recall being overly excited or worked up about it until the day of the first preseason game in the fall of 1982. It was a Blue-White game played on a football Saturday. Dad and I walked over from Kenan to the media entrance to Carmichael, and lo and behold, my name was indeed on the list. Dad walked in with me, and saw David Folds, a high school sophomore who was a veteran at the job, and asked him to show me the ropes. David judged that since they already had two guys to wipe the sweat off the court, I should join him and Matt Karres, another high school student, in turning the flip scoreboard. Then Coach Guthridge turned up, said hello to Dad and made sure everything was squared away. Dad took off and wished me well. The set-up at the beginning was that David did UNC's score, Matt did the time, and I did the visitors' score. The purpose of the wooden scoreboard was to provide a running tally of the score for the coaches' game film, and that it was an idea Guthridge had brought with him from Kansas State in 1967.
There were only a few tricks to the job: First, we had to take our chairs out and put the scoreboard away in the last minute of the half and at the end of the game to clear the way for the players to run off the floor. (Conversely, we put the scoreboard out at the start of the game and at halftime immediately after Dean Smith walked from the locker to the bench.) Second, we knew to push the scoreboard to the right and out of the way if a player or players came flying at us. I was slightly concerned that one day some player would split his head on the scoreboard diving for a loose ball, but it never came close to happening--we had to push the scoreboard out of the way only a small handful of times in six years. Third, on the visitor's scoreboard, the sixes and the nines in the ones column were mixed up. So if you weren't paying attention, you could have a 9 showing instead of a 6 and vice versa. Fourth, while we certainly were allowed to cheer for Carolina during the games, it was sort of an unstated expectation that we should maintain a certain level of decorum (that is, not do anything the team managers we were sitting next to wouldn't do).
That was it. I was nervous at the beginning of that first game, but then the Blues scored a basket, I pulled back two wooden cards in the ones digit (very important not to pull back the tens digit--it had happened), and recorded two points for the visitors. I looked over at my family sitting on the other side of the court, and they clapped for me. By the end of the day, I had a good feel for the rhythm of working the wooden scoreboard--every so often, I had to push all ten ones digits back over the board to show zero again. And I had seen a good preseason game in Blue Heaven from the closest possible range.
Couldn't beat that.
Well, actually, you could, but it took a lot more drama to do it. Carolina's first home game in 1982-83 was against Tulane. Carolina had already lost two tough games to St. John's and Missouri to open the season, and the defending national champions looked very much like going an unprecedented 0-3 when Tulane came to town and played well. We put the scoreboard away with a minute to go and I made it over to sit next to my parents for the final seconds, none too happy. To that point, I had never seen Carolina lose in person, and didn't like the idea of starting now. Carolina got the ball back down two with about 10 seconds to play, but Michael Jordan was called for an offensive foul for pushing off the defender with four seconds to play. Tulane's players started celebrating, and a timeout was called. On the inbounds play, the Tulane passer panicked and threw a bad pass in the general direction of Matt Doherty. Jordan tracked the ball down, turned, and as the crowd readied itself in anticipation, launched a high-arcing jump shot from what today would be three-point range. Swish!
Pandemonium, especially after the officials signaled that the basket counted. It was a miracle shot, and a heck of an introduction to turning the scoreboard. I actually remained in the stands through the three overtimes and didn't go back to the scoreboard (the last time I ever did that), and watched as Carolina finally pulled it out. The first of many postgame walks across the intramural fields with my parents to the parking lot on Raleigh Road turned out to be a happy one.