For one night, the pain and anguish of this past season's trials and tribulations vanished. Sure, we handily beat Clemson – but that was the least of the reasons behind the emotional emancipation experienced tonight, February 27, 2002, in the Dean E. Smith Center.
Before the contest with Clemson, the junior varsity team faced off against Hargrave Military Academy. Admittedly, I attended this game hoping to see the future faces of NCAA basketball on the prep squad – players like Florida's Mario Boggan, Tennessee's Stanley Asumnu, Wake Forest's Trent Strickland, and NC State's Cameron Bennerman – but I came away with a basketball experience only a lucky few hundred were able to have. Trailing by over 20 with less than ten minutes left to play, the JV Heels flipped a switch and became defensive monsters on one end of the floor, holding the talented Hargrave squad to 6 points for the remainder of the game. On the other end, the boys in blue dribbled, screened, and shot their way back to outscore their opponents by 24, winning the game 82-78. The small crowd was on their feet, filling the blue rafters with heartfelt cheers and congratulations.
Still, I was generally emotionless heading into the final home game of the 2001-2002 season. I was numb from losing, numb from witnessing opportunities wasted, and numb from a long, hard season of record lows. I made snide comments through the pregame ceremonies, rolled my eyes in cynical malcontent, and disparaged any good that might come out of this black sheep of a season. Little did I know the rebirth I was about to experience.
For the first time since Joseph Forte led us to victory in the Gothic Dungeon, I saw a team playing with confidence, teamwork, and brotherhood. I saw players that genuinely cared about each other, no matter what might happen on the court, and players that genuinely wanted each other to succeed, with absolutely no focus on individual success. I saw a coaching staff that wanted success for their players, not for themselves, and cared more about the outcomes in life than the outcome of the game.
For the first time in too long, I saw a team.
Tonight, I saw seniors, both in uniform and in the stands, shed tears for the memories and experiences shared in Chapel Hill. I saw players that have been the constant focus of harsh criticism across the country leaving it all on the floor and playing for each other. I saw confident aggression, increased level of play, and a win worth savoring. More importantly, though, I saw a group of 14 young men who deferred to each other in triumph, with no one soul snatching the limelight. At the end of the game, the seldom-used players all shared the floor, and their feelings towards each other were clearly evidenced by the number of passes. No player wanted to take a shot, knowing that he might prevent his teammate from an opportunity to appear in the stat sheet.
Tonight, the seniors led the way at tip off, but by the end of the game, the torch had clearly been passed to a young, talented, and enthusiastic trio of freshmen who will be the torchbearers of a new generation of Tar Heel success.
Tonight, the enthusiastic 16,125 in attendance couldn't help but be reminded of why, despite this season's myriad defeats, they keep returning to the Dean Dome to cheer on the Tar Heels.
To Coach Matt Doherty and the Staff, I would like to say thank you. Certainly, I do not mean to sweep the season's sub par performance under the rug; it was very much a disappointment, and I know that you, more than anyone else know that. Rather, I want to thank you for your dignity, patience, and understanding of life's consequences. Not once this season did you look to pass the blame for our team, even going so far as to focus the blame on yourself when it was not necessarily deserved. An 8-18 season is not something that many teams, especially not North Carolina, could ever hope to be proud of; however, by pulling this team together and keeping them focused in the face of great adversity, by fostering relationships between the players and coaches that will last longer than any single season, no matter how difficult, you have showed us all something to be proud of in the face of defeat.
To Kris Lang and Jason Capel: coming in as freshmen, you two were McDonald's All Americans who, along with Ronald Curry, were expected to bring home at least one championship. Subsequently, your failure to live up to unrealistic expectations (as we stand on the brink of doing with another class of prep phenoms) has led you to be two of the more maligned and abused players in recent Carolina history, and I am as guilty as any other of doing so. Tonight, however, you showed all of us what you have meant to this program. You leave behind a team that will forever be marked by your presence. Your quiet leadership has been a steadying hand through exceptional hardship, and it is a credit to your character and relationship with the coaching staff that this team is still here after all the losses, playing as hard as ever, and no one can rob you of deserved credit in the way the young players have developed over the course of this season. Your jerseys may never hang in the rafters, but, speaking for this Tar Heel, you will never be forgotten.
To Melvin, Jackie, Jawad, Adam, Brian, and Jon: next year, you face the daunting task of welcoming in a large class of highly heralded freshmen into the program. Be unhesitant in building strong relationships with them, and taking the reins so that they can develop from unsure new arrivals into talented cogs on a team filled with potential.
Next year, more pressure than ever before will be placed on recovering the level of achievement expected of Carolina basketball. However, go forth confident that, as long as you maintain the character, effort, and camaraderie witnessed through the course of the evening of February 27, 2002, your fans will be behind you 100%.
I stand before you in adamant declaration of my unabashed, unapologetic pride in the University of North Carolina Tar Heels basketball team.