Review: One Fantastic Ride

Thad Williamson reviews One Fantastic Ride, the new book that chronicles North Carolina's 2008-09 national title-winning season.

Review of One Fantastic Ride: The Inside Story of Carolina Basketball's 2009 Championship Season. Adam Lucas, Steve Kirschner, and Matt Bowers. Foreword by Roy Williams. University of North Carolina Press. 256 pages. $29.95.
Reviewed by Thad Williamson

It's entirely appropriate that it is Tyler Hansbrough, wearing the nets from the championship game victory over Michigan State, who graces the cover of One Fantastic Ride, the new book commemorating North Carolina's championship season of 2008-09.

The book's cover thus highlights the expected, familiar narrative about the 2008-09 season: that of Tyler Hansbrough, the modern generation's Phil Ford, beloved for managing to both be an insanely intense competitor and a slightly goofy kid from Poplar Bluff, coming back for his senior year to finally win the big one and pick up a bunch of personal honors along the way as well.

But the book's contents tell not just that story but another one as well, more subtle but inexorable as the pages are turned and accounts of games and dramatic photos go by: that of how Tywon Lawson emerged over the course of the season, at first so slowly that few noticed, as the team's best player and on-court leader - and how Tyler Hansbrough accepted and even embraced that development.

The huge gap between the kind of North Carolina team that played in the ACC Tournament without Lawson and the team that blitzed through the NCAA Tournament in dominating fashion made the point obvious by season's end. No one came within single digits of Carolina in the tournament on the scoreboard, but at one point (against LSU, to be precise), the Tar Heels were a single digit away - namely a certain toe - from losing everything.

Fortunately, Lawson overcame the pain and put together a breathtaking second half against the Tigers, a performance that started with made long three-pointers at a time when the offense was out of sync and ended with a flurry of spectacular drives to the basket. After that point, Carolina never looked back.

One measure of Lawson's ascendancy can be found in the game-by-game season statistics, provided in the appendix of One Fantastic Ride. The numbers show that Hansbrough led Carolina in scoring in 11 of the first 12 games he played normal minutes in, from Nov. 26 vs. Notre Dame to Jan. 17 vs. Miami. But Hansbrough led scoring charts in just seven of the season's final twenty games, including just one NCAA tournament game (vs. Gonzaga); it was Lawson who led the team in scoring in four of the last five games.

More informative measures of that ascendancy can be found in the authors' text. The authors point to Hansbrough's overjoyed reaction to Lawson's buzzer-beating shot at FSU as a pivotal moment in the team's evolution, and an informative sidebar midway through the book discusses how Lawson won new respect from not just fans but players and coaches with his willingness to pay through pain in March. But perhaps the best barometer can be found in a photo on page 144 of an intense but excited Hansbrough reaching out to give Lawson a big congratulatory hand in celebration, near the end of the LSU game.

Numbers, words, photos - three ways to tell the same story. The strength of One Fantastic Ride is that it brings all three elements together in a compelling way. But since I can't reasonably provide a description of all the photos in the book - and there are a lot of them, including a memorable one of Ed Davis in Maui - I'll focus here on the text. There is such a thing as a championship book genre, and One Fantastic Ride squarely fits within it. You get to go behind all the scenes with all the players, all season long. You get plenty of anecdotes - how Bobby Frasor turned Roy Williams into a guitar hero, the details on the team's visits with Barack Obama, and much more. Most of the games are discussed, and all of the key ones, good and bad, receive extended treatment, particularly the two Duke games. The narrative is sufficiently detailed to remind even readers who watched every minute of every game about plays and events you probably forgot about - remember that surprise trap late in the win at FSU that led to a key Danny Green steal and basket? And you get the scoop on what was said in the locker room after wins and losses, particularly after the 0-2 conference start.

But this book, in my mind, surpasses previous championship books in the level of detail it pays to what actually happened on the court and why. The authors tell us about the specific instructions the coaching staff gave to Wayne Ellington about how to guard Malcolm Delaney of Virginia Tech. We hear from Joe Holladay on why Carolina prospered when big men set screens on the ball for Lawson, a relatively new wrinkle in the old Carolina playbook. We get insight into the scouting done by C.B. McGrath in preparation for the Gonzaga game in the tournament, and how McGrath's research led to a defensive adjustment on ball screens that completely stymied Gonzaga's favored offensive set. We learn about Carolina's game plan for containing Blake Griffin of Oklahoma.

No one will confuse One Fantastic Ride with a basketball textbook, but those nuggets of insight are the reward for giving this book a close read. This book doesn't just say "Carolina won!" or even "Praise the lord, Carolina won!" Rather, the book documents and explains why Carolina won.

Even better than that, it helps readers see that there are many reasons why Carolina won, from the tactical decisions made in pre-game preparation to the decisions Lawson, Green, and Ellington made to come back to the recruiting efforts that put this team together. Yet in the end the game-breaker was not any of those things, but rather the competitive greatness under duress displayed by Ty Lawson on a March afternoon in Greensboro, a display not only of talent but also competitive heart worthy of that other, bigger and older Ty.

Going into the 2008-09 season the book on Carolina was that the Heels had an extraordinary player in Tyler Hansbrough and deep cast of excellent players to go with him. By the end of the season Carolina had two extraordinary players capable of taking on multiple defenders and scoring, as well as three other starters (plus Ed Davis) capable of hitting open shots and scoring in one-on-situations. When combined with great team defense, that's a recipe for a juggernaut, and that's what Carolina turned into in the latter part of the season, not only fulfilling but even exceeding sky-high expectations.

Six months after the fact, it may be tempting to believe that having a (deserved) twenty-point lead at halftime of an NCAA Title game isn't that amazing an accomplishment, or to think that all this is old news.

Both thoughts would be wrong. As time passes and more seasons come and go, the legendary performances turned in by the 2008-09 Tar Heels at the end of the season are likely only to grow in stature. One Fantastic Ride captures this extraordinary moment in exemplary fashion.

Read it now to remember all the little details and appreciate the season past one last time before the new one begins; read it again years from now when you find yourself thinking, "Did that really happen?"

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