05 Apr The Morality of Sport
As a kid growing up in Chapel Hill, NC during the ’70s and ’80s, I was a Carolina basketball fan just like everyone else in town. My parents were professors who had season tickets to the games, and often they would be gifted extra tickets by friends or neighbors and my siblings and I would get to go as well. My mother, who grew up in Queens as a die-hard Yankees fan took the game so seriously that she couldn’t watch when they were losing. When the games were on TV, it was chaotic in the house: my mother would hold her head and run into the kitchen whenever the game got tight. My brother and I would tumble out to the driveway to play one on one during commercial breaks. The anxiety was thick, but the joy when we won was equally as fierce. By the time we were in junior high, my brother and I would often sneak into games by running between my parents as they handed their tickets to the ushers. We would then wander the arena and sit on the steps or on the floor by the newspaper photographers. When ushers shooed us away, we just moved to another set of steps.
During my entire childhood, Dean Smith was Carolina’s basketball coach, and in many ways he was the most influential and important person in the town, if not the state. While my family was culturally Jewish, we didn’t go to a synagogue or engage in any of the rituals or holidays. Instead, we took our moral lessons from Coach Smith who was like a town pastor; the players were his apostles. Together they created a sense of community standards that, even as kids, we intuited and embraced. The key to this moral universe was respect. Coach Smith was also a fierce competitor. When I was about 5, UNC was losing to Duke by 8 points with 17 seconds left. They fought till the end of the game and they won. I can’t tell if I remember seeing it, or just hearing about it. The lesson was learned though- never give up on yourself. In the video below, my high school history teacher, who was also a basketball commentator and statistician, gives the play by play.
When Michael Jordan came to town, we went to every game. He helped UNC win the NCAA championship in 1982 and my mother took us up to the chaos of Franklin Street that inevitably followed a big win. The next day, she took me and my brother to Carmichael Auditorium when the team arrived home and we got balls signed by all the players – including Michael Jordan, James Worthy, and Sam Perkins. We then went home and continued to play with those basketballs. I remember that day because the players were generous with their time and attention. A couple of years earlier, I had gone to Dean Smith’s basketball camp. The players were our coaches and now they were champions. They were still just as much a part of our community and we would see them on Franklin Street or at the Arby’s near their dorm.
When I went to college in New York in 1987, I began to lose touch with the team. I never had a television or cable TV and being a fan has a lot to do with community. When you’re separated from that community, it loses a lot of its meaning. During my 20’s, 30’s, and most of my 40’s, I wasn’t really a fan of any team. However, when I moved back to Chapel Hill with my family in 2013, I began to once again follow UNC basketball. My mom still has season tickets so my wife and kids and I each get to go to a couple games every season. We also started to watch the games with friends, mostly people I grew up with. We still don’t have cable, so we have to visit with others to see the games, which makes the whole process more community-oriented again.
One of the reasons I lost touch with the team that I grew up caring about was because I had real questions about the value and concept of rooting for a sports team. However, even as a young child I understood that there was something different about Dean Smith. Even though there were often very good players, the teams all did well because they acted like a team and played with extreme unselfishness. Assists were given more respect than great shots. Whenever a player did make a great shot, they always acknowledged the pass that made it possible. The whole community embraced this ethos of sportsmanship and respect and that fostered a sense of community pride.
This is my third year back in town, and I have settled back into the rhythm of caring deeply about how the team does. Over the course of this year, my daughters have also become big fans. Together, with friends, we watched Carolina clinch the ACC regular season title by beating Duke at home (beating Duke alone is a very big deal in this town). Then we saw UNC win the ACC tournament. They rose to the occasion during the early games of the NCAA tournament as well. We rejoiced when they made the Final Four and ran up to Franklin Street when they won their Final Four game. While I was there, I ran into the teacher who ran the yearbook when I was in high school. He is now an academic advisor for the players and he told me that they are all very smart and engaged. It didn’t surprise me.
Together we screamed at the refs during the championship game. We screamed with delight when Marcus Paige hit his off kilter 3 point shot with 5 seconds left to tie the game. We sat together in shock when Villanova’s Jenkins hit his long shot with no time left on the clock. The game was over and Carolina had not lost- Villanova had won. Earlier in the year, Carolina lost a series of games that they should have won. However, this was not one they lost. As far as I am concerned, the team played like champions. When they won, they did it with dignity. And when they were beaten in the last game of the year, they did it like champions.