A front row view of emerging Tar Heel standouts like freshman Harrison Barnes and a seat next to Eric Montross are perks of Adam Lucas' job.
Adam Lucas may have the best job in America. Tar Heel fans certainly think so. Adam gets to write about Carolina basketball. He’s the ultimate UNC basketball insider. He gets to travel with the team, interview coaches and athletes and get access to the inner workings of one of the nation’s winningest college basketball programs. He writes columns, tweets during the game, does radio broadcasts and has published numerous books. Adam works hard, has an unwavering love for Carolina-lina and deserves the success he has at such a privileged perch (I first heard the name “Adam Lucas” before he became a Tar Heel staple. After my first year of college, I had an internship at a small community newspaper in Cary, N.C. and then-Sports Editor Lisa Coston would rave about this talented young sportswriter from Cary.)
Tar Heel fans like myself eagerly await his postgame columns. As soon as the final buzzer sounds, I can’t wait to read Adam’s take that puts the win or loss (let’s face it it’s Tar Heel basketball so more often a win than a loss) in perspective. After going to a blowout win at the Smith Center today, I came back to read Adam’s light column about the fun victory in which 8 Tar Heel players scored in double figures.
Adam Lucas is a testament for aspiring journalists that you can carve out a nice career through hard work, sticking with a niche, and a little bit of luck and timing. I could never be Adam Lucas. Sure, I could do what Adam does. In fact, I have written about Carolina basketball. I’ve covered a few games, interviewed some of the players, sat in Roy Williams’ post-game conferences and even had an insider’s perspective into Carolina basketball (I was an usher at the Smith Center for six years).
But unlike Adam, I never stuck with sports journalism. I broke into the newspaper business as a sportswriter when I won first place for column writing in the News and Observer’s “Sportswriter For a Day” contests when I was a teenager in middle and high school. I covered prep sports for the Herald-Sun’s Raleigh Extra while I was in high school. Darryl Robinson, the men’s basketball coach, at Leesville Road High School even nicknamed me “Scoop.” I covered UNC Wilmington sports for the college newspaper and did some freelance work for the Morning Star before moving away from sports. I love sports and I love being a fan of sports. When covering sports became my job, I lost some of the thrill, the fandom that comes in rooting for a team, and carrying those biases inherent in being a fan. For the most part, I left sportswriting in college and have never looked back.
Sitting in the mezzanine level at the Smith Center today, however, brought back a flood of Tar Heel memories. I wanted to share just a few of my highlights from covering Carolina and the inside perspective:
*Hortense Raynor. Can you say “Super Fan”? I first met Hortense when I was a UNC senior who traveled to Indianapolis for the Final Four. I wrote a journal and provided a “color” sidebar piece for the Herald-Sun. I interviewed Hortense at a pre-game Fan Zone. She was decked in Tar Heel gear from head to toe. I would see Hortense at other games over the years. She is the quintessential Carolina fan.
*Donald Thrower. The proud UNC pharmacy alum owns several pharmacies in Gaston County. He also collects and sells a slew of Tar Heel merchandise. When I worked for the Gaston Gazette, any feature story about an ACC event would often feature Thrower or his store. Thrower even sprung to have seniors from the 2009 National Championship team come to town for an exhibition game and to sign autographs at his store (now, when I drive back to NC, I always stop and buy some Tar Heel swag from Thrower’s store). Gaston County has deep Tar Heel roots, including being the home of standout basketball player James Worthy and women’s head coach Sylvia Hatchell. Gaston County also claims the birthplace of UNC system president emeritus William Friday.
*Road warriors. I had a front row press pass seat on Dec. 3, 2005 as then-freshmen Tyler Hansbrough and Bobby Frasor and crew went into Rupp Arena and upset the homestanding Kentucky Wildcats. I sat a few feet away as David Noel drove baseline and unleashed a nasty dunk en route to an 83-79 UNC victory.
*Triumphant last game. Months earlier, I had ushered my last game as a full time usher at the Smith Center: the 2005 season finale. After Marvin Williams’ put back to give the Heels a dramatic come-back win over rival Dook and the ACC regular season title, the crowd erupted. That was the loudest I have ever heard the Smith Center. Students rushed the court. The team would go on to win the National Championship a month later. Pretty sweet ending to an ushering career that included the dreadful 8-20 season.
Students swarm the Smith Center floor to celebrate UNC's win over Dook that sealed the 2005 ACC regular season championship.
*Traditions galore: When you arrive 2 1/2 hours before a game starts, you notice lots of little things. You memorize the words to all the fight songs you’ve sung over and over, you look for the 12-13 minute mark when the team does its warm-up-slide-to-the-floor-run-to-tunnel-routine, you know what songs are played over the speakers, you look forward to pre-game rituals like Danny Green or Leslie McDonald dancing to “Jump Around” at tip-off. I always thought it would be neat to write a book about what it was like to be an usher. Obviously, I never did. haha.
When I was an usher our standard gear was khaki pants, white shirt, the blue Smith Center vest and our name tag. Cute Carolina girls like Jen were optional. 🙂
*They call me u-s-h-e-r. As an usher, you develop a nuance for customs. There’s a set way about being an usher. At UNC it meant arriving at a certain time, wearing the proper outfit and sticking to an assigned section. For several years, I was the usher in Section 107-108, which is behind the visiting team’s bench. I enjoyed the conversations with the regulars but also had to cater to the friends and family of the opposition. Mostly, as an usher, I liked being in the know. This appealed to my reporter’s instinct. As an usher, we were always prepped on what celebrities or star athletes would be in the crowd the day of the game, what special events were planned (banner unfurled, player jersey retired, athlete or team recognized, etc.), what giveaway was taking place (T-shirts and so forth) so we were informed. We also would hear rumors about behind-the-scenes team issues (especially during those tumultuous Doherty years). But mostly I enjoyed the camaraderie. I had the privilege of working with some fine ushers and Smith Center event staff. It was a joy to play a small part in making the Carolina Dynasty run.
Since those days, I’ve gone back to being just a fan. Of course, being a Carolina basketball fan entails being a little more intense than your average Fan at Generic U. Actually, a lot more intense. Sections of my house are devoted to prized UNC memorabilia. Trips are taken to watch the team. Plans are made and set around game days. Students get tired of the baby blue-clad professor rambling on and on about Tar Heel basketball. Doesn’t he know this is Georgia, where football is what matters?
The outfit I wore into my classroom the day after UNC won the 2009 national championship. Not everyday one gets to wear a baby blue blazer to work.
As the new year dawns, so too comes the start of ACC play. I’ll head back down south, away from Tobacco Road. The UNC merchandise is ready to don. The team ready to be cheered on to victory.
In two short weeks, UNC will come to town to take on the Ramblin’ Wreck of Georgia Tech. I’ll be there. Clapping and cheering. Shouting words of encouragement for Harrison Barnes. High-fiving my neighbor at an emphatic John Henson block or dunk.
I won’t be poring over stat sheets or seeking the right words to encapsulate a post-game analysis.
Adam Lucas has that covered. He’s one heel of a guy.
Being just a fan has its perks. A walk-on snapped this blurry pic of Roy Williams and I in the hotel lobby in San Juan, Puerto Rico.