Let me say up front, I realize that this may not be a popular post with a lot of people outside of North Carolina. I understand. Really, I do. Please understand that I mean no ill will to any of you. But this is a story about what it means to be a North Carolinian. In March. During the ACC Tournament, the best time of the year.
The ACC Tournament
It was March 8, 1986. As I climbed into the car with my dad, we made the short 1 1/2 hour drive from our home in Garner over to Greensboro, NC, and I truly had no idea how my life was about to be transformed. I was on my way to my first ever ACC Tournament (note: in North Carolina, there’s no need to call it the “ACC Basketball Tournament.” It’s just understood that when you say “the ACC Tournament” or “The Tournament,” you’re obviously referring to the ACC Basketball Tournament). This was back in the days of the old version of the Greensboro Coliseum: the blue floor with the four column logo, the upstairs and downstairs sections separated by different entrances and the old scoreboard that retracted up into the ceiling where they would change out the nameplates of the teams that were playing. To me, the “Coliseum” was a mythical place. For a 10-year old kid that had only watched The Tournament on TV while my parents got to go to it, I felt as though I were entering sacred ground. And indeed, I was.
Long before we had the NBA, NFL or NHL in the state of North Carolina, we had The Tournament. And it was the stuff of legend. The ACC was formed in a secret meeting in a Greensboro hotel on May 8, 1953. The new league had eight charter members. And the fledgling sport at that time was basketball. Now, I could tell you a lot about how basketball grew following the creation of the ACC. The great Everett Case, head coach of NC State and the man responsible for bringing big time basketball to the South. Frank McGuire and the flamboyance he displayed at UNC. Vic Bubas and the smart, tough style of play at Duke. Even Bones McKinney, the great character of a coach at Wake Forest. The ACC was clearly the premiere basketball conference in the nation.
But the ACC had one ace in the hole that other conferences didn’t have: a spectacular season-ending conference tournament to determine the champion. Oh, sure, other leagues had conference tournaments. The Southern Conference, of which a lot of ACC teams had been a part of, had been playing a tournament since the 20’s. But the ACC Tournament was unlike anything else. From its beginnings at Reynolds Coliseum on the campus at NC State, it proved to be an incredible sporting event spread over three days all to determine a champion.
But I didn’t grow up during that time. I was born in the mid-70’s. And when I made my first trip to The Tournament in 1986, I just knew I was going to see my favorite team play. Duke was the regular season champion that year and I couldn’t be more excited. I was finally getting to see just what this was all about.
The ACC Tournament: A Statewide Holiday
When you grow up in North Carolina, you learn fairly quickly that you’ll need to pick a favorite team in college basketball. There is no room for middle ground. You either like Duke, NC State, North Carolina or Wake Forest. Now, I didn’t really know anyone that cheered for Wake Forest, so they were a little off the radar. But in the Triangle, you had better have your choice made by the time you were in elementary school. In the Triangle, college basketball is serious. And picking your team required a lot of care. Or good genes. For me, my dad was a big fan of the Blue Devils. He grew up in Northampton County, NC listening to the Duke teams of the 1950’s and 1960’s on his radio and he became a big fan. So, naturally, I became a big fan of the team as well. But I had good friends that were fans of NC State and UNC and it was just accepted that you would have a little “rivalry” with them whenever your favorite team played their favorite team.
But The Tournament was a whole different story. The Tournament used to be an 8-team affair starting at Noon on (usually) the second Friday in March. And in North Carolina, the entire state came to a standstill on that day. If you had tickets, it was better than Christmas morning. If you worked somewhere, you found a reason to be “sick” that day. And if you were in school, like I was, you were really fortunate: many of the teachers would find a way to borrow the one TV in the entire school and let the kids watch the basketball games that day. No joke. This is what we did in North Carolina. Now, we cared about education all the rest of the days of the year, but on this day, Quarterfinals day at the ACC Tournament, it became an unofficial statewide holiday.
I thoroughly enjoyed that first trip to The Tournament. I watched Duke beat Virginia and Georgia Tech beat Maryland that Saturday afternoon. And we returned the next day to watch Duke beat Tech for its first Tournament title since 1980. I was in heaven. I wanted to go back every year after that. And I almost did. I was fortunate, I got to go to a lot of ACC Tournaments. I saw a lot of basketball. Good basketball. No, great basketball. But that’s the way it was in the ACC. You were watching the best players in the nation. And on more than a few occasions, you were watching a team that would go on to win the National Championship. It was magical, to say the least.
The ACC Tournament: A North Carolinian’s Birthright
In all those years of making the annual trip to The Tournament, I came to realize that The Tournament was really North Carolina’s tournament. No, not the university. The State of North Carolina. It was the teams from our state that played in it and did so well. It was North Carolina-based universities that won the title. We had a real sense of pride that a team from North Carolina was playing for the championship. No matter which one it was, we had a sense of ownership. It was as if the other four universities were merely guests at our party. Even when we loaned The Tournament to another state — Georgia, Maryland, D.C., Florida — North Carolina teams still rose to the top and were playing for (and winning) the championship. The ACC Tournament had, in essence, become the birthright of North Carolinians. We had more of a claim on it than anyone else. It belonged to us. It was our baby. And we were proud.
Changes in The ACC
In the early 1990s, the ACC felt the need to add another school: Florida State. A football school. FSU was supposed to boost the ACC’s profile in football, which was good and well. But it added a new wrinkle on the basketball side to The Tournament: a Thursday night play in game (aka the Les Robinson invitational). The change was OK, but The Tournament felt different. It was weird to watch the game on Thursday night and see very few people in the crowd. That wasn’t The Tournament we’d come to know. But as North Carolinians, we stomached it because we still had our statewide holiday: Quarterfinal Friday, the single greatest day of college basketball in North Carolina. And that’s how things stayed for the next 10 years.
When the ACC decided to expand again, they did something really strange: they added Boston College, The University of Miami and Virginia Tech. And Thursday took on a whole new look. The Tournament was officially a four-day spectacle. But it wasn’t the same. It felt like we, as North Carolinians, were losing something: our cherished ACC Tournament.
And then things got really crazy. The ACC added Syracuse (Syracuse? really?), Pittsburgh (do they even play basketball?), Notre Dame (good history, but they’re nowhere near the Atlantic Coast!) and Louisville (good history, but they don’t really seem like an ACC team). And then Maryland announced they were leaving for the Big 10. That one really hurt. Who leaves the ACC for the Big 10? As North Carolinians, we liked to see our teams win, but it was fun to play against the Terps and beat them! But how could this be? And what were they doing to our beloved ACC Tournament?
Today’s ACC Tournament
The Tournament is now a five-day event. And as of this morning, three North Carolina-based teams are still in the hunt: Duke, UNC and NC State. And by the time my favorite team, Duke, takes the floor at about 9:30 p.m., two and one-half full days of games will be in the rear view mirror. As a North Carolinian, that doesn’t seem right. I realize this could sound a lot like whining and I guess on some level it is. I don’t like the changes. I liked the way The Tournament used to be. It was a lot more fun then. You knew all the coaches, the players, the radio announcers and more. It felt like a big family. Now, heck, I couldn’t identify the Pitt coach if he walked up to my house and knocked on my door. And that just doesn’t seem right.
I heard that, after learning they were joining the ACC, Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said he wasn’t terribly excited about playing in a conference tournament in Greensboro, NC. He was comparing it to New York City. I guess to some, that comparison is a no brainer. NYC has a lot to offer and Madison Square Garden is an historic venue. I’ve even heard some of the local sports radio guys (who aren’t originally from North Carolina) opining on how Greensboro isn’t very interesting and there’s nothing to do. And, I guess that’s true.
But I believe those observations (criticisms) are missing the point: you don’t go to the ACC Tournament to be entertained by a bunch of other activities, eat at fancy restaurants and watch Scotty McCreery concerts. You go to the ACC Tournament to watch great basketball. At least, that’s what you do when The ACC Tournament is your birthright. You watch the games. You cheer for your team. And you wait to see which North Carolina-based team is going to win it this year.