Growing up, I played a lot of sports. It was a critical part of my childhood and insturmental to my growth and development. As a shy and quiet kid, sports gave me an outlet to learn skills like confidence, discipline and hard work. The team aspect enabled me to learn to build relationships and trust with others and helped me feel comfortable enough to come out of my shell. As I think back to critical learning experiences in my life, playing team sports has to be on that list. The memories I made and the relationships I formed still stick with me to this day.
As a now washed up “retired” athlete there’s nothing I enjoy more than watching, playing or talking about the latest game, especially if it’s basketball. As such, March Madness is a big deal for me and in some ways is like my second Christmas.
For those of my friends who know me well they know I have a bit of a conundrum when it comes to college basketball. I grew up in the house of a Duke Alum, did my undergrad at Boston College, and went to business school at the University of North Carolina. That’s three schools in the ACC, all who play each other regularly, two of which who literally are trained to dislike the other from the moment they become a fan. Upon hearing of my allegiances, many of my friends are perplexed about the situation, but when I explain it and they hear my enthusiasm for the game they appreciate my loyalty. In light of that, I take plenty of heat for cheering for certain teams.
As most people know, UNC played in the National Championship game last night and unfortunately lost a heartbreaker. Nobody, especially elite athletes at the highest level of competition wants to lose, but to do it after you’ve made it to the finals and to lose it on the last shot is absolutely gut-wrenching.
Since I’ve been affiliated with UNC for the least amount of time, my allegiance is probably not as strong as die-hard fans but I could very much feel and agonize with the pain of my fellow Tar Heels, not only because of the heartbreaking loss, but to see players like Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige leave the program on such a sad note after all they’ve done for the school.
Every now and then, a team will have a player or two who embodies all of the aspirational qualities that represent the core of the school and Brice and Marcus were two of those people. It was hard not to love them for their play on the court, but also for what they stood for and embodied as Tar Heels. Ask any diehard fan and they’d tell you how much pride they took in seeing Brice and Marcus with the Tar Heel Jersey. Furthermore, that love was mutual, as both Brice and Marcus loved wearing the Carolina uniform and served as incredible ambassadors of the team. Watching Brice sob while being consoled by teammates and not being able to see Marcus hoist the trophy made me feel a bit of pain in my heart, even the royal blue/white and Maroon and Gold parts.
One of the reasons that I love sports is because when the game is on the line it brings out the inner qualities that are at the core of human beings. Last night, Paige put on a hell of a show, and literally almost willed UNC to victory. In the most critical of moments, the smallest player on the court came up with big shot after big shot. While in the end he came up short, his indomitable spirit, leadership, and willingness to give everything he had are all incredible qualities at the very center of a talented young man. Brice’s raw emotion and passion for the game was evident from every reaction whether it was his thunderous dunks or watching the final shot go in. I think any objective sports fan would be proud if a guy like that wore his or her uniform.
Oftentimes in life, and especially in sports, there’s no prize in second place. And while nobody wants to walk away with just a moral victory it’s hard not to feel proud of the team’s accomplishment this season. Brice and Marcus may have lost the game, but they certainly won over a lot of hearts in Tar Heel Country as talented basketball players and exceptional Tar Heels. It may not be the only victory they wanted, but it’s sure one to be proud of.