It's been a couple of months since you went off to college for the first time, and I was sitting here missing you more than you will ever know. And it occurred to me, dear daughter, that all of a sudden you're actually a big-deal college freshwoman, the very same age and class as Billy Owens and the rest of these young basketball players for whom everybody is predicting such marvelous things. And now I have just figured out that I am, right now at this very moment, precisely old enough to be their father!
Excuse me, I had to take a deep breath there.
In a small personal way, then, the dawning of yet another college basketball season—which, as you well know, is my favorite stretch of the sports calendar—somehow seems infinitely more special and revitalizing this time around, if only because it's my first season as a college dad.
In between your long hours of classes, parties, studies, parties, dormitory filibusters, lectures and parties, as well as those interminable trips to the, ahem, library, you have undoubtedly noticed that the ancient notion—rehashed and bashed though it may be—that college life revolves around its athletic teams has never been more accurate. Why, even among Ivy Leaguers, who connects Princeton with Woodrow Wilson anymore since Bill Bradley took Old Nassau to the Final Four?
As you have no doubt further noticed, in Wake Forest you have chosen a school—as did I, in the University of North Carolina—where the sun rises and sets on basketball rather than on football. Which is as it should be, of course. It's a good thing, you see, when your Demon Deacons, while struggling through a horrid season (10 wins against 18 losses, and just 3-11 in the ACC), can rise up and whip your dad's Tar Heels, who were having their usual terrific season (27-7, 11-3). Which is exactly what happened last January. Of course you weren't there yet, but I'm sure you'll hear some upperclassmen reliving that one. College basketball is just that simple and wondrous a game.
When we last spoke, you expressed some surprise at the excitement on campus for football. I think you only wanted to rub it in about the Wake 42, Carolina 24 score. But just wait till basketball gets going there in Winston-Salem. If it's anything like the way it was over at Chapel Hill in my freshman year—and it will be—you should soon be feeling an anticipation in the air, an energizing tingle and spark like no other in your college experience (and, yes, that includes that presidential debate that happened a few yards from your dorm).
Then again, you will be far too cool to acknowledge such emotion. "Chill out, Dad," I can hear you saying.
Well, let me tell you this: Out of the airheaded haze of my own freshman sojourn 27 years ago (spare me!), the one memory that most clearly remains is that of the first night of the basketball season. I sat high up in rickety old Woollen Gym, where I was treated to a debut in triplicate: Dean Smith coached his first college game; my classmate Billy Cunningham made his initial appearance on the freshman team; and a sophomore named Bryan McSweeney started for the varsity.
Well, Sage, I made some calls to try and get a handle on that time, to see if it meant as much to others as it meant to me. It did. Cunningham still remembers arriving at school the previous winter (he was a midyear high school graduate). He says he was met at the airport and taken not to his dorm but directly to the gym for basketball practice. Since he was ineligible to play in games until the next season, he was raring to go by the time that opening game arrived; he scored 24 points that night as the Tar Babies beat Virginia, with me up there in the rafters cheering them on. Later, Cunningham married a Carolina coed, Sondra Childress, and their oldest daughter, Stephanie, is now a sophomore at Chapel Hill.