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WITH A TEAM FROM A TOWN named after a place of worship, whose archenemy is the (Blue) Devil himself, basketball is a religious experience for parishioners of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels' performance against Michigan State brought more than victory: It provided redemption, for the players who faltered at the altar last year and for the faithful fans who breathe with every bounce of the leather totem.
As we alums see it, Roy Williams returned from Kansas in 2003 to the school of his baptism to save us from the hell of a mess Matt Doherty created. And now, bless him, Williams has won another national title, accomplishing in six years what the revered Dean Smith did in his 36. If Smith is the patriarch, then Williams is the son with whom he is well pleased. And when the faithful congregate at the Smith Center in the "southern part of heaven" and raise our gaze, we can see the holy ghosts who inhabit the honored jerseys of sainted players.
The bumper-sticker theology that God must be a Tar Heel because the sky is Carolina blue, is surely unfounded because it ignores Carolina's six NCAA tournament losses to ecclesiastical institutions. But should we dismiss the possibility of divine intervention in the triple-overtime win over Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas in 1957, the late miscues by Georgetown, Michigan and Illinois in 1982, '93 and 2005 and this season's miraculous recovery of Ty Lawson's toe? Of course, because our faith was in the better team.
I know how Carolina fans feel, because if I weren't writing this, I'd be reading it. I put up a good front while covering college hoops for this magazine in the 1970s. N.C. State coach Norm Sloan slyly praised me "for not being like those other Carolina guys" who, he felt, depart UNC's school of journalism wearing light-blue lenses. Then in 1980 I confirmed my independence (and stupidity) as an editor by omitting the Heels from SI's preseason Top 20. Four months later, when Carolina met Indiana for the national championship, I (almost) rooted for Isiah Thomas to save me from embarrassment.
In 1981, I overcame my bias about appearing biased and (correctly) did pick Alma Mater. Unfortunately I couldn't convince Smith to allow Michael Jordan to appear on the cover with him and the other starters. As far as Smith was concerned, Jordan was an unproved freshman and I wasn't much removed from the student journalist who covered him at Carolina.
So, dear reader, we're much the same. Like the other members of the e-mail chain I correspond with before, during and after big games, I relish the style, integrity and success that Carolina basketball represents and honor the architect, Dean Smith. I believe, as Chicagoan Bret Dougherty does, that the celebrated Carolina "family" includes us fans. But even though I care, I don't get all Taliban about it.
I don't spell it D-o-o-k. Another e-mail pal, Tim Stump in Charlotte, says the pro-Carolina-anti-Duke book To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever captures his sentiments exactly. Also, I can let go. Dave Kirk in Glencoe, Ill., and Jeff Mason in Kernersville, N.C., are still bemoaning the 1977 finals loss to Marquette. Plus, I don't obsess. Dave Kasey in Winnetka, Ill., calls Carolina hoops his "ball and chain, an obsession I cannot shake."
So now, in victory, can't we relax a little? How about you, Dave Wanders in Wilmette, Ill.? You're a Yale man. Have you bought some time before you need your adopted team to win again?
Amen to that.