If Carolina Basketball is royalty, the Pep Band is its jester. While we don’t get exclusive all-access passes, we certainly get a great view of its court and, sometimes, it brings us along for its conquests. Although we loudly sit between the scenes, we sometimes surprise unsuspecting people with our front-row accounts of the Tar Heels. Here’s mine:
It’s the middle of our most recent spring semester. UNC just beat Duke, you’ve hit the mid-semester lull and wouldn’t life just be greater if you stopped going to class for a month and followed coach Roy Williams and his boys around as they traveled from city to city, winning basketball games and, perhaps, a national championship?
Members of the band get some crazy perks. Last year, my seniority over my classmates gave me the opportunity to travel with the men’s basketball team throughout tournament play. It was a ride I will never forget.
Duke fans are clearly the worst, but imagine how much worse they would be on a train, underwater, somewhere between Brooklyn and Manhattan, after beating our beloved Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament semifinals. It was okay, though, our director assured us. We had our eyes on something bigger: a national championship. Those same Duke fans traveled to Greenville, S.C., to watch their team cleanly win its first game before choking away a halftime lead to an inferior SEC opponent.
Nate Britt and coach Hubert Davis walked past a group of band kids watching Florida absolutely devour Virginia. They checked the score and looked at us, wincing at Virginia’s 30-point deficit before walking into the team meeting. Bye Villanova. Bye Virginia. Bye Duke.
Our flight to Memphis left Wednesday evening. The flight landed, we checked in at the Peabody Hotel, Williams became Duck Master, UNC beat Butler in a forgettable game and, finally, I cried three times during the 24 hours preceding the Kentucky game. Well, at least three times.
Anyway, Williams always spits into the Mississippi River for good luck, so I spat in it on two separate occasions: Once for Joel Berry and his ankles; the other for the possibility that Luke Maye would have the skill and confidence to hit a buzzer beater should we need it (which we did, so give credit where credit is due).
After Luke’s shot, we returned home from Memphis. Williams asked that we leave a night early to give time for Berry’s ankles to recover from any high-altitude swelling, so we rolled with it . . . er, we flew with it. At this point, it was nearly April. Mom, if you’re reading this, class was my number one priority.
When we arrived at the TARmac in Phoenix, a live DJ greeted us, blasting “Turn Down for What” while Williams drove around in a souped-up convertible. Our buses featured an interlocking NC and Final Four decals on them. None of it made sense, so I handed Isaiah Hicks and Stilman White their bags from the luggage pile and the buses took us into Phoenix.
“Da da da DA da-dah! Charge!” the nearby Diamondbacks baseball fans cheered. “Heels!” we responded, clearly focused on the greater things in life. We did the Final Four stuff – the hype photoshoots, the open practices, the rehearsals, the Grand Canyon (quite grand, really), the NCAA FanFest – but let’s talk basketball. You know what happened: Duck Master Roy and his crew’s incredible offensive rebounds sent a hopeful Oregon team surfing home up the California coast, banishing them to another 78 years of no Final Fours.
Nervous? Was I nervous? You can bet your daggum fanny I was nervous. As any band member must do when walking into a stadium, I put on a calm, collected demeanor, no matter how much I wanted to cry from seeing Kris Jenkins around the hotel all weekend. As we walked to our seats, a clapping Isaiah Hicks ran by us toward the locker room, yelling, “Let’s GOOOOOO!” I started to feel better about our game. I felt way better when I saw Kris Jenkins a few rows behind our bench rather than in the opposing huddle. I felt even better when Isaiah hit that shot in the final minute – you know, the one where he hovered in the air for what seemed like 4.7 seconds?
Kennedy blocked. Joel passed. Justin dunked. Redemption. Soon enough, the confetti was falling onto us as we made our way onto the floor – not to the locker rooms. It was a party in Chapel Hill and a party in Phoenix. Stilman smiled at me wearing my new championship shirt in the elevator. “It’s a good night for that shirt,” he said.
At the rooftop hotel celebration, the DJ unknowingly blared the uncensored version of “Raise Up.” While we spun our shirts like helicopters, a dancing Carol Folt, if I’m not mistaken, learned who sang the song. Appropriately, we sang Hark the Sound to close it out and Kanler Coker waved at me from down the block all while visions of the Dean Dome danced in my head. I slapped on my bow tie and, soon enough, we landed at RDU, greeted by an onslaught of media and a helicopter that followed our buses as we drove down a normally stopped-up section of I-40 (side note: if you ever need to get down I-40 in a jiffy, just get a massive police escort – it works like a charm).
Back home, my brother made a big deal of me traveling, and a friend got a bit unamused with him. “What now? Is your little bro going to walk down the steps of the Dean Dome?” he sneered. On cue, I stepped down from the Smith Center concourse, entering into an arena erupting with applause. I turned to my band friends. “They don’t know we’re the band,” I smirked, hoping to stay a bit humble.
Within a couple of days, the jet lag had worn off, and sadly, the royal treatment had too. But one thing remained: it was clear this championship was about more than a trophy. The team played for each other – for the University. We saw it with coach Dean Smith and, now, with Williams: Carolina is a culture. It’s a family.
So, yeah – band perks.