Championship Collectibles (Part 1): The Drive

Apologies for the lengthy wait between columns. After Carolina was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament, I hid in a hole until Duke lost. The hole had no internet access — by design, so I wouldn’t see if Duke won the tournament. (Editor's note: We dug him out for this column.)

The Story Behind the Object

For all of basketball season, I’ve been conveniently ignoring my national championship collectibles. “I’ll save them to write about during the tournament,” I thought to myself. After a second round (or is the NCAA still trying to make “third round” work?) exit, I instantly regretted that decision. It’s like sitting a guy who picks up his fourth foul with six minutes left in the game. Why? Let’s say he plays three more minutes and then fouls out. How is that any worse than sitting on the bench three minutes, then coming back in and playing the final three minutes and ending the game still having four fouls? But alas, I see now how coaches can somehow make that mistake, and now I just have to own it and move on.

And by “move on,” I mean write three or four columns about prior Carolina national championships even though the 2018 campaign has come to a close. But, to be honest, maybe that’s not a bad thing. Now instead of watching Villanova take on Kansas, you can read this column and reminisce about the glory days of Carolina Basketball. (You know, like the last two years.)

Two years ago this week, the Tar Heels had just stamped their ticket to their first Final Four since the 2009 national championship season. My son was born in 2010, which meant that in March 2016, at the ripe old age of five, he had never seen Carolina in the Final Four. The poor guy. Can you imagine going your whole life and not seeing the Heels play on the last weekend of the season? No, you can’t. But that six-year dry spell from 2010 to 2015 (coincidentally, both years when Duke cut down the nets) sure felt like a lifetime to Carolina fans. And it actually was a lifetime for my son.

By 2016, I’d seen Carolina win a championship from the comfort of my own couch (1993), from inside the Dean Smith Center (2005), and from the second floor of an establishment overlooking Franklin Street (2009). So once the 2016 Tar Heels were a mere two wins away from their fourth title of my lifetime, I started wondering where I should watch the potential euphoric moment this time.

Several of my friends initially said they were going to fly out to Houston for the weekend to take in the games, and I immediately got it in my head that I would do the same. I’d leave the wife and kids at home and head to Texas with a group of guys so that we could split hotel rooms and whatnot, reducing the cost. However, the flight alone was $900. Plus tickets. Places to sleep. Food. Turns out this would not be cheap. One by one, everyone realized this and bailed. And while I may have been able to swing ONE flight, and ONE ticket, and HALF (or less) of a hotel room — I couldn’t justify those items for myself AND my wife. And so the dream ended.

Except I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Carolina was in the Final Four for the first time in seven years. Despite being a blue blood and perennial title contender, I couldn’t help but think that a man only gets so many chances to see his alma mater play for a championship. I couldn’t just let this opportunity pass. So on Thursday, I started laying the groundwork with my wife for a potential drive to Houston. From Hillsborough (essentially Chapel Hill). She was not on board.

I refused to give up, though. I was like a 5-year-old — a 5-year-old who had never seen his team in the Final Four — hounding her about it during every waking moment. She still was not on board. She made a pro/con list on Saturday morning. The pro side had like one thing on it, along the lines of “could be fun.” The con side had a laundry list. Long drive. An inconvenience to the grandparents (childcare-wise). Etc etc. Eventually, I pointed out that the pro list should also include that I wouldn’t regret it forever if we went, only if we didn’t. I broke her. She agreed that if the Heels beat Syracuse on Saturday night, we’d drive to Houston for the title game, which was the only part I was interested in being there for anyway.

And so, Saturday night, when the final horn sounded on the victory over Syracuse, I logged onto the trusty world wide web and purchased tickets to the game. Lower level, behind the basket, pretty close to the floor (row G). Sunday morning we hit the road. We dropped the kids off with the grandparents and headed west. The entire drive there, I was a ball of nerves. I’m not sure if I was more anxious about the game or how miserable the drive back would be if Carolina lost, but both were major concerns that kept running through my mind during the 1,164-mile drive. We spent the night in Scott, Louisiana, then got up Monday morning to finish the trek.

A little after noon, we rolled into Houston. We had a delicious Mexican lunch, which I could barely keep down in my angst. Then, with several hours to kill, we ventured into the Fan Fest. It was spectacular. By that I mean it was corporate sponsorship at its peak, a giant convention center filled with booths set up by NCAA sponsors wanting to capitalize on the event. But that didn’t stop me from waiting in line to try to make shots on Buick’s 12, 14, and 16 foot baskets, or from trying to throw as many socks as possible into an LG washer/dryer, or any number of other stupid contests that kept my mind off the looming game.

Before we’d left for Houston, I had checked the official Final Four website and found that Antawn Jamison would be at the AT&T booth signing autographs on Monday afternoon. Armed with that knowledge, I took my Upper Deck UNC Basketball Antawn Jamison All Americans card (in the same subset as the MJ autographed card I’ve already written about) to get signed. After a 30-or-so-minute wait, I’d had a picture taken with big No. 33, gotten him to sign the card I’d brought, and also emerged with a signed picture from his stack — featuring the AT&T logo in the lower left corner. Ah, corporate America.

Obviously, there is quite a bit more to this story, but since this seems like a good place to tell you all the details of the Antawn collectibles, let’s stop here and pick up the rest of the story in my next column. I’ve got a second collectible from this journey to describe in part two, anyway.

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Carolina Collectibles Description

The “NCAA sanctioned, corporate America” portion of this collectible is an 8x10 photo of Mr. Jamison driving past, if I’m not mistaken, Roshown McLeod, with Wojo looking on from the top of the key. The upper left corner has the Houston 2016 Final Four logo, while the bottom has an AT&T logo and an ad for the all new Samsung Galaxy S7. I’m hopeful that those words being written across the bottom will not one day cause the photo to spontaneously combust.

I’ve framed the picture in a generic, two-dollar white frame from Walmart, which allowed me to cover up a good chunk of the AT&T ad with my seat stub. You’ll notice I didn’t say ticket stub. There is no ticket stub. I had a digital ticket, which was scanned at the gate, and then the gate attendant printed this seat locator and gave it to me. The game started at 8 p.m. (central time), and I believe the doors opened at 6 p.m. According to the timestamp on the bottom of the stub, I entered NRG Stadium at 6:02:29 p.m., because I couldn’t possibly wait another second. Also it was approximately one billion degrees that day, so waiting outside for another hour did not seem appealing.

The “I came prepared and brought this from home” portion of this collectible is the Antawn Jamison basketball card. It’s number 118 in the set and gives me two autographed cards out of the 20-card “All Americans” subset. Unlike my Michael Jordan autographed card, which came directly from the factory, I physically witnessed ‘Twan sign this one, so I’m 100 percent certain it's legit.

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Carolina Collectibles Comparison: Antawn Jamison

Obviously have to go with Jamison on this comparison. Both items feature his image and his signature, so there’s no other option. The guy was an unforgettable player at North Carolina and had staying power in the NBA. Similarly, my experience in getting this autograph was also unforgettable (for slightly different reasons), and the items will have staying power in my Carolina room for years to come.

Carolina Collectibles Rating: 5 Stars

I’ve said I’m not an autograph guy in the past, but honestly, when a Tar Heel great puts their signature on one of my collectibles, I immediately add 50 cool points to that item, so I guess to some degree I am an autograph guy. Even if I wasn’t, though, just getting a brief chance to meet a legendary player who starred for the Tar Heels during my formative basketball watching years is enough to earn these items five stars, anyway.

@HeelsboroDave