Apologies for the length of this, but this series was already three columns deep. Couldn’t afford to make it four. But the Heels won it all in 2017, so you can’t tell me nothin’.
The Story Behind the Object
On Dec. 20, 2016, Duke basketball was 11-1. The lone loss had come against Kansas in the Champions Classic, when the Blue Devils fell by two points in their third game of the season. The star-studded freshman class of Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Frank Jackson and Marques Bolden mixed in with veterans Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard had the Devils ranked pre-season number one and positioned as the odds-on favorites to win the national championship.
Meanwhile, Carolina basketball was 9-2. The Heels were three days removed from an instant classic (loss) against Kentucky in Las Vegas, falling 103-100. More importantly, the Heels were 260 days removed from the gut-wrenching loss to Villanova in the national championship game, which had left the 2017 squad as an afterthought to the national media. Sure, as a top-10 team they were listed among the teams that had the potential to make it to Phoenix for the Final Four. But that meant nothing, because the entire season was just a prelude to the inevitable Duke/Kentucky title game we’d have to endure in early April.
And so on Dec. 20, at exactly 7:30 p.m. (I just checked my email confirmation), I booked my flight to Phoenix for the Final Four. Ballsy, right? To be fair, the flight was on Southwest, so if things went south I would be able to cancel the flight and get a full credit to be used toward a flight at a later date. But my money (literally) was on the Heels achieving redemption.
If you’re reading this, you already know that they did. A Luke Maye game-winner sent the Kentucky Wildcats home prior to the Final Four, and South Carolina sent Duke home before the second weekend. And just like that, the Heels joined Gonzaga, Oregon and the Gamecocks as the last remaining teams in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Who could have seen that coming? Carolina still playing on the last weekend? Oh right. This guy. Who bought flights over three months earlier.
Not gonna lie — it’s a lot more fun to spend an entire weekend at the Final Four than it is to drive over 17 hours each way for just the title game. Though maybe it was also a lot more fun because the Heels won. It could go either way.
We had a super-early flight out of RDU on Saturday morning, which meant we got to our Hilton Garden Inn before check-in time. As a result, we wound up killing time having brunch at the Waffle House across the parking lot from the hotel. I probably hadn’t been to a Waffle House since high school, but it was delicious. Maybe it’s because I was starved or maybe it’s because that Waffle House was in the same city as the Final Four, but I give it two thumbs up.
After brunch we were able to check in and then I was unable to contain my excitement anymore, so we went ahead and Ubered (we’ve reached a point in society where Uber is a verb, correct?) over to the stadium area about eight hours early.
There were approximately a billion people in the University of Phoenix Stadium area, and each of the four schools’ alumni clubs had reserved a restaurant for their fans near the stadium. The Carolina restaurant was a Mexican joint (“Salt,” I believe) with a $10 cover, a crowd of people and a limited menu of appetizers, it appeared. I’m cheap, so we wound up at Johnny Rockets. After that, it was over to the stadium, which took like an hour to get into thanks to poorly designed entrances and ticket-scanning systems. Gonzaga ended South Carolina’s Cinderella story, and then the Heels rebounded their way to a date with the Bulldogs on Monday night. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a Lonestar or Texas Roadhouse or some other equivalent chain restaurant and one of their televisions was re-airing the game, so we watched pieces of the victory again.
The view on the TV angle was better, but having learned my lesson in 2016, I had still been able to see the entire game from our seats. We went from lower level behind the basket for the Villanova game to the 400 ring but closer to the sideline for the 2017 edition, and — like choosing the road less traveled — that made all the difference. The atmosphere was far worse, as you lose tons of fan noise, but we could see the game unfold on the court rather than on the Jumbotron. Though lesson learned for next time (oh, there will be a next time): make sure you sit on the same side as the cameras so that when you re-watch the game everything isn’t backward from your memory of it.
Sunday morning we walked around downtown Phoenix, which, while fun, was not super exciting. We sought out the different team hotels and wound up watching the Ducks loading into their team bus to depart for the airport. They looked kind of sad, but I couldn’t help but grin because it wasn’t Carolina. After that we headed to the FanFest and wound up getting pulled into a “private event” as soon as we arrived. Adam Zucker hosted a conversation between Carolina great Eric Montross, 1993 NCAA Champion and Gonzaga alum (?) Ronny Turiaf, NCAA Participant (I assume). It was at this event that I procured my first Collectible of this column — an autographed Eric Montross picture.
After a brief walk through FanFest, which was for whatever reason less fun than in 2016, we wound up scalping tickets to Opening Day for the Arizona Diamondbacks and then closing the night with a Mexican dinner in Tempe, including a brief exploration of Arizona State’s campus.
Monday morning I was a ball of nerves, so we decided to get out some energy and go for a hike. We asked the concierge at the hotel where we should go and, of course, Camelback was the top suggestion. She then warned us to take plenty of water and be wary of snakes, tossing in that they’d already “had to have a few rescues this year.” After a little more probing, I asked her a simple question. “Is there a place to hike that is essentially me walking lazily up the side of a mountain rather than crawling on my hands and knees and that won’t possibly lead to my death on the day I hope to watch the national championship?” She suggested South Mountain, which was much closer to the hotel. She did say we should still watch out for snakes.
South Mountain was exactly what I was looking for. Strenuous, but not death-defying. A pleasurable way to pass two hours. We even passed a few Tar Heel fans (and one pair of Ducks fans) along the way. The most amazing part? Two hours of hiking. 85 degrees. Not a single drop of sweat. I finally understand the “it’s a dry heat” comment people always make.
After that, another early trek out to Glendale to the stadium area. In fact, this time we were so early we got into something better than Johnny Rockets in the Westgate Entertainment District. Whiskey Rose. I’m a big fan of whiskey, so with a name like Whiskey Rose I had to give it a shot. It did not disappoint. A couple of pre-game bourbons to calm the nerves definitely helped.
For the game, I wore my “The Dean of College Basketball” shirt, featuring a quote on the back about him being a “mentor of men.” A Zags fan at the table beside us asked me to turn so he could read the whole quote. After he read it, he made a comment to which I responded “yes, well, I figured if he couldn’t be in the building, I’d bring him in spirit.” The guy replied, “oh, is he sick?” Sick? Dude, the guy is dead. Once the conversation ended, I turned back to my wife.
Me: “How do you not know Dean Smith is dead?”
Wife: “Maybe he doesn’t follow basketball as closely as you.”
Me: “He’s at the Final Four wearing a Gonzaga shirt. He follows basketball.”
Wife: “Maybe not Carolina basketball.”
Me: “It’s Dean Smith. One of the greatest coaches to ever live. If John Wooden, UCLA legend, were dead, I’d know it.”
Wife: “Is John Wooden dead?”
Me: “I don’t think so.”
Turns out, John Wooden died in 2010, which I now vaguely recall happening. So I forgave the guy. Five or six hours later, the Heels beat his Gonzaga team to win the 2017 national championship, so I’m not sure he’ll forgive me. But I don’t care. National champs, sucka!
Just like in 2016, commemorative Coke cans were passed out post-game. This time they actually had the logo of the winning team (North Carolina) printed on them already. Between my wife and I, we snagged four or five of them. Unfortunately, we had a flight at the crack of dawn the next morning (poor planning, I think we got about three hours of sleep), and since we packed in nothing but carry-ons, I had no way to transport them home. So we tossed all but one can in the trash. That one can, I opened and poured out — no tools to drain it from the bottom the way it should properly have occurred.
Once we were home, I procured another, slightly different looking commemorative can from the grocery store. Then, a few months later (if memory serves), I read an article saying that commemorative BOTTLES were about to be shipped to various retailers in Chapel Hill. So, I set out to find them. I went to the places you’d expect to stock commemorative Coke bottles. Harris Teeter. Walgreens. CVS. Sutton’s. I never found them. I never even found a retailer that knew they existed.
But two weeks ago, as Villanova was in the process of winning another national championship, I randomly searched eBay for a commemorative Coke bottle to ease my pain. Found it. Bought it. Boom.
Carolina Collectibles Description
Lot of items here, so I’ll make the descriptions brief.
The Eric Montross pic is the cream of the crop. Eric is hunched over, hands on his knees, listening to Dean Smith (a man who died five years after John Wooden, FYI) as he coaches. Across his jersey, Montross has scrawled “To David & Kristin, Go Heels! Eric Montross.” My seat locators for both the semifinal and finals are framed with this pic, just like the 2016 seat locator is framed with the Antawn Jamison autographed photo.
The cans from the title game itself as well as the can acquired upon my return home rank about the same. Coke cans. Wish I hadn’t had to open it at the airport to pour out the liquid inside, but it is what it is.
The commemorative Coke bottle? Kind of a let down. First of all, it’s an eight ounce bottle. Second of all, the "national champs" image is not quite as big as I’d have liked.
Carolina Collectibles Comparison: Harrison Barnes
Since I mentioned four separate collectibles in this post, I’ll only do a comparison for one of them. The commemorative Coke bottle.
Much like Harrison Barnes was a highly sought-after recruit who was good but not fantastic during his Carolina career, this Coke bottle was also intensely pursued prior to being obtained. The major difference is we didn’t pay $15 to get Harrison Barnes to commit (I hope). Though I’ve only owned the bottle for a week, I can already tell you that I’ll mention it as a collectible only after mentioning several other more noteworthy collectibles, just like I think of Harrison Barnes only after thinking of several other more noteworthy Carolina players.
Carolina Collectibles Rating: 3 Stars
For all the reasons listed in the thousands of words above.