We are driving up 15-501 in the pouring April rain, toward the parking snarls of the Smith Center. Though I will be told several times throughout the next four hours that I am a good father – even a “great dad” – for letting my girls experience a Chapel Hill championship night, right now I am a very bad father because as I drive, I am pulling up YouTube on my phone to find UNC’s Kennedy Meeks singing Whitney Houston.
Not singing. Lip-synching. But no less dangerous on 15-501.
Two days ago, Meeks, a burly 6-foot-10-inch senior on UNC’s basketball team, saved the 2017 season by single-handedly willing the Tar Heels past Oregon. He will, it will turn out, do it again tonight versus Gonzaga in the National Championship.
But I am not searching for basketball videos. I’m looking for a video of Meeks from 2014, when he still looked like a roly-poly high school kid – a huge kid, but still a kid – more a threat to a sofa with an Xbox than to Carolina’s basketball lore.
I want to show my girls, 10 and 7, the lip-synch Meeks did during the talent show portion of that year’s Late Night with Roy, the season kickoff for Tar Heel basketball. It was the first night that the stars of this 2017 team, then just freshmen and sophomores, stood together in Carolina blue. As his teammates and perhaps 10,000 fans cheered, Meeks vamped and clutched through Houston’s most pyric of torch songs, “I Will Always Love You.” As Whitney hit the soaring finale, Meeks fell to the floor, twisting on his back as he “sang,” selling out for the music and crowd.
Both of my girls were in the Dean Dome that night, but they don’t remember and I want to spark their memory. It’s a great YouTube video and they laugh, replaying it as we get to UNC’s Craige parking deck. Now they want to know more about Meeks: Is he the best Tar Heel? “No,” I say, “but really important.” Little do I know. We collect our jackets and a bag, take the first of many selfies and head toward the Dome. In line are college kids and moms and dads and a few little kids, all in Carolina blue.
But my girls are jabberboxes, excited at the crowds, the late hour – on a school night! – and the idea that here, for one of their first times, is A Thing They Should Remember. They’ve heard about Franklin Street and the crowds and the craziness, but now they are here, and their eyes dart around under the streetlights as they try to spot where a really good memory might be hiding. It is not supposed to open until 8 p.m., but they take pity on the crowd in the rain and we are through the door by 7:40 p.m. Only in our seats does reality hit – 90 minutes to game time and not much to do. We ate dinner at home to avoid spending money on Smith Center snacks, and I hold firm to that plan for damn near 20 minutes. They tell the man at the concession stand they want the two saltiest pretzels, and he spins the hanger in the case to grab the ones they pick out.
Soon on the big screens, the Tar Heels are warming up and for a solid 5 seconds, the camera finds Meeks. He’s changed since Whitney. His shoulders are solid and his chest now dwarfs his stomach. He is nobody’s high school kid. But as he runs in a warm-up line, he smiles that kid smile, as goofy and endearing and eager to please as the one who “sang” on his back in this building. It’s a smile all kids know, and my girls see it. “There’s Meeks,” says my 7-year-old.
And I wonder: as Meeks casually throws a ball to a teammate and says something unheard that makes them both smile, is he thinking about how, win or lose, this is the last night he’ll trade easy jokes with his friends in a warm-up line? He’s a senior and this is the end, which must have seemed impossibly distant the night he lip-synched Whitney. This is just a split-second in a warm-up drill, but now I’m thinking about the passage of time, how my girls were 7 and 4 for the Whitney night and now they’re 10 and 7, though they won’t be for long. It’s why winning or losing tonight doesn’t weigh on me. The Heels have done me a great favor by reaching this game. I want to watch Meeks on his last night, but much more, I want to watch my girls be, just for this instant, jabbering and wide-eyed and 10 and 7.
The camera lingers another second on Meeks smiling at a teammate. He looks like a kid, having fun. Good sign.
On the big screen, Charles Barkley says Gonzaga is going to win, and as if on cue, the UNC cheerleaders emerge onto the Dean Dome floor. The band starts up and you can’t hear Barkley anymore which is fine. Then the game starts, and it’s just – I mean, it’s always something with this flippin’ team, huh? The Heels’ shooters can’t hit the side of a barn, and Gonzaga, in uniforms that appear bad-guy black on the Smith Center’s screens, look bigger, faster and meaner. At one point, the Zags are up 21-14, one of those scores that means nothing but elicits panic anyway: they have 50% more points than us! A blowout is in the air, and during a time-out, the Dome gets so quiet you can hear every instrument in the band. Even a cymbal keeping time in the fight song, its echo reflecting off the concrete walls, sounds slightly offbeat.
But then Joel Berry, who was just awful two days before, hits a shot and Roy Williams swaps out some players. “Meeks!” my girls both say as he checks in. No smile now.
In fact, as the rest of the team wilts, Berry and Meeks are the only pieces keeping the Tar Heels afloat. Berry is hitting shots, driving the lane, his hands in passing lanes. Over and over, you can feel the dam about to break for Gonzaga, but then Berry slashes into the picture with a drive or shot or pass, demanding the game stay close. Meeks meanwhile has the hardest job of all, matching up against Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga’s 7-foot, heavily bearded man-mountain who grew up, I think, in Westeros fighting dragons (actually Bydgoszcz, Poland). But Meeks leans his heavy body on Karnowski all night, avoids careless fouls and the Gonzaga star misses no less than three simple layups from within a foot or two of the basket. That’s six points, all from Meeks, same as the eventual winning margin.
At halftime, my 7-year-old falls asleep, which is great. She’ll need it.
The second half is more of the same – Carolina makes a run, gives it all back, Gonzaga threatens, recedes. Back and forth. The girls follow the action, cheering for Carolina and especially hard for Meeks.
Without warning, the final seconds are suddenly on us. The crowd switches from hope to agony and my 10-year-old turns around and buries her head in her seat, too nervous to watch.
But Isaiah Hicks – another North Carolina kid like Meeks and Theo Pinson – makes a shot. And on Gonzaga’s last chance, a huge block from – who else? – Meeks turns into a Carolina slam dunk that seals the game.
And when it does, the Dean Dome. Goes. Ballistic. I’m suddenly jumping in the air, yelling like a child, “We’re gonna win!” I’m aware how silly I sound, yet I can’t stop. My 10-year-old is euphoric, the 7-year-old terrified. She’s never heard anything this loud. I’m not sure I have.
Students storm the floor and we run down to join, jumping around (to the tune, appropriately, of “Jump Around”). Then, all together, we sprint for the exits, streaming out into the night toward Franklin Street. It’s a long way, but the rain is gone, leaving just clean night air and people are walking, running, cheering and yelling, and soon enough we’re there, honing in on the steeple of the University United Methodist Church until we break onto Franklin half a block from Columbia. The newspaper will say 55,000. Sounds right. Lit by flood lights, the crowd is almost crushing. We wade into it, take pictures, climb windowsills and handrails, take more selfies. The girls get high-fives from frat boys and murmurs of “so cute!” from college girls. But after 20 minutes, we’ve seen enough. It’s a powerful, fun crowd, without an ounce of menace or trouble, but it can still swallow a 4-footer in an instant, so we wave at the Top of the Hill revelers and head back.
It might be years before Chapel Hill gets another championship night, or perhaps life will take my family out of town all together and our kids will grow up fans of some far-off Bulldogs or Trojans or perhaps no team at all. But as we drive, they are both passed out in the backseat and I know the insane, happy scenes of Franklin Street and the Dean Dome will stick for a very long time, memories they’ll know could only be from Chapel Hill.
And of course there’s Meeks. Like the song says, Kennedy – they will always love you.