Yesterday, I had one of those surreal moments when something really exciting happens, but then after that moment passes you aren't sure if it happened at all. I was playing weiqi (围棋) with one of my friends in the Pit, which is the heart of UNC-Chapel Hill campus culture, after my last class of the day. A pomegranate Jamba Juice smoothie in hand, I was contemplating my next move when Kendall Marshall emerged from around the corner.
It is not news that, following the Tar Heels' defeat in the Elite Eight and a short but intense period of fans waiting for an answer, Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall and John Henson all decided to enter the NBA draft. In fact, they announced their decisions yesterday, right before Marshall walked through the Pit, and I didn't even know the waiting game had been over until after he left and my friends told me.
When I looked up and saw the tall, looming figure of Marshall walking in our direction clutching his own large Jamba Juice smoothie, I glanced at my friends with a sort of shocked, panic-stricken look on my face and then scrambled to my feet.
I think I said something along the lines of, "I'd like to introduce myself. I'm Wendy," and then asked him how his day was after shaking his hand. There's no telling how often this happens to him on a daily basis, but Marshall introduced himself (I think? Again, it happened so quickly) and seemed pretty cool with all of this. And then, I told him that we were all extremely proud of him and what he had done for us this year. He thanked me with a smile, and I requested to take a photo with him.
This was honestly the most exciting moment of the entire year for me so far. I never would have thought that I'd be lucky enough to meet one of the Tar Heels' best basketball players, much less get to talk to him and tell him how much he means to the Carolina community. Because even though there are a ton of local, state and national fans who are upset with Barnes', Marshall's, and Henson's decision to leave UNC-CH, I think inside all of us are proud of the way they have represented Carolina during their time here.
Here is a confession: I didn't even know what Harrison Barnes looked like last year, or what our coach's name was (I know now, Roy). As a freshman, I still didn't really feel like I belonged at Carolina, much less care about UNC sports. It wasn't until this year, when I went to my very first basketball game and we won against Georgia Tech, that I learned my first lesson: Basketball isn't just about basketball.
It's not just about how the crowd roars when Barnes catches a rebound or when Tyler Zeller makes a slam dunk. It's not just about the ominous cheers of Go to hell Dook! or I'm a Tar Heel born, I'm a Tar Heel bred, and when I die I'm a Tar Heel dead. And, believe it or not, it's not just about winning. It's about all of this taken together, and when the clock strikes 0:00 and the crowd rushes the court, it's about everything the team has done to get to that point. It's about how hard the Tar Heels have worked to get to where they are now.
We may not have won the NCAA tournament this year, but Carolina is still number one--and not just for the sports. I became hooked onto UNC Basketball this year after I realized how well our team members know each other--both on and off the court. Marshall was a good sport in deciding not to play in the Elite Eight due to his wrist injury, and I have seen the players be nothing but supportive of each other this entire season. In the end, it was the team's remarkably effective communication and clever strategies (aka Roy's coaching) that led us to beat Duke by 18 points earlier this month. And really, what else matters?
Carolina won 88-70.
Many--but not everyone--see this move by Barnes, Henson and Marshall as quitting, but I don't see it that way. Don't get me wrong--I am also pretty disappointed that I won't be able to see these big three lead us to incredible wins next year. And I may still be a newbie to UNC sports culture, but if there's anything I know it's this: If you have the determination to go for your dreams and do what you think is best for yourself even when everyone else is telling you otherwise, then that says something. Our team did the best it could with the time and resources given to the players and despite the injuries. We've won five NCAA championships, including the 2009 tourny, and this sounds blasphemous, but we don't need to win every single year.
Barnes, Henson and Marshall are all moving on to bigger dreams. We should too.
And anyhow, who says UNC-Chapel Hill can't win next year? If anything, their departure will give way to a brand new team with fresh, talented players ready to make 2012-2013 our year. I see you, McAdoo and Strickland. We're counting on y'all to make some Carolina blue magic happen on the court. No pressure or anything.
Thanks to Barnes, Henson, Marshall and Zeller for making me truly feel like I belong here as a UNC student and as a Tar Heel fan this year. We will miss them, but I have a feeling we'll be seeing them a lot on television. Besides, they'll be back to visit--like Kendall Marshall said, he will always be a Tar Heel at heart.