Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Updated: March 7, 10:59 PM ET
Dean E. Smith Center (continued)
Special to ESPN SportsTravel
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Hubert Davis, a former UNC player and now a broadcaster for ESPN's "College GameDay," said Carolina crowds are a far cry from the ones at Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse, Michigan or Indiana.
"The first time I went there [Kansas], it was unbelievable. They are chanting, standing and screaming for 3½ hours, even an hour before the game," said Davis, who resides in Chapel Hill with his wife and kids.
"I came back to Chapel Hill and I saw Coach Williams, and he said, 'How'd you like Kansas?' And I said, 'Coach, I apologize, but that's the best atmosphere I've ever seen.'"
Davis believes that if more students were to sit closer to the floor, the entire crowd would be louder. However, Lucas points out the students rarely use all the tickets allocated to them, except for major ACC games, so there's no guarantee that closer seats would up the volume.
The Tar Heel Blue staff researched what percentage of seats was given to students in relation to the total student population as compared with the rest of the ACC.
As Lucas wrote in 2008, "The Smith Center officially seats 21,750. Of that total, 6,000 seats (27.6 percent) are committed to students; that places the Tar Heels in the top third of the league in terms of student seats. Simply in terms of the total, it's 1,600 more than the next closest school."
Tar Heel Blue also found that Carolina is the leader among public schools in terms of the percentage of students who have the ability to attend games.
"Carolina's numbers are especially impressive when you consider the enormous alumni base that lives within driving distance of the Smith Center and would love to attend games," Lucas wrote. "It would be very easy (and more profitable) for the UNC administration to reduce student seats to accommodate the alums. The fact that they haven't is one of the advantages of the Smith Center most people never think about."
With one minute and 10 seconds left to play in the first half of the Boston College game and the Heels down by one point, UNC forward Will Graves beckoned to the crowd, urging the fans to stand. On this night, UNC basketball alums Sean May, Raymond Felton and Marvin Williams were in attendance. The crowd gave the team a standing ovation. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, his wife, Elizabeth, and their children also were spotted in the crowd. Senior point guard Ty Lawson scored his 1,000th point in the first half, becoming the 62nd player in UNC history to do so.
At halftime, I headed up to the concourse to sample the eats. Like most college basketball arenas, the Smith Center offers the typical fare: candy, crackerjacks, hot dogs, popcorn, nachos, pizza, peanuts, pretzels, soda and water. I opted for the $5 barbecue sandwich (North Carolina-style, of course), which was surprisingly delicious. The line for frozen lemonade and ice cream was fairly long. Also crowded were memorabilia stations, which feature everything from hats to mini-cheerleader outfits.
At the start of the second half, the crowd clearly was anxious. When the refs called a foul on UNC freshman big man Ed Davis with 14:10 remaining, boos reigned down. At the 11:46 timeout, the Blue Brothers impersonators (a home-game staple for years) ran onto the court as the band played. Both are tall and skinny, so not quite like the original Blues Brothers duo of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. Still, the crowd was entertained by their synchronized dance.
With 10:30 to play and the Heels down by 10, the crowd rallied with loud cheers. It tried again at 9:50, but the Tar Heels still struggled to score; subsequent game stories called the Carolina team sluggish. When Wayne Ellington scored a layup at the six-minute mark to put the Heels within nine points, the stadium was the loudest of the night
until 1:14 to go, when the Heels cut the Eagles' lead to four, and even the NBA stars were standing. But BC scored again, and the crowd quieted as the possibility of a loss became a realization. At the 6.8-second mark, fans flooded toward the exits. UNC lost 92-89.
But, should a fan attending a game not be happy with the outcome, all is not lost. One of the newest and biggest draws to the Smith Center is the adjacent Carolina Basketball Museum, also designed by the firm of Corley Redfoot Zack and dedicated Jan. 18, 2008. The only problem I saw with the impressive $3.4 million museum is parking: A mere 10 metered visitor parking spaces are allocated across the street (25 cents for 12 minutes of parking) and weren't easy to find. Save your quarters and plan to visit the museum, if possible, on a non-game day. (It's open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.)
Allow at least two hours for a full tour, kicked off by a six-minute video presentation highlighted by interviews with Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Phil Ford and Sean May, to name a few. Inside, one can watch numerous videos narrated by famous names such as Jim Nantz and actor/UNC alumnus Billy Crudup, view the 450 artifacts inside numerous displays and 40 cases of memorabilia -- everything from national championship trophies to the evolution of UNC uniforms to May's game shoes.
You can read Smith's letter of instruction to Worthy explaining the aspects of his game he needed to work on during the summer or bios of all the past coaches. Even the floor, which is laid out like a basketball court, is filled with historic moments in Carolina basketball. "The museum is simply off the charts," said Roy Williams, who along with Smith was one of the first visitors to walk through.
"I think it's the best museum from any university or basketball program anywhere," Davis said. He pointed out that on his first tour of the facility, he found the spot marked on the court floor where his uncle, Walter Davis, hit a famous basket while playing for the Tar Heels. Much of the museum, particularly the video montages, highlights what almost every player talked about: the Carolina basketball family.
"I definitely feel like no matter what city I go to, anybody that has played for Carolina, we just have this brotherhood," Marvin Williams said. "Even though I was only there one year, I am treated the same as a player that was there for four years."
It's a brotherhood that, coupled with Carolina nostalgia, carries itself into the NBA for players past and present.
"When you're gone, you miss it," Jamison said. "For me, those were the best three years as far as playing and the friendships I made. You are a part of all of that history, and it's a great feeling."
And while other schools' basketball programs certainly have had their historic moments, UNC in Chapel Hill clearly has provided an impressive bond among its players.
"When I played professionally, I played on six different teams, and on every team there would undoubtedly be a player who'd say, 'Why do you guys always go back to Carolina? What is it about that place?'" Montross said. He lives with his family in Chapel Hill and hosts an annual Father's Day basketball camp at the Smith Center to benefit the North Carolina Children's Hospital.
"I don't know how it is at other schools, but I will say this: Other schools cannot beat how close we are as a family," Davis said. "I think what's great about the relationships is it's not just the players we play with. I'm great friends with Eric Montross, Pete Chilcutt, King Rice, but I'm also great friends with Jonathan Holmes, Brian Morrison, Brendan Haywood. It's as if we played on the same team. If you've been in this program, it's one of your brothers."
That also carries over to whether they played in Carmichael or the Smith Center. Most fans seem content with the current digs (not to mention that UNC has a winning percentage of better than 80 percent at home). The overwhelming sea of blue, filled with historical reminders, is a site to behold.
Should you find yourself inspired to search for tickets to take in a game at the Smith Center, go for it. (Note: Because parking is a challenge, take any of the available shuttles that arrive at the Smith Center from various spots around Chapel Hill.) And if you can somehow attend a UNC-Duke game, you will be one of the lucky ones. Just make sure to cheer loud once inside -- and perhaps you'll change the crowd's reputation even on days when the Tar Heels aren't playing their rivals from down the road.