The Tar Heels and their town
As North Carolina hoops go, so goes Chapel Hill, and now it's a "Distinctive Destination"
TV cameras focus on the players as they stand huddled inside the tunnel leading to the court. One player begins to clap and yell, then another, until they're clapping in unison. Soon they break their circle, forming a line.
The crowd stands, watching the players on the video screens and joining their slow clap. The team runs down the tunnel and onto the court as the cheers crescendo into a roar. The UNC fight song, played by the 75-member band, rings out.
Yes, the Carolina basketball experience has begun ... and it's about to get louder and wilder. Drums will sound while starters are introduced, fans are obliged to "Jump Around" as the tune blasts throughout the Dean Dome and players on the bench show off their best dance moves.
It's the culmination of a strong marriage between the city of Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina and Tar Heels basketball. And the love affair has long attracted the nation's attention.
Last month, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Chapel Hill one of America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations, which, according to the nonprofit organization, "highlights 12 places each year that actively preserve their history and offer different attractions than the typical vacation getaway offers." And for two years running Forbes has ranked UNC No. 1 on its list of Most Valuable College Basketball Teams.
Ask any Chapel Hill residents and they'll tell you taking in a hoops game inside the Dean E. Smith Center sits atop their unique attractions list. While many of the town's 51,000 residents depend on UNC for employment, they also look to the nation's first public university, which opened in 1795, for entertainment, tradition, history and culture ... much of which culminates in Tar Heels basketball excitement.
It doesn't get much more exciting than this week, as the regular season culminates with Saturday's huge game against arch rival Duke at the Dean Dome. (Will it be payback time for the Tar Heels, who on Feb. 9 relinquished a big lead and lost to the Blue Devils in neighboring Durham?)
"The great thing about Chapel Hill is that it's not just the school; it's the town itself," said UNC freshman Eric Wittenstein, an Atlanta native. "It's so immersed in the school spirit. Everywhere you go there are Carolina colors, people cheering on the teams, and it's wonderful."
Clearly, the appeal of the Tar Heels -- proud owners of five NCAA Tournament championship banners -- stretches well beyond the Chapel Hill borders. (From July to October 2010, UNC ranked sixth nationwide in combined collegiate merchandise sales, according to Collegiate Licensing Co. records. Duke ranked 30th.) But what goes on inside this picturesque college town, particularly during hoops season, is what makes it sing.
The main artery of UNC's campus is Franklin Street, perhaps most famous for the celebrations that take place following a big basketball win. It seems that most students, whether hoops fans or not, find their way to Franklin Street after a major victory, according to senior Aaron Taube, a staff member of the Daily Tar Heel student newspaper.
"The national championship night was mind-blowing. I've never been part of such a mass of humanity," said Taube, referring to North Carolina's title game victory in April 2009.
"Everyone was high-fiving, hugging and yelling. We were watching in Morrison Dorm and then sprinted up with everyone from South campus to Franklin Street."
Students spill onto Franklin Street with surprising velocity, whether watching from dorm rooms or nearby bars and restaurants. Top of the Hill is a local favorite that brews its own specialties and boasts an outdoor deck with large TVs. Its fourth-floor deck looks over Franklin Street, so whatever street-level celebration takes place, be it bonfires or mosh pits, can be viewed safely from above.
Ham's, He's Not Here, Spanky's and Pantana Bob's are among the other popular Franklin Street game-watching spots. And a medley of bars in the adjacent town of Carrboro, including Tyler's, Milltown and Southern Rail, has produced hoops-watching hot spots in recent years.
But when it comes to live action on the hardwood, all roads lead to the Dean E. Smith Center, which opened in 1986 to honor UNC's all-time winningest coach while also accommodating a growing fan base. (The Heels' former home, Carmichael Auditorium, hosts the UNC women's games.)
Once inside the Dean Dome one can smell and sample the vendors' barbecue sandwiches and other tasty eats. Carolina colors abound; even the seats and the bathroom stall doors are Tar Heels blue.
The university hands out 6,000 student tickets to each hoops game at the Dean Dome, which seats 21,750. But unlike the home arenas at nearby Duke and North Carolina State, the Smith Center doesn't designate the majority of its lower-level seating to students, which has been a point of contention over the years. Tar Heels fans still remember when former Florida State player Sam Cassell in 1991 criticized the Smith Center atmosphere, calling the Carolina fans a "wine and cheese" crowd.
During the 2000-01 season, a special standing-room-only section for 400 students opened on the baseline closest to the Tar Heels' bench. But with the other student sections scattered around the arena, many feel that's not enough, Taube said.
"There are so many better student sections" at other universities, Taube said. "UNC has such a great, storied tradition and a great program; it should have a great home-court atmosphere. At times, it doesn't."
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill alum Elena Lebetkin agreed.
"Students are only allowed to sit in one small space, but they are the only ones who really cheer," said Lebetkin, 31, of Carrboro, who frequently attends Tar Heels tilts. "As much as I hate Duke, they do it right at Cameron."
Of course, the Tar Heels enjoy unique qualities to boost excitement on game day, such as the drum line, which was added after the 2009 national championship. A new lighting system was installed before last season to allow the lights to be dimmed for player introductions.
Big screens were hung from the four corners of the arena prior to the 2005-06 season, and now an intro video is played (think Tyler Zeller dunking and Harrison Barnes driving the lane) before the live action appears and later where stats and highlights are displayed.
At some point during the second half, the screens light up with a fan-fave video that speaks to Carolina basketball's rich tradition. Players from throughout the years -- Hubert Davis, Raymond Felton, Phil Ford, Tyler Hansborough and Michael Jordan -- sit before a black background and say to the camera, "I am a Tar Heel." The video often elicits some of the loudest cheers of the game.
And expect animated applause in close games. "I love the coordinated cheers," said UNC freshman Emily Bowe, who calls Dallas home. "When someone makes a 3, the roar you hear is unmatched."
UNC has ranked in the top five nationally in home attendance in 23 of the 24 full seasons of the Smith Center's existence, according to university sources. For students, the risers are the hottest ticket; as Bowe pointed out, "those are the tickets that get you on ESPN."
"Being in the student sections, especially down on the risers, the atmosphere ... everyone is so into it," Wittenstein said. "You find yourself cheering all the time; even during timeouts, you're still cheering."
Ultimately, it would seem, most of the town tunes in to UNC, and the game's results often determine the collective mood.
"After we lost to Duke [on Feb. 9], there was this melancholy feeling and Franklin Street was silent," Bowe said. "It's always a little quieter after a loss and that much more rowdy after a win."
"Hardwood Havens" is a series of vignettes that looks at campus experiences on basketball weekends across the country. Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.