The Carrier in Context

I have had as many as three different reactions to upcoming Carrier Classic, wherein my alma mater’s Tar Heels will play the Michigan States Spartans on the Nimitz Class aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson.  My first reaction was that this is, in family-friendly terms, the most thoroughly and completely rad thing I have ever heard in my short time on earth. It is a title game rematch. On a nuclear powered boat. That weighs more than 100,000 tons—not pounds, tons. It has a flight deck larger than four square acres. They dumped Osama Bin Laden off of this boat! This is like the basketball equivalent of getting a tattoo of an eagle on a motorcycle jumping over a flaming guitar draped in an American flag. This is Epic Meal Time wrapped around a laser beam being carried by a fireman. I mean, really. An aircraft carrier!

My second reaction, and the reaction that I’m sure is mostly likely to proliferate during the game and in commentary about it, is that this is a nice way for service members to be appreciated on Veterans Day, a fun way for 30 college kids to gain some perspective and give some brave men and women a good story. All in all, a well thought out win for both parties.

To explain my third reaction, please allow me a brief digression to tell you about some memories I have of Chapel Hill.

On the evening of March 8, 2009, I was powerwalking across UNC’s campus, trying not to work up too hard a sweat and trying not to gag while I guzzled down the three Trader Joe’s beers I had stuffed into my jacket pockets. I was on my way from some meeting I’d had to be at, headed for a bar called P.T.’s to watch the Heels play Duke at Cameron Indoor.  My girlfriend, whom I’d been dating for about a month, had gotten to the bar at around 3:00 that afternoon with some of her friends to reserve seats in the first row in front of the biggest screen. I got to the bar and slipped on someone else’s wristband while Danny Green was still dancing during “Jump Around.” I’d like to say I remember everything about that game. I’d like to say I remember that Carolina was down at the half, that I recall the Kyle Singler elbow that woke Tyler Hansbrough and the rest of the team up, but I can’t. Those moments I remember from rewatching the game later.

What I do remember from that night is how I felt there in P.T.’s, that ecstatic focus, that joyous forgetting of self that the luckiest of us can all tie to the best moments with their team, that unity of feeling among a group of people that makes you think all that best-years-of-your-life nonsense is true, that you and that dude with the bowl cut and the Topsiders and the critter pants share something deep. I remember rushing Franklin Street, my girlfriend’s coral skirt and blue sweater ahead of me in the mass of people headed for the intersection with Columbia. I know moments like this, while lucky, aren’t that unique—they are, in fact, the whole reason anyone invests in a sports team in the first place—but this was my version of the moment that every fan carries in their pocket forever, a reminder that maybe there is still some reason for faith in the collective experience.

A few hours before midnight on May 1, 2011, two days before my 22nd birthday, I was in the bar He’s Not Here, about half a block from the intersection of Franklin and Columbia. It was my last semester of college, and I was mired in the characteristically adolescent feeling of preemptive nostalgia that comes with that time. On a dare, I was on the karaoke mic singing Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” while a few of my friends laughed and filmed it. Immediately after I finished, three sheets to the wind, grasping after my friends iPhone’s, the bar’s televisions were changed and President Obama announced that the U.S. government had successfully carried out a plan to kill Osama Bin Laden. The bar was quiet for a moment. My goofy buzz faded. Cheers began erupting throughout the place. A chant of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” broke out. My friends and I left. I was, frankly, a little disgusted with any kind of cheering over an assassination, however justified and however ethical it might have been. I bickered with one of my friends about this as we left the bar. As we walked past Franklin and Columbia, people were pouring onto the streets, or hanging over railings from the second floor, screaming the “U.S.A!” chant. I felt cacophonous with the sudden change in moods, with the distance I felt, at that same intersection where I’d celebrated two years before, from that old sense of collective. The next day, the USS Carl Vinson dumped Osama Bin Laden’s body in the Mediterranean Sea.

We have all read about how the NCAA is in crisis. Agents, cash, runners, one-and-dones, AAU ball—it’s getting to be a tired story. To my mind, the success of college basketball, the lifeblood of the NCAA, is that it has succeeded for so long in keeping “the outside” out. There are still the moralistic cults of personality that have been dropping like flies in football—Roy Williams is still going to say shucks, Coach K is still going to get untalented and unattractive kids from New Jersey to play otherworldly defense.  There is still the fetishization of hustle, of boyishness, of Danny Green dancing around before tip-off, of Adam Morrison in preteen’s grief at center court. It is, I’m saying, a big testament to the intensity and unselfconsciousness of youth, and it is being eaten away, in the minds of the purists, by crass, market-driven, adult concerns.  We want to build a bubble and talk about these players as “kids,” we want to believe that these one shining moments are all they care about, and we have been disillusioned an in some cases enraged to find that narrative polluted. I think this is because the youthfulness we have ascribed to the archetypal college ball player is so relatable that we fear losing it. I marvel at Michael Jordan because I could never be that kinds of machine; I love Tyler Hansbrough because I understand what is to be young and to feel an elevated sense of stakes, to feel that if I just wanted a little harder, I could accomplish everything that I wanted.

I am not the sort of purist I allude to. I do not place any sanctity on amateur status, or “the right way to play.” I do, however, place a great deal on that instinctive joy I felt in 2009 at the corner of Franklin and Columbia. For me, college basketball gets at what I might love about sports better than any other sport could.  In the way some viewers want to guard the game from financial influence, I want to guard it from that feeling I had in 2011 at that same corner, that divided, roiling uncertainty that seems to deny why I connected so much to the Heels in the first place.

College basketball, really, is about celebrating the state of pre-awareness that everybody can recall sharing, about enjoying potential and energy that have not been filtered by the professional world. And so, my final reaction to Carrier Classic is uneasy awareness that what will take place on Friday night is just a basketball game.