After that debacle within Carter-Finley last weekend, the timing for this just seems eerily appropriate, especially since I’m not at all hopeful about the upcoming basketball season. My original intent was a more comprehensive basketball retrospective similar to the one I did for football back in the summer. But I decided that nothing good can come from anything like that for basketball. Instead, this is a trimmed-down version of an idea I began work on awhile back – a brief introspective on enduring the State fan experience (the embedded links fill in some of the gaps along the way).
This is really nothing more than another attempt in a continuing process to unravel that eternal mystery: Why am I a State fan?
Resplendent it hung, with a white border and white block letters emblazoned against a bright red background: 2003 ACC Champions.
Even though it had been 16 long, grueling years since our last conference title in 1987, a period of time nearly twice as long as our previous gap of nine years between 1974 and 1983, this was hardly uncharted territory for us. State had won 10 of the ACC’s 49 championships to date, and we had played for, but lost, the championship in 1997 and then again the previous year in 2002.
This year was different. 1997 had been nothing beyond a feel-good Cinderella story about a young and thin, inexperienced and overmatched group that left every ounce of its heart on that Greensboro Coliseum floor over a long weekend and in turn renewed our hope that we had finally reversed that unyielding freefall into the depths of despair. But that wouldn’t happen until five more torturous years later, in 2002, when after 11 years of futility, State finally played its way back into March Madness by beating Virginia and then eventual National Champion Maryland en route to a 30-point blowout loss to Duke in the ACC Championship game in Charlotte.
But unlike those two previous teams in 1997 and 2002, in 2003 it wasn’t about renewing hope or fighting for respect. Even though we’d finished the regular season at a mediocre 16-11 and had stumbled into the tournament in Greensboro after winning only four of our final nine conference games, we defeated Georgia Tech and then ninth-ranked Wake Forest en route to the championship game, and this was a team that matched up well against Duke, with whom we’d split the regular season series.
And it was right around three o’clock that Sunday afternoon on March 16, 2003, when I’d already hung that glorious banner from the RBC Center rafters. I’d endured and somehow survived not just the 90s, but four seasons in college with exactly one combined win over Duke and Carolina. And now, after leading 38-36 with 17:12 remaining, Josh Powell sparked a 15-2 run over the next 4:48, capped by his three-pointer with 11:44 remaining to push the lead to a comfortable 55-40.
I had earned this.
I can’t explain why, but I found myself thinking back to my junior year in the fall of 1999, long before the internet was a regular, inseparable part of my life. In those days I checked ESPN.com in the Mann Hall computer lab between classes, but mostly I still relied on the N&O, Athlon, and The ACC Handbook for my preseason previews. By all indications, 2000 was supposed to have marked the end of our long, steep climb back to respectability. I remember that Athlon had called Damon Thornton, Kenny Inge, and Ron Kelley the nation’s best frontcourt, while Anthony Grundy and Justin Gainey, along with Archie Miller, anchored a very solid backcourt; most promising, though, was that we had landed Damien Wilkins (a.k.a., the next David Thompson).
After an encouraging 5-3 start in the conference – January included one particularly miserable weekday afternoon performance at Clemson the day after The Blizzard, but then one particularly impressive statement in a 92-88 overtime loss in Cameron – the wheels derailed and it quickly became an absolute train wreck. Starting with Thornton’s technical at Maryland, State went 0-for-February, losing seven straight before recovering in March on Senior Day against Florida State – this was the game when senior Tim Wells didn’t even play, even though he’d been nothing less than a fine representative of the program and had certainly earned the honor of, if nothing else, at least a token start on his Senior Day – for a 6-10, sixth-place finish and Sendek’s fourth straight NIT.
1993 and 1995 had been abysmal, sure, but February 2000 began the lowest stretch of time for a program’s once-proud yet fleeting basketball tradition. Many of us had thought after 2000 the timing was suitable to go after Rick Barnes, who we inherently believed wanted to be our coach and who many of us believed should have gotten a call back in 1996. Instead, after 2000 Herb Sendek got a raise and an extension and Rick Barnes never got a call.
Then after 2001, with Inge, Kelley, Thornton, Miller, Grundy, Cliff Crawford, and most notably, the NBA-pedigree Wilkins, all having returned, there was no rational explanation that this team picked to finish third instead finished 5-11 in the conference and 13-16 overall, and failed to even make the NIT. We’d never been further from our 11th ACC title – or even beating Duke and Carolina – and by then there had long-since developed a stark, wide schism among the fan base, which was highlighted by persistent and generally furious infighting. By April 2001, this era was finally defined for the vocal minority among us, firmly entrenched along that lunatic fringe, after Wilkins was dismissed from the team.
Wilkins is the primary reason that I pay almost zero attention to recruiting. Beyond its fickle nature, recruiting has become bigger than the game itself, and there’s no logical argument for why a coach’s tenure should be extended because of a recruiting class. My reasoning is simple: a bad coach can recruit well and win some games based on that talent alone, but I dare you to argue that John Wall would have made Sidney Lowe a better coach, because you’d be wrong.
Wilkins arrived at State in 1999 with great promise and even greater expectations by those of us in desperate need of a legend to revive the program. But – whether it was the system or his lack of talent, doesn’t really matter – he’d never measured up to his promise, averaging only 11.6 points per game over two seasons, while his play grew increasingly lethargic during the final few weeks of 2001. What unfolded after the season that spring was an embarrassing drama: Wilkins’ father Gerald publicly criticized Sendek’s system for limiting his son’s potential, while Damien made the ill-advised decision to not only gauge his NBA draft stock, but he also made it public that he was considering a transfer unless Sendek would make certain assurances about his role on the team if he withdrew from the draft. Wilkins’ drama was a cancer and Sendek made the right decision to dismiss him from the team (to be fair, I supported that decision primarily because I thought there was no way Sendek could survive it).
But two years later on that Sunday afternoon in March 2003, Damien Wilkins was at Georgia and Rick Barnes was still at Texas, and none of that mattered to me because all of our shots were falling and all of Duke’s were clanking. We were reaping hell upon them for every missed shot and every turnover. I was convinced that nothing on this beautiful day could stand in the way of our rightful return to the top of the ACC.
But for those of you – like me – that don’t need the “NC” to know which State we’re talking about and remember when Tuffy still wore a sweater and needed a trim, and are intimately familiar with the frustration of State basketball after the Valvano Era, you should’ve known better. Because ours is a story of tragedy as much as it is endurance.
Within less than a minute after our largest lead of the game, Powell and Julius Hodge each picked up their fourth fouls. And then, like so many times before, those damned Duke Blue Devils capitalized. Down the stretch, State had six turnovers and missed 11 shots; Mike Krzyzewski outcoached Herb Sendek; and J.J. Redick nailed four three-pointers and added six free throws to seal the 2003 ACC Championship for Duke, 84-77.
I was numb, choked with anger and disappointment – not with the team or Sendek or even the several questionable calls that never went our way, but with myself. I had to be the only State fan alive that with 11:44 remaining that awful afternoon didn’t see that loss coming. I wanted nothing more than to smother myself with that ridiculous banner.
Seriously, I’d been around long enough to know better.
For those of us that have never been anything but a State fan, that ACC Championship game in 2003 serves as the perfect microcosm of the State fan experience. Our rich history is simply that – history. While Carolina and Duke keep winning titles, we’ve been reduced to a tragic loop of hope then despair. For every Julius Hodge buzzer-beater against UConn in the 2005 East Regional in Worcester, there’s a Matt Freije 11-point barrage over the final four minutes to end our season in the 2004 West Regional in Phoenix. For every improbable win over Duke in the 1997 or 2007 ACC Tournament, there waits those Bastards Born & Bred to stop us on Sunday. For every March 2006 when we have hope for a new era, there is an April 2006 to remind us that era will never arrive – we can’t even hire a coach the right way; instead, we wind up with the only guy that didn’t say no.
Unfortunately for us, the N.C. State Saga is no longer one of prevailing triumph or retribution. Rather, it’s really nothing beyond a grim portrait of dogged perseverance by a fan base that should’ve long ago surrendered, but somehow, defiantly almost, holds on to that stubborn hope – “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up” – instilled into us during a bygone era in which far too many of us weren’t even alive to remember.
Like after so many losses before and since, I swore off State basketball that March afternoon in 2003. Every loss is my last game and after every March ends the same way, I swear I’m through with State basketball. And yet, I haven’t missed many games over the years. And that’s why, even though the past two decades of State basketball have delivered little beyond brief moments of reprieve, I’ll still be tuned in for the Glenn Wilkes Classic – the what? – for that first game next month.
Look, I might be a bad fan, but I’ve never been anything other than loyal, to a fault.
Hey, I don’t get it, either.