March 7, 1986:
I kept telling myself not to be nervous on the short drive from Burlington to Greensboro. It wasn’t working.
Stupid I know. After all, I was only going to a basketball game — well, four basketball games really. No big deal. Not at all.
I got up early that Friday morning after a night of inconsequential sleep. I tried to picture in my head what would happen that day — the opening round of the 1986 ACC Tournament. It would be my first visit to the sports event that was such a central part of my growing up — probably the reason I had always wanted to be a sports writer or broadcaster in the first place. I waited my whole life to be in this position. I was 26 years old.
And damn, I was nervous. That was the last thing I wanted.
I had joined the staff of the Burlington Times-News a couple of years before, signed on as the person in charge of covering high school sports on our staff of four. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. Instead I saw myself going to games in Carmichael Auditorium, Reynolds Coliseum, Cameron Indoor Stadium and the place I was headed on March 7 — the Greensboro Coliseum. Things hadn’t really worked out that way, not yet anyway. But I figured it would. How could it not? I was good at my job and willing to work hard. After paying my required dues I would one day travel the world like those guys at Sports Illustrated and cover all the things I dreamed about.
This, in fact, would almost certainly be the first of many ACC Tournaments. I was sure of it.
As I drove to Greensboro to meet my friend and colleague Lee Patterson, I played in my head the assignments for what was then the long Day One. I had agreed to supply a feature story for page A1 on whatever I could find to write about in the concourse or parking lot. I settled on ticket scalping. Lee was going to take the noon game between top seeded Duke — coach K’s first really good Blue Devils team with Mark Alarie, Johnny Dawkins, Tommy Amaker and Jay Bilas — and bottom-feeding Wake Forest, which had Muggsy Bogues and little else. Take that pun for what it’s worth. The Bob Staak era at Wake was like that.
We arrived at the Greensboro Coliseum early, while the Krispy Kreme doughnuts were still hot and just in time to listen to famed basketball announcer Billy Packer loudly and profanely berate a rental car customer rep on a phone near the long tables we selected as our makeshift desks for the day. Lee and I plugged in our Trash-80 Radio Shack “Typo-matic” computers for use later in the day. You always had to keep those things well charged. Lee went looking for his dad, who was in the Wake Forest athletic department. I wandered to the parking lot to track down information for the feature.
When we returned to our computers we found that a writer from the Gaston Gazette had unplugged our machines and plugged in his own. “Listen asshole …” I began, before then-Gazette sports editor David Poole lurched over and tried to smooth over the situation. After all, as he pointed out, we were owned by the same company. Stands to reason we could work together.
I wasn’t sold in the least. Still, they kept their places beside us, and didn’t touch our machines again. But every time I lit a cigarette the rest of the day, the Gazette writer would cough weakly the entire time it was smoldering. I made sure to blow smoke in his direction whenever possible. It was my policy back then to always be part of the problem and not the solution.
Ahh, to be involved in a adult professional environment.
That — and the occasional sports celebrity sighting (look, there’s Jerry West! Hey, is that Oscar Robertson?) — provided the most excitement for the first couple of hours. I filed my A1 feature then sat with Lee as we watched Duke blitz Wake, a team that featured a starting center who was a med school student the coach recruited from an intramural team. He wrote his story as I settled in to watch and cover game two, N.C. State vs. Virginia. It was a tight game, ultimately won by the ‘Hoos when the Wolfpack’s Bennie Bolton couldn’t drain a shot near the end. At least I think that’s what went down. I only remember that after the game I got to the NCSU lockerroom a little late and Bolton was rightly exasperated at having to go through all the questions again for some shaggy sports writer. I’ll certainly concede that I might be conflating a memory here.
The game, though, got the tournament back on track after the soul-numbing opener. It’s the kind of tight finish the tournament’s rep was built upon all those years.
With notes from the rather colorful and profane press conference featuring N.C. State coach Jim Valvano, I retreated back to the press room to wrap that story and finish the first set of blurbs for a notes package. We sent our stories via modems attached like cups to the receiver of a telephone then transmitted over a phone line causing a buzzing noise that sounded like a thousand locusts were being tortured.
Speaking of locusts, in between the afternoon and night sessions, the ACC brought in barbecue to feed the working media. In a story I’ve told often, this was when I first encountered ESPN color analyst Dick Vitale. He came into the press room dragging a reluctant Oscar Robertson behind him, bellowing, “I saw this man play in Madison Square Garden in …” the rest of his monologue is lost to memory but he ended with “Go ahead Big O and make yourself a sandwich!”
Lee drew the next game, which turned out to be a real yawner between Georgia Tech and Clemson. The Tigers had Horace Grant — but the Yellow Jackets had a whole lot more in Mark Price, John Salley and Tom Hammonds. It was a rout. Lee drew the short straw on games that Friday.
That left me with the nightcap and what shaped up as a pretty good one. A UNC team with Kenny Smith and Brad Daugherty was taking on Maryland with Len Bias and coached by Lefty Driesell. And from the start Maryland let the Tar Heels know it would be a streetfight only without conventional weapons.
Bias, who would be dead in three months from cocaine intoxication, always gave Dean Smith’s Tar Heels a third-degree migraine headache and was especially effective at what Lefty liked to call “nut-cuttin’” time. But on this Friday night, he also had some help. One play stands out because it happened underneath one basket, right in front of press row where our seats were that night. Kenny Smith saw an avenue to the basket and tried to take it to the rim. As he went up in the air, Maryland forward Derrick Lewis blocked the shot, and sent Smith the floor hard right in front of me. Lewis looked down at Smith with disdain and said loudly, “Don’t be bringing that weak shit in here again, motherfucker.” Daugherty grabbed Lewis, Bias grabbed Daugherty and a fight nearly broke out.
The Tar Heels were never the same and fell going away, 85-75.
Night games at the ACC Tournament always end late and this one closed just after 11:30 p.m. That gave me 30 minutes to get back to the pressroom, start writing and hopefully have Lee get a quote or two from the lockerroom to put in my story before I sent it to the office for my midnight deadline.
I was stoked and just a little anxious. Could I pull this off?
Within minutes of the game’s end I was writing up a storm. I typed without stopping, stringing together a lead followed by four to five graphs of analysis and observation — and then I really got going. I wrote without fear or pressure or even much thought beyond what I had just witnessed on the court — a stunning upset of a top 10 team in a tournament it expected to play until reaching the final against its bitter rival, Duke. I wrote without consciousness or remorse. I had no time for second thoughts or revisions. Editing was going to be someone else’s problem.
Damn that was liberating.
At some point I realized that Lee was back at my side, notebook open, with quotes if I wanted them. I noted the time and saw I had typed 15 minutes straight without stopping. At some point, I lost track of time. The keyboard was an extension of my fingers.
Lee fed me a couple of quotes. Oddly enough, I knew exactly where the words needed to go. Didn’t even have to think about it. A minute or two later, I attached the cups and transmitted my story through the hordes of screaming locusts.
It was 12:05 a.m. Not bad. I remember thinking it might be the best thing I had ever written.
As we packed to leave, I felt pretty good about the day. It was long, trying and sometimes tense. But that last part, writing on raw emotion on deadline, was the coolest thing ever. I wondered if that might be a little of what it’s like when athletes get in what they call “the zone.”
I wasn’t sure then. I’m still not. I just know that I never felt anything like that before. I wanted to do it again and again.
I don’t have a copy of the story I wrote that night. It was placed in a clip file that’s no longer around. I didn’t keep one for myself, either. I figured to be covering a lot more ACC Tournaments before my career was through so who needed to hang on to that story? There would be dozens of others, fueled by that wonderfully intoxicating adrenaline-infused state. I would get there at other great venues, too: Augusta National, Yankee Stadium, Lambeau Field … this would be my life.
I haven’t read that UNC-Maryland story in decades. Time and experience tell me today that it could never be as stupendous as I thought it was that night, when everything came together in one crystallized moment where time lost all meaning. I wonder now if it happened at all.
It would be easy to go and find it on microfilm at the library. But I won’t. I’m afraid of what might actually be there. it could really suck but I want it to be as good as I believed it to be that night in Greensboro Coliseum — the night I covered the ACC Tournament for the first and only time.