I've just wandered through the toughest emotional hurdle of my senior year at N.C. State, one I put on par with all the others. And the quandary, of course, is being a born-again sports fan wearing Wolfpack Red.
When I was a kid, sports were my life. I could spit out stats and playoff scenarios. In a time when my allegiances shifted with the uniform Jose Canseco was wearing, books filled with baseball lore, history and biographies were my dearest textbooks. My parents supported the habit, too, taking my brother and me to Baltimore to watch another hero--Cal Ripken Jr. --make his way to the 2,131 game mark, while my grandmother let me play hooky as long as I started "feeling better" soon enough to eat lunch and go baseball-card shopping in Fuquay.
Then came Bill Clinton's bid for the White House in fourth grade, and I became obsessed with politics through habitual reading of Time magazine. That hobby competed with girls as my middle school preoccupation, until it was overwhelmed in ninth grade by music. (That is, I stopped caring about Time. I still like girls just fine. My e-mail address is in the masthead, ladies.)
As I sought out all the music I could get my ears around, sports seemed to slip a bit more into the background with each new school year. I went to basketball and football games as a college freshman, though, perhaps more excited with the idea of sitting in the student section than watching the action itself. For that reason, my attendance approached nil until the night I stormed the RBC Center floor after Julius Hodge and Marcus Melvin dropped 18 apiece against Duke to thwart J.J. Redick's 28.
Since then, I've been hooked. I made it to every men's home game except three this year. Like most of the student body, I was high on expectations when we reached the 10th spot in national polls. There were faint whispers of phrases like "national championship" amid a deafening roar of declarations like, "We'll beat Carolina at least once, and we can definitely handle Duke this year." After an away loss to a charged Washington, though, the slow wash into basketball burnout began.
Sunday night at the RBC Center was the crescendo, the devastating, orchestrated pop at the end of a sad-bastard symphony of college hoops gone sour. It was going to be so perfect: With three minutes left on the Senior Night of Julius Hodge and (my favorite) Jordan Collins, we were up nine. The No. 4 Demon Deacons were in our house, and--with a smattering of their stupidly tie-dye clad fans in attendance--they were going down. We were planning our court entrance routes, systematically zipping wallets, cell phones and cameras into coats. We were yelling, screaming, shouting, telling Chris Paul we would get him back for punching our boy, Julius Hodge, in his crown jewels.
Then Justin Gray and Chris Paul made fools of us all. With 12.8 seconds left, Gray arched a nothing-but-net trey over Engin Atsur. Atsur tried to answer with a top-of-the-arch three of his own, only to be fouled by Gray. The obvious foul--much like Paul's blatant, mean-spirited and puerile fist-to-the-crotch--wasn't called. Stealing down the court, Paul nailed a 10-foot floater as time expired.
Stunned, stupefied, speechless ... failed, flabbergasted, finished.
Blame it on Herb or on Hodge's free-throw fiascos. Blame it on referees or sucker punches. But, in the end, it can only be blamed on one thing: God certainly hates the one North Carolina ACC establishment without a Divinity School or a touch of celestial blue. I fear that Wolfpack Red is self-eliminating.