It has become a yearly tradition, in this space, to extoll the virtues of one particular basketball tournament. And, if you’re not a diehard basketball fan, well, you may not be aware that this is the week of the ACC men’s basketball tournament.
What used to be a three-day event has been stretched to four and, with the continued realignment of college athletic conferences, will likely become five next season.
No matter the number of days it takes to play the ACC tournament, the excitement is still there for anyone who loves the game. And it kicks off the national phenomenon CBS has labeled March Madness, which gets even the most lukewarm college basketball fan excited.
The history of the ACC tournament is fairly well known. In the 1940s and 1950s, State, Duke and Carolina engaged in a nuclear arms race that brought coaches like Everett Case, Vic Bubas and Frank McGuire. Wake Forest - when it was still in Wake Forest - brought in a homespun boy named Bones McKinney, who had played his college ball at - gasp - Carolina and State, to coach their teams.
For all the excitement this week’s tournament brings, it must have been great fun to watch the teams of that era battle it out. Even into the 1970s, the tournament determined which teams were allowed to play in the national championship tournament. But in the era of Bubas, Case, McKinney and McGuire, the action was equally intense. With all four schools seperated by just a few miles, the players knew each other personally. The coaches did too.
To hear Bones McKinney tell the stories, they didn’t always like each other, either.
From pictures I’ve seen taken inside the Old Barn - that was the nickname someone gave Reynolds Coliseum - the smoke often hung heavy over the court and the fans were exceptionally close to the players they were there to watch. Not much room in Reynolds for players to go diving headlong for a ball.
Other tournaments over the years have also drawn a lot of attention. The Dixie Classic, an invention of those Big Three ACC coaches, pitted some of the best teams in the country against each other early in the season. The Big Four Tournament was like a backyard brawl and it was a chance to size up the other guys before the wins and losses counted in league play.
Time marches on and now everyone - save for Duke - has a much larger space in which to play. This weekend’s tournament in Greensboro will be held in the massive Greensboro Coliseum. And fans everywhere will sit quietly by as their team loses and shout joyously on Facebook or in their living room when their team wins.
My friend Jesse Askew is as big a Carolina fan as anyone I know. When State beat Carolina earlier this season, he was appropriately contrite and congratulatory. When Carolina returned the favor and beat State a few weeks later, he was back to his happy, Carolina flag-waving self when he saw me inside the church vestibule the next day.
It’s a way of life for ACC basketball fans. And this weekend, for an ACC basketball fan, is like July 4, Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve all rolled into one.