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The Value of Imperfection

Grant Halverson/Getty Images North Carolina State Wolfpack

Turned State

Reflections on becoming a member of the Wolfpack, knee injuries, and going home again

On the evening of March 30, 1981, North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt pulled up to a urinal inside the Philadelphia Spectrum. UNC had just lost the national championship to Indiana. An alumnus of Tar Heel enemy NC State, Hunt was bummed, but not too bummed. As the governor went about his business, he was greeted by a man named Frog, a dealer of roadwork machinery, two urinals down. They lamented the game, speaking over the head of a young Carolina fan standing between them; Hunt, ever in his stump bluster, and Frog, pretty much god-damning the entire second half. The son of Frog’s close friend, the kid was somewhere off in his head, recalling that Ronald Reagan had been shot1 earlier that day. When Frog introduced them, the kid turned suddenly to shake Jim Hunt’s hand before finishing. “Nice meeting you, Governor.” Sorry about the shoes.

Not exactly my one shining moment. This embarrassing government leak had been completely redacted from my memory until a few years ago, when it was brought up over pancakes in Winston-Salem. “David!” boomed Frog. “Do you remember that time you watered the governor?” No sir. Sure didn’t.

I remember little about the game itself other than Isiah Thomas ruining my evening, and something in the game program about a UCLA guard playing a cop on Hill Street Blues. In some ways — the interstate beef sort — the incident with the governor made sense. At least that’s how the NASCAR Calvinists do it. Hunt, the State graduate, and me, a Carolina fan who threw tantrums and TV trays when they lost. I must’ve picked it up from Indiana coach Bobby Knight, master chair-thrower, invective-spitter.

The following season, a German Sunday-school teacher named Mae Leitch came over for tea. Divorced and new to the block, my mom wanted to make a good impression. I was in the den watching Carolina lose its first game of the season to Wake Forest. The way my mom tells it, Mrs. Leitch was remarking on my niceness when a sampler of the finest cuss issued from the den, wishing plagues and eternal hellhathness upon the University of Wake Forest; a normal response considering every fight song was amended with its own go-to-hell clause. Wake being a Baptist school, I chucked all the Baptists in the fire as well, along with the refs, the television, and Billy Packer. (If anything, I was thorough. Perhaps too thorough, as I was technically Baptist and had been dunked in Sunday-school water at age 11.) Didn’t help matters that Wake’s mascot was a church deacon possessed by demons, so getting all Young Goodman Brown on their starting five proved ineffectual. Carolina lost, teacups jittered, and my mother — known for a well-placed goddamn herself — kicked the door shut with a nervous smile. With sons at both Carolina and State (blasphemy!), Mrs. Leitch understood and continued to allow me to refine my baby jump hook in her driveway.

That March of ’82, Frog followed UNC to another Final Four, this time with better results. Upon his triumphant return, Frog gave me a T-shirt that read I Was There, prompting my friends to remind me that I wasn’t. Beneath a drawing of the Louisiana Superdome was the score (63-62), ironed on in felt. The final two of those 63 points — and ultimately the keys to the sneaker closet of immortality — went to Michael Jordan. (In retrospect, it seems utterly bananzos that I watched that game home alone.) The following summer, I met Jordan while attending UNC basketball camp in Chapel Hill. I’d just discovered MTV and cafeteria cereal dispensers. He was out by the pool with future NASCAR analyst Brad Daugherty, listening to “Sticky Situation.” I was walking by the pool when a visiting coach from the Bronx appeared and Radio Raheemed them with Run-DMC. While I can say, with certainty, that Jordan and I heard “Sucker M.C.’s” together for the first time, I cannot be held accountable for whatever caught his ear thereafter.

At the 1984 regional semifinals against Indiana, Jordan and UNC couldn’t overcome a 7-foot redhead from Munich named Uwe Blab. Cursed again. At the time, my oldest brother was attending State’s design school, at least in spirit. He didn’t watch the Pack upset Houston in ’83, though he did see a kid dipped in red paint drag his couch out in the street and set it on fire.2 (Despite being a supporter of non-everyday phenomena, my brother also missed the chance to see New Edition and Jonzun Crew destroy Reynolds Coliseum earlier that year.)

David Thompson
Prior to the Pack turning a 30-foot airball into the most memorable on-court bear-hug hunt of all time and sports, I only knew State through David Thompson. The first player to be certified as “Skywalker,” Thompson acquired a nice Embers song in his name while helping the Wolfpack to a title in 1974. Dunking was prohibited at the time, an injustice to someone with a 44-inch rise. I can’t decide if Thompson should be declared a national basketball treasure for “reluctantly” scoring 73 points in one game or for breaking a backboard on Bill Walton’s head. Sadly, the Skywalker was never the same after the stairs of Studio 54 blew out his knee during a fight with a bouncer in 1984.

In 1988, I blew out a knee of my own and didn’t get into UNC — a preponderance of evidence to turn State. I was pivoting in a pair of James Worthy Expresses, a shoe endorsed by the UNC grad/Laker forward who would suffer a devastating knee injury in 1992. In no danger of playing college ball, not even on my ungimpiest day, I postponed surgery. That spring I was admitted to State. Even more duplicitous,3 I hung out with Mike Krzyzewski and started wearing Hoosier basketball T-shirts with red ring sleeves — the wrong red. My Charlotte high school was hosting a coaches clinic run by Bobby Knight and Krzyzewski, with my assignment being to collect the Duke coach at his hotel. Coach K promptly broke wind upon getting in my car, and I rolled down the windows before asking him about a potential recruit who dunked on my high school during a Christmas tournament in Greensboro. (I didn’t take this kid’s team seriously because they warmed up to “Magic Carpet Ride” and we’d run on court to an Islamic parachute pants jam.) I remember little about the clinic itself, other than fearing for my buddy’s life when he accidentally crashed into the overhead projector, spilling coffee on Coach Knight’s transparencies.

In the fall of ’88, I began my freshman year in the red. I attended the wrong Shakespeare class with benchwarmer Brian D’Amico. Chris Corchiani dated my best friend’s ex. Rodney Monroe sat in the back of sociology class. The late Lorenzo Charles would roll up to the student center in a blue Benz so we could clock his alumni status. But I could barely walk to class — after studying the MRI,4 my doctor determined that my knee was held together by angel hair pasta.5 After reconstructive surgery, I awoke in post-op absolutely skying on Dilaudid, watching State lose to Murray State in the first round. I was then demoted down to morphine and watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 on a perpetual-motion machine.

The last time I was in the Dean Dome, it was for a late-model Depeche Mode show back in ’94. Last Saturday, I returned as a State fan, but the Wolfpack themselves failed to show. Frog had kindly surrendered his end zone seats so I could witness the Pack’s leading scorer go invisible up close. At times, passes were thrown to places where players were not, and mistakes were amplified by the crowd, as if paying me retribution for my acid-washed ways in college.

At the opposite end of the court, a kid in the student section stopped screaming into his gorilla mask long enough to take the thing off before blacking out. Reggie Bullock was playing like a couch afire.

During timeouts, the JumboTron showed a montage of Tar Heel highlights — Jordan’s windmill dunk against Maryland; Walter Davis’s 30-foot bank shot against Duke; anything against Duke. I took whatever I could get. This was clearly not the hour of the wolf.

Lorenzo Brown
Directly behind me sat a State fan with a drawl, half Lefty Driesell, half governor. But his sweater was Bobby Knight red. In a matter of minutes, he went from “They can’t guard us” to a concessionary “As long as the ref’s letting them play, that’s all I can ask for.”

After Bob McAdoo’s nephew dunked yet again, State called another timeout. Frog walked across the court past the state trooper and handed me a piece of paper, grinned, and returned to his seat. A stat sheet, fresh off the scorer’s table. The JumboTron showed head shots of famous Tar Heels saying they’re Tar Heels. Happy to see Rasheed. Teams may lose and go to hell and back, but there will always be dudes rapping along to “Verbal Intercourse.”

With less than two minutes to go, State was down by 13, in need of a pardon from the governor. I received a text.

Holy shit Dave. Cause a diversion! Grab the ball and run like hell!

It was from a Wolfpack alum who once spotted Too Short wearing a Spud Webb jersey at a horse track in east Oakland.

Considering this course of action, I checked the JumboTron again. More Jordan. You can’t go home again if it was never home to begin with. My own ACC memories started to cross-talk. Did my dad run over a deer after the Virginia game, or was it Clemson? Was it Christian Laettner that I saw at Time-Out after the Digital Underground show in Chapel Hill? Was Coach K the Last Airbender?

I recently had the chance to ask my orthopedic surgeon exactly what he did to my shredded ACL. “I replicated your intra-articular space, David.” He’d end up performing a similar surgery on David Thompson in 1992, after Thompson had reinjured his knee in the NBA Legends Classic. Violating Hippo-confidence, my doctor would later admit to being slightly freaked at the idea of replicating the intra-articular space of his childhood hero. I’d just graduated at the time and imagined my name appearing in the Wolfpack alumni directory, somewhere in the vicinity of the Skywalker. Close enough, anyway, and landing kind of funny.

Dave Tompkins’s first book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II to Hip-Hop, is now out in paperback on StopSmiling/Melville House. Born in North Carolina, he currently lives in Brooklyn. He would like to thank J.W. Burress for his contributions to this story.

Filed Under: North Carolina, Teams