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Tar Heels triumph

By Kirk Ross
Staff Writer

Around 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, a member of the attending crew at the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center placed a wooden table in the center of a stage set up on the floor of the basketball court.

That act, studied intently by the several thousand assembled there, was followed by the arrival on stage of veteran broadcaster Woody Durham, who announced that the team would be home shortly and was bringing something to set on the table. Quite naturally, the fans went wild.

As everyone waited for the next big event, rounds of “Tar!…Heels!” were exclaimed, a couple of waves were performed and the progress of the team’s caravan from Raleigh Durham International Airport — projected on the large television screens around the dome — was cheered every time this turn or that brought them closer to their destination.

Enthusiastic fans greeted the buses as they rolled along the 100 block of East Franklin Street and made a left at Columbia Street on the way to campus. Not long after, the team, coaches, chancellor and athletic director were announced one by one and made their way to the stage.

To get to that stage on Tuesday, the Tar Heels had to pass through Detroit, where they faced teams from Villanova and Michigan State, both playing tough at the end of the season and fresh from victories over higher-ranked foes.

Villanova proved the tougher of the two, going down with a fight 83-69. On Monday evening, the MSU Spartans withered early in the game despite a partisan home-state crowd. By the 15:24 mark in the game, UNC had opened up a 20-point lead. Here in the heart of Tar Heel basketball country, a wave of relief washed over the faithful and most settled down to watch as a team of mostly upper classmen handily shut down any attempt by the Spartans to battle back.

When the final horn sounded, the score was 89-72 and members of the Blue Team had joined the starters with official minutes played in a national championship game. In living rooms, restaurants and clubs throughout the area, the suspension of much else save the observation of 40 minutes of basketball resumed with an outpouring of raw joy.

In downtown Carrboro and Chapel Hill, the sidewalks were almost instantly filled with pilgrims on their way to the intersection of Columbia and Franklin.
If you walked through downtown Carrboro, you may have heard Queen’s “We Are the Champions” playing full blast at the Orange County Social Club or seen images from the ubiquitous news helicopters on the big outdoor screen at Southern Rail.

On Franklin Street, students lit bonfires and climbed trees and light poles, tearing down Franklin and South Columbia street signs. They crowd-surfed in their underwear, clothes burning below them in the many fires filling the night sky with a celebratory smoke.

Local families and out-of-towners joined students in the sea of Carolina blue, some remaining at a safe distance from the mayhem. Fans streamed in and out of bars up and down the Franklin Street stretch, where patrons watched the view of the celebration filmed from the helicopters circling above.

By 2 a.m., most of the merrymakers had returned home or retreated to a bar and police and firefighters had successfully cleared the streets and extinguished any fires.

The official report from Chapel Hill Police listed two arrests — one for destruction to public property and the other for assault on a government official and intoxicated and disruptive behavior. Twenty-six people were treated for injuries and alcohol-related emergencies. Ten patients were transported to UNC Hospital. The crowd size was conservatively estimated to be 30,000.

As Franklin Street began to fill with revelers, head coach Roy Williams assembled his team in the locker room of Ford Field.

Holding the net from the game in his hand, Williams told them he loved them, that he was fortunate to coach them and that what they had done this season would be remembered among the greatest accomplishments of a Carolina basketball team.

“North Carolina basketball is Dean Smith, Phil Ford, Michael Jordan, Sean May, Raymond Felton, and for the rest of your lives North Carolina basketball is going to be you guys.”

He told his players that when the team has its reunion in 50 years, to remember as they walk to center court that “no coach has ever felt more privileged, no coach has ever felt more proud of a team that handled things like you did — the adversity, the injuries, other people’s expectations. I honestly feel like I am the luckiest coach that ever lived.”

Then, declaring “one more bump,” Williams hopped into the middle of the room as staff and players joined him in one more ritual dance of elation.

From the stage on Tuesday at the Smith Center, Williams repeated his profession of being the luckiest coach ever and talked of his pride in bringing home the championship trophy — resting on the aforementioned wooden table — for his alma mater.

The seniors filed to the microphone to express their joy and gratitude as well.
“This is a storybook ending and I couldn’t have asked for more,” senior guard Bobby Frasor, holding the game ball, told the crowd.

The enthusiasm even got senior Danny Green to “Jump Around” one more time, despite an injury that almost kept him out of the final game. Before that, he remarked: “Yeah, we did it; but did you see how we did it?”

And Tyler Hansbrough, who now holds the NCAA record for free throws made and is the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time scoring leader, kept it short and sweet.

Pointing to where the 2009 banner will soon join the others, he said, “It’s the best feeling in the world to know that when I come back and watch games in the Smith Center, I’ll always look up there and remember this team, what we were a part of and what we were able to accomplish this year.”
The team has at least one more stop planned on its incredible journey. They’ve yet to receive an official invitation from the White House, but it shouldn’t be too long in coming.

President Barack Obama, who worked out with the team during last year’s North Carolina primary, picked the Heels to win the tourney for the second year in a row and asked them not to let him down this year.
Word has it, there’s a basketball court being readied on the White House grounds.

Susan Dickson contributed to this report.

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