A tradition unlike any other

My first ACC Tournament experience


Back in Charlottesville, hours after the confetti was swept off the floor of the Greensboro Coliseum, it still doesn’t feel real. The Virginia Cavaliers, 2014 ACC Tournament champions.

Arriving at the Coliseum Thursday for my first-ever ACC Tournament, I was skeptical. Relatively thin crowds during the early games begged the question, why is this tournament played in an outdated, middle-market venue? Doesn’t the ACC deserve the spotlight that accompanies playing in a big city like Atlanta, New York or Washington, D.C.?

There were two student newspaper seats in the back of the press section, one for the higher seed of each game and one for the lower. If your team wasn’t playing, you had to duke it out for an open seat — if you were lucky enough to even spot one — or head to the break room to watch the game on TV.

But despite the understated arena and space constraints — or the lack of respect for The Cavalier Daily and other student papers — this weekend was one of the most surreal weekends of my life. Leaving Charlottesville and any semblance of schoolwork behind, Greensboro was an escape to an entirely different world.

We witnessed the end of an era, as a last-second Boris Bojanovsky dunk broke a tie with Maryland and ended the Terps’ 61-year run with the conference they helped found.

Growing up a Maryland fan, I understand why they had to leave and why other ACC fans are happy to see them go. But it feels unnatural that suddenly all of the rivalries and rich history associated with the Terps — the only school not from the state of North Carolina to win a national title while a member of the ACC — is just gone.

Say what you want about Maryland fans, but no one can deny how thrilling the recent installments of Virginia-Maryland have been. I know time will make it better, but I also know that when I preach to my grandkids about how much better the sports were when I still had hair, pre-realignment college conferences will be my go-to example.

What else made the tournament special? Fans, mascots, dancers, cheerleaders and band members from every school were present. It may not have been played at the Garden, but fanfare and traditions were on full display in the intimate environment.

Staying in the room next to the mascots in the hotel, it was hard not to laugh when I saw the Leprechaun stroll over to the elevator, or when they were going out one night, but had somehow lost “Syracuse” — no name, just “Syracuse.” Only in Greensboro.

Each team’s band would duel back and forth during breaks in play. Clemson’s near-upset of Duke was set to the tune of “Tiger Rag”— perhaps the best fight song in the entire conference. Florida State’s band filled the arena with the War Chant, while the Golden Girls led the crowd in “The Tomahawk Chop.”

Eager Virginia fans, who flocked to Greensboro in droves at the prospect of an ACC title, schooled the league on the University’s abbreviation. “U-V-A” chants were deafening at times, frequently overpowering opposing fans and even opposing bands.

But my favorite tradition was late in Duke games when the Blue Devil band would play “Everytime We Touch.” In cult-like fashion, Duke fans young and old would rise to their feet, pumping their fists in the air with no semblance of shame. I was in seventh grade when the song first came out — more than eight years later, it still isn’t cool, Dookies.

Dickie V, the man whose passion for the sport leads him to don wigs while being mobbed in student sections, was on hand. Although I’m not his biggest fan — he’s a little too much of a Duke fan for my taste — it wouldn’t have been an ACC title bout without Vitale oozing enthusiasm on the call.

And after Syracuse’s premature exit at the hands of NC State, Mike Eilbacher and I seized a golden opportunity. Guessing that the two writers from the Syracuse Post-Standard would be long gone, we got to the Coliseum early and snagged their seats — midcourt, right behind Vitale.

We were three feet away from the man whose voice has become synonymous with college basketball, but ironically, we couldn’t even hear him while he was broadcasting. I’ll never allow someone to criticize Dickie V for being a loudmouth again.

Watching him interact with fans and players who grew up listening to him, or were yet to grow up still, Vitale was — refreshingly — every bit as friendly and genuine as he comes across on TV. When he turned around and offered his hand for a shake, I couldn’t help but crack a smile that stretched behind my ears.

That hand also got Mike and me on ESPN. Normally when they would show the broadcasters, only our lower bodies would be in the frame. But Dickie V, always one for theatrics, threw his arms every which way, and as the camera zoomed out to catch his gesticulations, there we were.

It’s awfully hard to follow a basketball game when everyone you know is texting and tweeting at you to inform you about your appearance on national TV — and ask who you had to schmooze for those spots.

Still, it’s not just Vitale that made the experience special. Being that close to the court and having the ability to hear interactions between players, coaches and officials adds an entirely different element to the game — these people are more than just well-oiled entertainers, they’re humans, subject to the same vices and emotions as the rest of us. I think that’s a point that is too often forgotten.

And of course there was the basketball. I watched Jabari Parker, one of the most impressive freshmen to grace college basketball during my lifetime and a lock NBA lottery pick, in what was most likely his last ACC game ever.

I saw titans of the game — Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski — all fall.

But most of all, I saw a team that won 16 ACC regular season games yet was still somehow being knocked for an “uneven conference schedule” play arguably its best basketball of the year to win one of the biggest games in program history and cut down the nets after a 38-year drought.

London Perrantes prayed the night before the game, while Malcolm Brogdon remained even-keel, trusting that things would work out. Justin Anderson’s experience was more similar to my own.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Anderson said. “It was just on my mind — what can happen, what happens if we win, what happens if we lose? This is the greatest feeling, man.”

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