Carolina Basketball. The very words evoke a passionate response among the countless thousands of fans who follow the Tar Heels. For serious North Carolina basketball fans, following the team is more than just another recreational activity - it's a fundamental, even irreplaceable part of who they are. Every winter, Carolina fans habitually schedule their lives around the Tar Heels during the season - and many say that following the team is one of the most lasting and valuable attachments in their lives.
Is this a good thing? What are the implications, both personally and collectively, of being in love with Carolina basketball? Are there better and worse ways, more healthy and less healthy ways to be a fan? And why exactly does North Carolina basketball have such a hold on its loyal followers?
Thad Williamson, a lifelong fan who has also covered North Carolina basketball as a journalist, probes his own fan history and those of hundreds of others to offer a unique perspective on those questions. A powerful blend of autobiography, journalism, and social science, More Than a Game is a book certain to stir the hearts and challenge the minds of North Carolina basketball fans everywhere.
by Thad Williamson
I’m pleased that Inside Carolina is making the uncorrected proofs of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, originally published in December 2001, available for download. Writing and getting that book published has been one of the great thrills of my life, and the response I’ve gotten from readers over the years has been very gratifying.
The book is now out-of-print, and in some respects out of date as well. Why then might anyone be interested in checking it out now, more than five years after the fact?
The book does have a handful of features that remain unique in the (ever-growing) literature about Carolina basketball: it’s still the only book that draws on a detailed survey of over 600 Carolina fans, that tracks fifteen fan diarists over the course of the season, or that describes and documents the brief era of Carolina basketball in which Bill Guthridge served as head coach in any detail.
But those aren’t the best reasons to consider reading this book, if you haven’t already. Rather, I would call attention to the four big questions this book poses and then tries to answer. Two of those big questions are general to sports fans; two of them are more Carolina-specific.
The first general question is that of how to be a healthy fan: that is, how can individuals who acquire emotional attachments to sports teams best enjoy the benefits of following a team closely while minimizing the potential negative aspects of caring about a game that is played by someone else and over which one has no control? How can individuals ensure that being a serious fan plays a healthy, not an unhealthy, part in one’s life? Here the book offers no easy answers, although we do hear from many Tar Heel fans who have themselves struggled with this question.
The second is the question of the proper relationship between fans of college sports teams and the actual participants (players and coaches) involved in the sport. Over the course of the book, I discuss two contrasting logics: a logic of commodification, in which the fan views the participants as instruments of their own personal pleasure; and a logic of friendship, in which the fan views the participants as inherently worthy of respect. Fans operating with this latter frame of reference are inclined to view players and coaches from the standpoint of friendly sympathy, even when their efforts come up short. Such fans view the pleasure they derive from seeing the team win as a reflection of—indeed a sharing of-- of players’ own joy in winning and doing well. Conversely, instead of simply thinking about how bad a loss makes them feel personally, these fans are likely to at least consider the question of how the players and coaches feel when they experience disappointments or don’t live up to their own expectations.
The third theme of the book is more sociological in nature, and more Carolina-specific: I ask the question, What role does Carolina basketball play in fans’ lives? Here I posit a specific thesis: that Carolina basketball under Dean Smith had a morally formative influence on the lives of many Carolina fans, in a variety of ways. The most detailed evidence I produce for this claim is the autobiographical material and the first person account of the role Carolina basketball has played in the life of the town of Chapel Hill. But that first-person evidence is buttressed by the testimonies of the dozens of Carolina basketball fans who are quoted in the book, talking about the different roles Carolina basketball has played in their life. These fans view Carolina basketball as an example—for some, the best example they know—of the idea that it’s possible to be successful and also do things right and treat people well in the process.
That observation in turn informs the answer to the fourth and final question: Why does (and perhaps why should) North Carolina basketball mean so much to so many? Possible answers include that the team wins a lot, that the uniforms are cool, that it’s my hometown or alma mater team. But, as I contend in the book, these explanations are incomplete, and to fully answer that question we have to consider the uniqueness of Dean Smith as a coach and leader. Although he was an extraordinarily intense competitor, Smith was (almost) always able to keep basketball in perspective, and the ultimate priority in his program was not winning games but treating people well and showing equal respect and concern for everyone, whatever the size of their specific talents.
It might surprise some readers of the book to learn that it is this last claim which has attracted the most critical scrutiny from readers who are not diehard Tar Heels. One friend of mine, who teaches political science at the University of Michigan and has assigned More Than a Game to his course on sports in the contemporary United States, says he likes the book as a case study in sports fandom but thinks I partake too much of the light blue kool-aid when it comes to Dean Smith. Don’t all fans create myths about the virtues of their own schools and leaders? How can I seriously claim (as I do in the book’s conclusion) that aspects of what Dean Smith was up to were counter-cultural in nature?
Those are good, tough questions to consider. But, based on not only what I’ve read and heard but also what I’ve seen and experienced firsthand, I’m more convinced than ever that there was and is much that is truly unique about Carolina basketball. Most of that uniqueness is attributable to the singular persona of Dean Smith, the values he led by, the social issues he addressed, the terrific, amazingly caring people like Bill Guthridge and Burgess McSwain he involved in his program, and the loyalty and love he inspired in others.
by Will Blythe|
author of NY Times bestseller To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever
Who is this Thad Williamson fellow? That is what I wondered when I first came across his elegant dispatches for Inside Carolina and its various forerunners, and then his remarkable book, More Than A Game.
Were we the unwitting brothers of the same parents? Had we been separated at birth, one of us brought up by wolves in a cave above the Yadkin River (me), one of us raised in a professorial household in Chapel Hill (Thad).
Although he had better seats at home games (that Thad had seats at all made his better than mine, which were located approximately four feet from the TV), Thad could have been me. Or, more to the point, us.
More Than A Game articulates with a historian’s balance, breadth and precision why North Carolina fans of our generation -- a fortunate generation indeed -- love Carolina basketball. As Thad makes clear, it wasn’t just that the Tar Heels won, though let’s admit it, the winning didn’t hurt. Even Saint Dean would admit that, smiling as mysteriously as the Mona Lisa.
But victory, sweet as Cheerwine though it might be, matters less than the way it is acquired. Let’s not be shy about that. The beauty of classic Carolina basketball is that it has showed us all a workday model of ethics, of how to succeed without really lying, of how to share the wealth and deflect the credit outward. The title of Thad’s book speaks that truth, needed now as much as ever: more than a game.
As it turned out, however, not just fans but the university and its leadership itself would soon have to confront in the most immediate way several issues discussed largely as a theoretical matter in the book: What would happen if Carolina ever had a losing season? What happens when loyalties and feelings—loyalties to players, loyalties to coaches, loyalties to the university—collide and conflict with one another? What is the ultimate standard for judging the success of a college basketball program? All of those questions (and more) were very much in the backdrop of the stunning turn of events that led to the departure of Matt Doherty after just three years and the return of favorite son Roy Williams.
Such difficult and inherently divisive questions are fortunately no longer up for live debate. The program is securely in the hands of Roy Williams, who has been influenced deeply by Smith but is unquestionably his own man. The pressing issues Carolina fans have to think about at the moment are not huge questions about institutional leadership and policy, but more mundane questions like “how long is it going to take me to get over tonight’s loss to Maryland?” and “should I post a long message board diatribe right now while my blood is still boiling?”
But such questions, I would submit, are not unimportant. They are the stuff of everyday fanhood. And, as argued in More Than a Game, how we answer those questions affects both how much satisfaction we get out of being fans, and may even influence how our lives as a whole go. How we answer those questions also contributes to--indeed helps constitute--a collective fan culture that we all share. (One of the most common complaints of the Carolina fans surveyed in the book was frustration at the attitudes and reactions to adverse events of some of their fellow Tar Heels.)
I don’t pretend to be neutral or nonpartisan on these questions. In More Than a Game, I argue that there is an internal connection between showing respect for players and coaches and ensuring that fandom has a healthy place in one’s life. I also argue that one of the best ways fans can share in the ethos of the program Dean Smith built is to show proper respect for participants, even during tough times. If one agrees that much of what makes Carolina basketball different from any other sports team is the climate of respect associated with Smith’s leadership, then it follows that an integral part of showing respect for Carolina basketball should be according the individual participants respect and appreciation, even in the moments we (and they) feel most frustrated.
To be sure, this isn’t always easy, and moments of immaturity and reactions we regret later are part of most every fan’s personal narrative, mine included. But we can each, if we choose, make the effort to reflect more deeply on what role we want being a fan to play in our individual lives, and about what kind of fan we’d like to be.
More Than a Game is an open invitation to readers, Carolina fans especially, to engage in such reflection. After all, if rooting for the Tar Heels is worth investing hundreds of hours of our lives each year as well, and it’s worth investing our emotions in some three dozen times of the year, then it’s very probably also worth taking a little bit of time to think about as well.
Thad Williamson is assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond. He wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and uncbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. For an archive of some of his best articles from that period, visit http://www.thadwilliamson.net/sportsarchive.html