October 13, 2017
Josh Asiko remembers the win.
He recalls making his way over the arduous hill on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the only sliver of road that mattered in Chapel Hill that Monday night. One friend had his arm linked around him. The other lugged a life-size cardboard cutout of head coach Roy Williams.
Asiko slid his iPhone 6 from his pocket in the middle of his jog and texted his dad.
“Thank you for pushing me to come to Carolina,” the 2016 UNC graduate typed. “Thank you so much for pushing me to come here. This is where I was meant to be.”
He remembers returning to his fraternity house from Franklin Street. He stood on the porch with a few of his closest friends and listened to roars coming from the packed road already set ablaze. Tears welled in his eyes, but they never fell. A smile stuck to his face, and it never dropped.
“I’m not celebrating until the buzzer (sounds), the time is gone and we have more points than them,” Asiko said. “And so that happens and the buzzer goes and I’m like pinching myself. ‘Did we win? Did we win?’ I just don’t want to go through heartbreak like that again.”
Asiko laughed: “Why, when the buzzer goes off, am I relieved?”
In retrospect, Asiko admits the feeling was irrational. But in the moment, relief was accurate.
Relief that these players would have something to show for the hours they logged in an empty gym. Relief that the town wouldn’t see its people’s hearts broken in the same, debilitating way in consecutive years. Relief that the students — most of whom don’t know the players personally — wouldn’t have to defend or explain their sadness to anyone who didn’t understand.
On Friday, Late Night With Roy is headlined by the grand unveiling of the 2017 national championship banner. But it might mean something else, too.
The NCAA has designated Friday as the day to release its findings and potential penalties for UNC’s athletic-academic scandal.
With one banner going up in the rafters, something else is looming over the heads of the Tar Heels. Depending on the severity of the NCAA’s decision, the University could be stripped of a national title and a banner that currently hangs.
To some, pulling a banner down from the Smith Center rafters would be an emotionally excruciating for the Tar Heel community.
But what exactly is it that threads these long stretches of cloth with so much meaning?
Nathan Walters remembers the loss.
“Honestly, I don’t think I was prepared for either outcome,” he said. “I don’t think I was prepared to react if we had won. And I definitely wasn’t prepared for what actually happened.”
Walters sat in the 12th row of NRG Stadium’s student section. Villanova went on a run. North Carolina responded. And then the Tar Heels’ lovable leader hit the double-clutch jumper from six feet behind the 3-point line to tie the game with 4.7 seconds left.
The rest is history, but everyone experienced it differently. From Walters’ view, he might as well have been on the court.
“I remember thinking, they have enough time to hit a shot,” he said. “He pulls up, and as soon as he released it, I realized this was it.”
The confetti exploded immediately after the ball hit the ground. Walters, now a junior, stood in the student section and watched his fellow Tar Heels knock over chairs and curse and cry. He glanced at one of his friends, but the two didn’t say a word. Walters filed out of the arena and started driving back to his hotel. That’s when the tears came.
“Your team wins, you feel that same pride in a win,” Walters said. “Your team loses, and you feel that same heartbreak and pain.”
Mike Copeland, a senior on the 2009 championship team, remembers when his team saw its banner.
He was supposed to be in Scotland kickstarting his professional basketball career, but he found himself in the Smith Center for a September alumni game instead. The banner was unveiled at halftime.
“The feeling of putting in all that hard work for those four years, then your last year, you win a championship,” Copeland reminisced. “It’s hard to say in words.”
The cloth reminds him of the blood, sweat and tears that defined the best four years of his life. Of the extra rebounding and box-out drills. Of the shootaround right before a Final Four game against Villanova, when Danny Green said his team should play against the Wildcats as if it were a practice. Two days later, Copeland remembers sitting with Ty Lawson at breakfast the day before the championship game against Michigan State. Lawson was too nervous to eat.
When Quentin Thomas, a first-year on the 2005 squad, looks in the rafters, he remembers the story he and his own brothers wrote.
“You definitely get goosebumps and you reflect on it, which you should,” Thomas said. “Be proud of what you were able to accomplish.”
He knows what is really behind each banner. And as a first-year on that championship team, he knew what came next.
“Coach Williams might have talked to some of them and said, ‘Okay that’s cool. Now go win another one.’”
When the lights go off Friday night — just like when the scoreboard shut off in Glendale, Ariz., at the end of that April night — not all students may see the fabric of their national championship stories.
But it won’t matter.
Because while the history is reflected in the rafters, it lives on beyond the beams of the Smith Center.