At North Carolina, a Sigh of Relief and a New Championship Banner
Theo Pinson carried last year’s national championship trophy onto the court Friday night during North Carolina’s annual Late Night With Roy event.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The annual basketball tip-off event at the University of North Carolina has been called Late Night With Roy for the past 15 years, ever since Roy Williams, a prodigal son of Asheville, returned from the University of Kansas to take over the Tar Heels.
So why was this year different from all other years?
It was not the goofy dances the players performed, a shtick that has become a mainstay of the event. It was not even the unfurling of a new national championship banner, one representing the Tar Heels’ 71-65 victory over Gonzaga in April. That had been done twice previously in Williams’s tenure here, in 2005 and 2009.
What distinguished Friday night’s festivities, which packed the Dean Smith Center with 21,000 Tar Heels faithful, was the sense of relief. That morning, the N.C.A.A. had announced — after wrangling which had lasted the better part of a decade — that not only was its investigation into academic misconduct at North Carolina completed, but that there would be no penalties.
The Tar Heels could keep their scholarships, their recruiting rights, their coach. The team could play in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, and if the season were to go as expected, in its eighth consecutive N.C.A.A. tournament as well.
And the two banners that hang alongside the new one unveiled Friday night — both of them won by teams whose players could have been implicated in the scandal, which involved nearly 200 fraudulent classes over nearly two decades — could stay. No violations meant no ineligible players, and no vacating of titles.
North Carolina had worried it might be forced to take a banner down. Instead, all it did was raise a new one.
“I was thinking about that,” said Miranda Stone, 32, who said she had attended every Late Night With Roy since her freshman year here 14 years ago. “I was scared it might put a damper on things. The atmosphere would be different.”
Instead, the long North Carolina nightmare was over. And the fans were thrilled.
“We’re happy it’s over, and even more happy nothing bad happened,” said Matthew Kinlaw, 18, who drove from St. Pauls, N.C., after completing his application to the university the night before.
Outside the Dean Dome, as the Smith Center is known, a sandpaper-colored octagon that resembles a desert fortress, fans were lined up Friday afternoon two hours before the women’s volleyball match that preceded the tip-off event, and more than four before the basketball team finally took the court. They wanted the best seats for the free pep rally.
The new championship banner unfurled on Friday. It hung next to two that were won by teams whose players could have been implicated in a scandal.
No sports arena is more dedicated to its home team’s hue than this one. Pantone 542 — here known as Carolina Blue — colors parts of the court, the padding behind the baskets, the seats, the seat cushions, the beams and vents in the rafters, even the overhead speakers. It is snowier than the regal azure of North Carolina’s archrival down Tobacco Road, Duke, yet sterner than powder blue.
This balance between dark and light might be said to fit North Carolina’s fan base, which is one of those in college sports that seems as if it genuinely wants to win the right way — even if, like many fans, it might sooner part with the right way than the winning. Many fans’ reactions to the scandal Friday were defiant when it came to the N.C.A.A., but chastened when it came to their own standards.
“I have to say, I’m not proud of what happened,” said Stone, “and there were some things that needed to change, and I’m glad it was brought to light.”
But, argued Art Chansky, a local radio personality and author of several books on North Carolina basketball, between the reforms that North Carolina has taken in the wake of the scandal and the agony of years of uncertainty, North Carolina’s misdeeds have been expiated.
“You can say that the verdict was time served,” Chansky said, “because the last four to six years haven’t been fun at all.”
Returning for his third go-round as tip-off master of ceremonies was Kenny Smith, the former North Carolina and N.B.A. player who co-hosts TNT’s popular N.B.A. pregame show.
Smith was introduced as the Drake and Future song “Jumpman” played, which, as a nod to Nike and the university’s most famous alumnus, was a signal that business as usual had returned. (University of Kentucky fans attending Big Blue Madness that same evening got to see Drake in the flesh, wearing an instantly viral “Kentucky Dad” hoodie.)
The hour that followed might have been dreary if you were not a Tar Heels die-hard (or even if you were). There were dances and controlled scrimmaging. Kennedy Meeks, a since-graduated star of last season’s team, was acknowledged in the stands. The introduction of the junior Luke Maye, who made a crucial shot to beat Kentucky in the round of 8 last season, provoked the crowd to rapture.
Then the players lined up at center court as attention was drawn to the six championship banners hanging side by side on one side of the arena. As the end of last season’s title game played on the arena’s video screens, the years of the previous national titles, from 1924 to 2009, were counted off, and finally the 2017 banner was unfurled.
It was perhaps a trick, a hallucination produced by the outpouring of meaning from 21,000 fans invested in the moment, that it immediately felt as if the new flag had always been there, and that it would never go away.