Lun. May 27th, 2024


A rusty commemorative soda can, a newspaper, a pocket schedule and a VHS tape with no machine to play it on.

That’s what my 1983 NC State Wolfpack collection is down to now. It used to be a museum. Boxes of T-shirts and caps, magazines and books, buttons and bumper stickers. All in red and white. All emblazoned with some combination of all-caps print: CARDIAC PACK, HUNGRY LIKE THE WOLF, DESTINY’S DARLINGS and NCAA CHAMPIONS.

They were, and are, my favorite team. That one team that even now, I can effortlessly rattle off every single member of the roster, from March Madness eternals Dereck Whittenburg and Lorenzo Charles to Tommy DiNardo and Walt Densmore, who shared four points on seven shots taken all season long. A huge poster of the April 11, 1983, cover of Sports Illustrated — «Miracle Workers» — hung on my bedroom and is still in a tube somewhere in my basement. Whenever I have played basketball, from church youth leagues to college intramurals to old man, knee brace leagues, I have donned No. 41. Why? Because those are the digits worn by the center on that team and the center of that SI cover, Thurl Bailey. And whenever I have stepped to a free throw line with that number on my chest, I have always run through the same pre-shoot routine: right foot forward, left foot slightly back, five dribbles eyes down, lock it in, look up, shoot it like a fadeaway. Why? Because that’s how the freshman who saved the season, Ernie Myers, did it.

I didn’t attend NC State. But I grew up in Raleigh and went to elementary school basically across the street from campus, and I didn’t believe anything I would ever discover in my preteen life would manage to ignite my imagination and adrenaline like Star Wars and a stack of quarters at the arcade.

The 1983 Wolfpack did. However, unlike Han Solo and Pac-Man, these dudes were real. They lived in my town. They ate pizza at the same Italian joint as me. Most of them were still teenagers, not much older than me. And yet, they were superheroes. They still are. I met Bailey for the first time just three months ago, and in an instant, I was 12 again.

All sports fans, even those with the most hardened of scar-tissue-covered hearts, have that one squad they carry with them every day of their lives. No, not a favorite franchise or school. Just one team, one roster plucked from all the lineups ever trotted out by that franchise or school. The one team from the one season that produced the one moment, the instant that either convinced us to dedicate such a large slice of the pie chart of our mortal existence to watching people compete for scores and trophies — or validated why we’d done that for so many years and so many letdowns, finally experiencing the payoff for our loyalty.

Strolling the streets of Raleigh this week, there were reminders of that team all over Cap City. The men’s team was back in the Final Four for the first time since that 1983 miracle run, and the women’s team was joining it. The same places I so vividly remember being covered in confetti and beer residue are once again, from the red-light-splashed bell tower to the expansive courtyard between buildings known as the Brickyard. In 1983 I went over there with my father and we walked around looking at the post-«We made the Final Four!» celebration debris field. This week, 41 years later, the feeling in the sunny spring daylight was very much the same, and why not? The similarities are striking.

A head coach under criticism for underachieving and perhaps not being such a great hire in the first place suddenly righting the ship. Back in the day, it was Jim Valvano. Today, it’s Kevin Keatts. A team that had to win the ACC tournament to even make the NCAA field and somehow pulled it off, despite having to face ranked powerhouse, superstar-powered rivals to do it. In 1983, State had to beat Michael Jordan’s UNC Tar Heels and Ralph Sampson’s Virginia Cavaliers. This year, they won a whopping five games, beating Duke and Carolina, with an OT victory over UVA in between. The 1983 team won nine straight en route to the national title, including a nerve-wracking OT win over upstart Pepperdine, and capped with victories over the nation’s best player (again) in Sampson, surprise SEC Final Four visitor Georgia and an upset over believed-to-be-invincible Houston with Akeem Olajuwon (he didn’t have the «H» yet) and Clyde Drexler. The 2024 team is currently on its own nine-win streak, including a nerve-wracking OT win over upstart Oakland, and to win it all, this Pack will have to defeat the nation’s best player, Purdue’s Zach Edey and believed-to-be-invincible UConn, assuming the Huskies can get by a surprise SEC Final Four visitor in Alabama.

«If it looks and feels familiar, that’s because it is familiar,» Whittenburg said with a chuckle at his perfectly timed charity golf tournament Monday afternoon. «We don’t get to feel this as much we would like, but when we do, we make it feel pretty good, don’t we?»

It is the single most beautiful aspect of all sports, but especially college sports. Even now, as we are all being tossed around in the cold corporatization of realignment, NIL and proposed tournament expansion, when your school gets on a hot streak and starts generating a season of moments and memories, it does what very little else in the world can. It threads generations and pulls them together.

I saw it Monday morning as I scrolled through my social media feeds, photos posted from the people I grew up with who attended NC State, taking selfies amid Sunday night’s on-campus celebration with their own kids, now also students at State. Anyone can witness that very red bloodline for themselves this week. Just take a stroll over to the center of campus and renovated Reynolds Coliseum, where a bronze statue of Valvano still stands watch. The NC State granddad in his weathered 1974 NCAA Champions windbreaker with his arm around his daughter in her 1983 Cardiac Pack trucker hat, both posing with an 18-year-old NC State freshman, the next generation in their line.

«What makes me really happy is that we have students on our campus who have never experienced this,» Keatts said Tuesday. «I was walking around campus yesterday, and they were so excited about what our team is doing, so excited about what our ladies are doing. Most of our students can only experience that through what their parents have told them, or maybe with their grandparents. I think that’s the biggest thing. That makes me happy.»

It makes everyone happy. But it is also a reminder — that we all have that one team, but we shouldn’t be selfish about it. Your team is your team. Theirs is theirs. That kid posing with his older kin wore a T-shirt of his own, a reminder that Granddad and Mom had their Pack, but now he had his.

The shirt read in big red letters: «Feels like ’24.»

Maybe next year and every year for the rest of his life, that kid will wear No. 30 for current Wolfpack hero DJ Burns Jr. Perhaps every time he steps to the free throw line, he will always run through the same pre-shoot routine: ball on the hip, stare at the rim, deep breath, one bounce, shoot. Why? Because that’s how the Raleigh-born vet who iced that Oakland win, D.J. Horne, did it.

Meanwhile, kids in New England will collect gear and garb featuring UConn’s Tristen Newton. College students in West Lafayette are tucking away whatever they can find with Edey’s face on it. And even down in Tuscaloosa, preteens are thumbtacking crimson basketball jerseys to the walls of their bedroom alongside all their dads’ framed portraits of Nick Saban, forever inspired by the Alabama men’s first trip to the Final Four. From Iowa City to Columbia, little ones are becoming fans for the first time and for a lifetime, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.

One day, they too will be middle-aged and digging through boxes in their own basements, feeling young again as they rediscover the modern-day equivalent of a rusty commemorative soda can, a newspaper, a pocket schedule and a VHS tape with no machine to play it on.

Because this is their team. The team. Feels like ’24.


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