Hundreds of fans, four and five deep up against a temporary barrier, waited outside the Smith Center on Wednesday night to send North Carolina’s men’s basketball team off to Houston for the Final Four.
There were experienced diehard fans with signs, newborns with smiles and even a few happy dogs in the crowd to enjoy a perfect March sunset. There was a lot of the right-shade-of-blue, almost as many smart phones at the ready, and no shortage of optimism that the Tar Heels would be back in a few days with a bigger prize to celebrate.
“The future best day of my life,” is what freshman Kendall Bradley predicted Monday, the night of the national championship game, would be.
The Tar Heels, the only No. 1 seed in the Final Four, will have to beat fellow ACC foe Syracuse on Saturday night to get to the title game, but you’d have a hard time convincing Bradley and her group of friends, that particular game – after two regular-season wins against the Orange – was more than a formality.
Bradley’s group waited for about 30 minutes for the team to make what was about a 100- yard walk from the back of the Smith Center to the team bus. They had a clever sign of senior star forward Brice Johnson superimposed in Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel.
The players walked out of Gate D of the Smith Center and down the stairs to the bus waiting in the parking lot at 6:36 p.m. Sophomore guard Theo Pinson came out first, armed with his smart phone, and briefly soaked in the crowd’s adulation before leading a procession of high fives with eager fans along the barriers.
Sean May, star of the 2005 national championship team and now an assistant director of player development, had a “go pro” camera as he zoomed through the line, no doubt remembering championship celebrations past.
The only words spoken were by coach Roy Williams, who came out last and wore a blue-and-white plaid jacket. Williams took the most time with the fans and repeatedly said “thank you” as he shook hands and waved to the crowd.
In all, the procession only took about five minutes, from the time Pinson walked out to the time the bus brake lights lit up and the team headed for the airport. The next stop is Houston, where the Heels will practice Thursday at NRG Stadium and prepare for Saturday’s national semifinal game with the Orange.
The car ride from Henderson and the half-hour wait was worth the effort for Pat and Billie Frazier, sisters-in-law who had a handmade sign that read: “Houston: Tar Heels have no problem.”
The Fraziers are season-ticket holders and have made championship send-offs and celebrations something of a family tradition. Billie Frazier graduated in 1982, the year of late coach Dean Smith’s first national title. And Pat, who graduated in 1974, came up and the two celebrated that title on Franklin Street. They also were at the Smith Center in 2009 for Williams’ second title team and joined by Billie’s son, Gill.
Both women planned on being at the Smith Center next week when the Tar Heels’ return.
“No doubt,” Pat Frazier said.