Remembering Bryan Crocker, a UNC alum and avid Tar Heels fan, on UNC-Duke day

Bryan Crocker, right, and Ryan Bolick, left, stand on the court at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. Crocker and Bolick met reporter Andrew Carter at a restaurant in the Bahamas in 2012, when Bolick and Crocker were there to see the Tar Heels after Crocker was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Crocker died in November.
Bryan Crocker, right, and Ryan Bolick, left, stand on the court at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. Crocker and Bolick met reporter Andrew Carter at a restaurant in the Bahamas in 2012, when Bolick and Crocker were there to see the Tar Heels after Crocker was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Crocker died in November. Courtesy of Ryan Bolick

After a long dinner and after too many rounds of cocktails to count, the check arrived. I don’t remember the name of that restaurant at the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas. I don’t remember what I had to eat, or how much the bill was – other than that it might have been close to $1,000.

I do remember that Bryan Crocker reached for the check and put down his credit card. He was dying, he said, years into his fight against esophageal cancer, and so it only made sense for him to pick up the tab. After all he might be gone, he said, by the time he’d actually have to pay for this, anyway.

We all laughed. I knew Bryan for only a short time – those few hours over dinner at the Atlantis. I was there covering UNC in the Battle 4 Atlantis in November 2014. Bryan was there with two of his friends, all three of them UNC graduates and best friends and huge Tar Heels fans.

They’d made the trip, in large part, because Bryan was sick. No one was sure how much time he had left. The previous summer, Bryan had broken the news to one of his closest friends: Doctors told him he wasn’t going to win his fight against cancer.

Bryan’s friend, Ryan Bolick, came up with an immediate plan: They were going to take a guys’ trip to the Bahamas when UNC went there for the Battle 4 Atlantis in November. The Atlantis Resort attracted people for its gambling, for its good food and drink, for its shows. For Bryan and his friends, though, the main draw was that the Tar Heels would be there for a few basketball games.

The first time I encountered Bryan and his two friends, I was sitting at the restaurant bar, waiting to order dinner. InsideCarolina.com’s Greg Barnes, the only other writer on the UNC beat who’d made the trip, was there with me. Then these three guys – Bryan and his two buddies – wound up next to us at the bar and instantly brought an energy to the place.

They were all in their early 40s and loud and laughing and maybe just a tad tipsy. But this was a trip worth celebrating, the three of them together again, and they were making the most of it.

Across the room a little ways, there was a table of Miss America contestants who’d been flown in for some sort of promotional work for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. The women were sitting at a table, drawing the attention of nearly every man in the restaurant, while Bryan and his friends tried to think of the perfect approach. Finally one of them, I can’t remember who, walked over.

It didn’t appear to go too badly, actually. The women laughed. The conversation lasted a few minutes. It ended smoothly, and Bryan and his friends had themselves a new story: That time one of them cold-approached the table full of beauty queens in the Bahamas.

After a little while, Greg and I struck up a conversation with Bryan and his buddies. They learned that we were reporters, there covering UNC, and we learned that they were there to watch and cheer for the Tar Heels. We learned that they were all UNC graduates. They’d met there as undergrads and were fraternity brothers and became best friends. They all became lawyers.

Finally their table was ready. They insisted that we join them, and how could we resist?

I don’t remember all of what we talked about. Some of what I remember I wouldn’t be able to write here, anyway. I remember, though, that I’d arrived in that restaurant that night in something of a dark place – reeling amid personal crisis – and that spending those couple of hours with Bryan and his friends helped put into proper perspective whatever I had going on in my life.

Here was a man who wasn’t sure how much time he had to live, and yet he was completely alive: cracking one-liners, telling funny stories, refusing to let his situation get the best of him. Of all the meals I’ve had on the road over the years – a lot of them lonely dinners at a restaurant bar somewhere – that dinner in the Bahamas remains the best road meal I’ve ever had. If only I could remember what I ate.

The check came, and Bryan reached for it and cracked that joke and paid for all of us – the two reporters he’d never met and the two friends who’d helped make this trip happen. At the UNC game the next day, I ran into Ryan Bolick, one of Bryan’s friends from the dinner. The party, it appeared, had lived on into the next day and into the game.

A couple of days later, I was on a plane headed back from the Bahamas. I thought occasionally about that dinner and about meeting Bryan and his friends. Sometimes I wondered how Bryan was doing. A few months passed. Then before UNC played Duke last March at the Smith Center, I opened my email the day of the game, and there was a note from Ryan.

He’d sent it to me and Greg. It began:

“Gents, I hope you recall the dinner in the Bahamas during the Battle 4 Atlantis …”

To celebrate Bryan’s birthday, they were headed to Chapel Hill for the Duke-UNC game. Ryan was wondering if we could help arrange a chance for Bryan to go onto the floor of the Smith Center before the game for a picture. The Smith Center, Ryan wrote in that email, was “one of our favorite places in the world.”

I passed Ryan’s email on to Steve Kirschner, who handles media relations and communications for the UNC men’s basketball program, and Kirsch – as many of us often call him – arranged a tour of the Smith Center for Bryan and Ryan. Ryan wrote back later:

“Steve gave us an unbelievable tour.” A picture was attached to the email: Ryan and Bryan at center court of the Smith Center, big smiles.

In August, Bryan popped into my mind again. Since he lived in Charlotte, I wondered if he’d be at UNC’s game against South Carolina at the start of football season. Ryan and I traded emails, but things happened – traffic, procrastination, life – and I never made it out to their tailgate to say hello as I said I would.

A while passed. Finally Wednesday arrived, another Duke-UNC game at the Smith Center. I opened my email, and there was another message from Ryan. The subject was “your friend Bryan,” and Ryan had sent it to me and Greg Barnes and Kirschner. The email began:

“Gentlemen, I wanted to let you all know how much Bryan (and I) appreciated the tour of the Dean E. Smith Student Activity Center last year before the Duke game … Bryan had a wonderful time. He passed away November 16th.”

I’d had no idea that Bryan had been gone for months. Ryan included a link to an article that appeared in the Charlotte Observer after Bryan died. The email continued:

“I really just wanted you to know how much he and his family appreciated you all making that happen. What you do every day makes a difference.”

I thought about my friend Bryan. I’d known him only for a couple of hours. He’d made a difference.