Dan’s love for Carolina basketball was infectious. He knew more about Carolina basketball than almost anyone. He created a “Book of Lists,” with lists ranging from the “Five Biggest Wins Against Virginia” to the “Best Final Shots.” He could chat for hours about historic moments and the latest games with his family, friends, and hospital staff... and mercilessly teased his medical student, Halei, who had gone to Duke University. While she may have rolled her eyes, the bond that they formed outlasted March Madness.
Just as Dan surrounded himself with Tar Heel love, he felt unconditional love for his team. Dan had no patience for cursing the players, or even being angry at them (for long). After our devastating loss in the 2016 national championship game, Dan defended the Heels, declaring to the hundreds of subscribers to his CaringBridge journal, that if “anyone questions the Heels’ toughness after tonight they quite frankly can go to hell.” Word of Dan’s loyalty to the Heels even made its way to Roy, who wrote Dan a letter thanking him for his solidarity.
It’s not over until the buzzer goes off.
For 30 years, Dan led a NCAA tournament basketball bracket pool. Dan never once won his own pool, but that didn't stop him from predicting Carolina to win every single year — even in the years when Carolina didn’t make the tourney. This same optimism bolstered his passion for politics and his will to remain strong throughout his cancer — he never gave up hope. Last year, Dan was told that his chance of surviving was slim... the same odds as Theo Pinson’s three-point-shooting percentage. Instead of becoming despondent, he cheered even harder when Theo attempted a shot. “Oh, Theo,” he proclaimed, would be his last words.
To Dan, the Tar Heels were a part of his medical team. One March, he declared Dr. Brice Johnson his attending physician, Dr. Joel Berry his resident and Mr. Kenny Williams his medical student. And his chemo was “doing its work inside my bloodstream attacking little Grayson Allens.” All jokes aside, the basketball team played a crucial role in his medical journey — as the Heels advanced through the tournaments, they acted as a reminder to keep pushing forward.
Life is not about winning.
While no one was happier after a Carolina win, Dan never once suggested that the year was for naught when the season came to a close. He always reflected with grace and humor on the season’s highlights to the hundreds of people on his bracket pool mailing list. We often think about cancer as a “battle” or a “fight,” but Dan definitely did not lose. To Dan, life was far too great to ever be considered a defeat.
Dan concluded many of his CaringBridge journals — and his own eulogy — with “Go Heels!” To Dan, this phrase signified more than willing the Heels to win. The meaning goes beyond the team. “Go Heels” is a rallying cry for what lies ahead. Dan’s gift to us was the encouragement to look beyond the present season, while remembering the past with joy. This year, as I fill out my bracket, predict Carolina to win it all and cheer in a sweaty sea of Carolina blue, I’ll be doing just that. Go Heels!