Bob Ward was dozing off in the entrance room to the Carolina Basketball Museum when he heard the door open. A towering figure, silhouetted by the sun, came into focus.
It was “Big Game” James Worthy, the University of North Carolina and Los Angeles Lakers basketball legend.
Ward was on the job as a “non-essential, seasonal, temporary, part time” greeter and museum attendant, as he refers to the role he has held at the museum since he retired in 2008. Like a lettered professional, he even used to have a business card that read “Robert B. Ward, NESTPT.”
Occurrences like this aren’t rare for Ward — who, by virtue of his job as a basketball museum attendant and basketball usher for 35 years, knows the town of Chapel Hill and its lore better than maybe anyone else.
If it’s not in the form of appearances from stars like Worthy, legends surround Ward in the stories he tells of sitting front row for some of Chapel Hill’s greatest moments. He has crossed paths with icons.
If you’ve been here long enough, chances are your path has crossed with Ward’s too.
His close friend Freddie Kiger, a courtside statistician for college basketball broadcasts on ESPN, Raycom, Fox Sports South and CBS, says he thinks that Ward deserves his own spot in Chapel Hill’s history.
“Bob Ward has been here forever,” Kiger said. “They should have a statue of him somewhere.”
Ward’s neatly brushed gray hair and bushy eyebrows frame a well-worn smile. His blue sweater has a wide argyle pattern down the front and his navy socks have Tar Heel logos on them. The pale blue crystal from his UNC Class of 1970 ring shines on his right hand.
Ward’s memories tell of a Chapel Hill that anybody who has been to the town would recognize. In his seven decades here, the place has changed. But Ward has a tale for every age.
“This town, this place, his friends, all are much better because Bob has been a part,” Kiger said.
Ward remembers two presidential visits to Chapel Hill, both of which he witnessed in Kenan Memorial Stadium.
The first was by John F. Kennedy, on one of those patently Chapel Hill fall days where the sky dons Carolina Blue and the clouds never roll in. Something was wrong with the public address system.
“You couldn’t half hear what he was saying,” Ward recalls.
He remembers the day JFK was assassinated too, just over two years later. His fifth period English class was dismissed early, and the bus home from the old Chapel Hill High School building on Franklin Street was stone silent. “Nobody said a word,” Ward said, his characteristic smile temporarily leaving his face.
He remembers Bill Clinton’s visit for UNC’s bicentennial celebration as well, but not for anything the former President did.
“Charles Kuralt stole the show,” Ward remembered. That was the day that Kuralt, the famous CBS broadcaster and UNC alum, delivered his ode to Chapel Hill, perhaps best remembered for his question: “What is it that binds us to this place as to no other?”
Ward is bound to Chapel Hill by a relationship that started with his father, a UNC alumnus.
“It was, I guess, in my blood,” Ward said.
Ward would go to Woollen Gym, where the Tar Heels used to play basketball. The wooden bleachers were carted over from Kenan Memorial Stadium after football season and Ward was terrified of the large gaps in the slats — large enough for a kid to slip through, he was certain.
He remembers the 1957 season. After winning in triple overtime against Michigan State, UNC advanced to the NCAA title game the next day.
Ward and his father were already going to visit his mother’s family in Florence, S.C. that day. The tournament games were televised that year, but not as far away as South Carolina.
So after driving to Florence in the morning, he and his father hopped in the car that night and drove back north to Fayetteville, N.C.
There, they gathered in the living room of his aunt and uncle’s house along with a few neighbors to watch on a small black and white television. UNC went to triple overtime for the second night in a row.
After the Tar Heels sunk Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas to capture their first NCAA title, Ward slept at the house before riding back to Florence in the morning and then back to Chapel Hill later that afternoon.
Ward worked in banking for nearly 40 years after graduating from UNC, but never stopped being involved with the community. In addition to his time as a member and the former president of the East Chapel Hill Rotary Club, Ward has made UNC sports a priority.
He has ushered games for the Tar Heels since they played in Carmichael Arena, moving over to the Smith Center for the first game there in 1986. He picked up extra duties at the museum after his retirement.
Ward brought another Tar Heel fan into the fold when he married his wife Ann.
“When he planned our wedding in the fall around football season, I kind of got an inkling for it,” Ann said.
He took her to her first UNC basketball game in 1973, a senior day matchup in Carmichael against Duke. The game would become one of the most iconic in the history of the UNC-Duke rivalry.
With 17 seconds left, the Tar Heels trailed by eight points. Before the advent of the 3-pointer, the Tar Heels scored four times to tie the game before winning in overtime. Ann remembers thinking the bleachers were going to give out from the crowd jumping around.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we are going to die right here,’” she said.
They estimate that they go to 60 to 70 UNC sporting events per year, including the games that he works with the basketball team.
At the Smith Center, he is a regular fixture, responsible for sections 127-130. His job has put him next to rapper J. Cole and author John Grisham. Scott May, the father of celebrated UNC player and now UNC Director of Basketball Operations Sean May, watched every game of his son’s career standing next to Ward on the concourse.
It has put him even closer to the players on the court. He took a knee to the chest from a diving James Michael McAdoo while working courtside, and had a near miss when Reggie Bullock jumped over top of him.
His wife often watches from home, where she looks for the back of his head on close up shots.
“If I’m ever near the TV, I’ll tap on his head,” she said. “He says he can’t feel it.”
In 2017, a UNC grad student walked into the Carolina Basketball Museum. As always, Ward struck up a conversation, the same thing he had done when legendary UNC head coach Dean Smith or ESPN broadcaster Jay Bilas had stopped by for visits.
It came up that her father had played baseball at UNC. Ward remembered her dad, Todd Wilkinson, who was a catcher for the team in the 1980s.
At the time Wilkinson played, Ward would take his 3-year-old daughter to UNC baseball games. Katie was like her father: she never met a stranger.
She would walk around the stadium, talking to whoever she could.
Over the course of that season, she befriended a college girl named Lindsey Mathews, who dated Wilkinson and always sat behind home plate. The toddler would sit there with her. After games, the college couple would take Katie down to the field to run around.
Back at the museum, the grad student had a question.
“Is your daughter’s name Katie?” the girl asked.
It sure is, Ward informed her.
“I’m named after her,” the girl told him.
Lindsey and Todd had gotten married. Ten years after leaving UNC, the Wilkinson’s were still so charmed by the child who had kept Lindsey company that they named their daughter after her.
Katie Wilkinson connected her mother with Ward for a tearful phone call.
The world seems to be a little smaller for Bob Ward than it is for anyone else. He has a connection to and a story of just about everything to do with this town. Spend enough time in Chapel Hill, and your thread has probably crossed over his at some point.
His stories could fill volumes. And it doesn’t take much to get him to tell them.
“All you have to do to get to know Bob Ward better is walk up and introduce yourself,” Kiger said. “And then let Bob Ward be Bob Ward.”
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