Six hundred sixteen days.
On March 3, 2020, over 21,000 fans packed into the Dean E. Smith Center to watch the struggling North Carolina men’s basketball team defeat the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, 93-83. With then-first-year big man Armando Bacot out, first-year guard Cole Anthony and senior forward Garrison Brooks put the team on their backs, combining for 53 points en route to the win.
And then everything stopped.
In a matter of weeks, the world retreated behind a bevy of walls, masks and computer screens due to COVID-19, a far cry from the emotional throes of a raving arena crowd. Many wondered when — or if — things would ever return to normal.
Even now, that normal has been different, more cautious and distanced than the past.
But on Tuesday, after 616 days, something normal will be happening in the Smith Center — UNC will play a competitive game in front of a full crowd of roaring fans.
“It’s going to make me happy beyond belief,” junior Stef Ding said. “Especially because it’s my team, like it’s been my team since I was 4 years old. I’m, like, too excited.”
As a first-year in 2019, Ding attended every home game of the season, always finding tickets from a friend if she didn’t win them herself in the student lottery. Sitting in the risers, watching her favorite team in person among a crowd of students just as transfixed as her, she said, was a transformative experience she can’t wait to live through again on Tuesday.
“I’ll be at every game,” Ding said. “It’s so exciting. Having a full Dean Dome is part of the UNC experience.”
Although the arena is back to normal capacity, this season will still look markedly different.
Former head coach Roy Williams won’t be there to greet the first full stands of Tar Heel fans in over a year, and those crowds will instead welcome first-time head coach Hubert Davis onto the hardwood court named for his predecessor.
Not seeing “Ol’ Roy” on the sidelines might be an adjustment for some fans, but to junior Claire Skinner, who’s been a UNC fan for as long as she can remember, it will be a welcome one.
“I know that a lot of people are kind of skeptical because of (Davis) being new and everything,” Skinner said. “Honestly, I think him bringing a fresh perspective and a more modern approach to coaching is going to be really good for the team.”
In accordance with local protocols and UNC's COVID-19 Community Standards, every fan in attendance on Tuesday will be required to wear a mask in the arena — another amendment to the normal Smith Center experience.
To junior Allen Bond, these protocols will ensure a safer experience overall.
“I think it'll be safe,” Bond said. “Most of the students, at least, are vaccinated, and I think it's fine as long as you're wearing masks. I’m just happy that we’re getting back to full capacity for games.”
Bond, like Ding and Skinner, has been a lifelong UNC fan, and he recalled memories of attending games with his father as a kid. More than anything, he’s just excited to see his team at all this year, especially with a new coach and playing under a new scheme.
“Roy (Williams) has always been traditional with the two-big offense,” Bond said. “We haven’t had a lot of 3-point shooting the past couple of years, so it will be interesting to see now.”
One thing seems certain: After 616 days, fans are ready to watch the Tar Heels play while feeling the energy of a fully loaded crowd alongside 21,000 of — at that moment — their closest friends.
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