Anytime I tell someone I’m going to cover a North Carolina men’s basketball game, I get one of two questions: “Can you get me a ticket?” and “Wow, That’s so awesome! What’s that like?”
I’ve always been able to easily answer the first question, a firm ‘no’ usually accompanied by a laugh. The second is a little tougher.
Coming to the NCAA national championship, I hoped I would be able to answer that question. What is it like to cover a top-notch basketball team, particularly during the greatest (in my humble opinion) tournament of the year?
I took on this assignment very superficially at first. Everywhere I went in the stadium, I was snapping pictures — in the press conferences, workrooms, locker rooms and even bathrooms. I wanted to be able to show what goes on behind the scenes, because that’s how I thought I could best answer the question: what’s it like to cover the UNC men’s basketball team?
While I have these pictures, and you can view them in a separate gallery online, I don’t think these pictures mean anything when it comes to answering this question.
For four years I have covered the Tar Heels. I’ve covered them for the past two tournament seasons, and for that I’m grateful beyond words. Not every one gets the opportunity to watch a great time like this one, let alone cover it. The UNC men's basketball team is a team unlike any other.
However, last night I didn’t play a daggum lick of basketball. I didn’t cheer in the stands. I didn’t play an instrument for the pep band. On Monday, I wore my lucky red pants and an NCAA vest and sat quietly on the sidelines taking pictures the entire game. I contributed nothing to the “team experience,” if that makes sense.
When the game was over, I couldn’t collapse on the sidelines and drown myself in tears. I picked myself up and took pictures as UNC tearfully left the court and Villanova rushed the court in celebration. I had to stay for the Villanova celebration and immerse myself in their joy. Then, I had to turn around and run into the UNC locker room and immerse myself in the haunting silence that filled the space.
Someone told me it must be easy to cover a team when it loses. The thought being, that I don’t have to feel the pressure to shove past crowds of people to get pictures of the team celebrating, I just need “sad pictures” and that’s “easy.”
Aside from the fact that taking pictures is never "easy," taking pictures of sadness is a heck of a lot harder than taking pictures of elation. When I was in the UNC locker room, the players didn’t want to be in there answering questions any more than I wanted to be in there taking their photos. I felt sick to my stomach getting on the ground, trying to make sure that “sadness” was felt in my work.
I wanted to leave the stadium and publish a paper filled with shots that showed the team in the best possible light, because that’s what I felt the team deserved after everything they’ve been through.
That’s when I realized what the team meant to me and furthermore what covering UNC men’s basketball means to me.
Showing up to work every day, with my camera and laptop in the Smith Center or wherever the Tar Heels are playing, is my version of “going home.” I don’t talk to the players near as much as the reporters do, and I bet none of them, except one, know my name or know of my existence.
But I know them. I know their facial expressions, their habits on and off the bench, the way they carry themselves. I know the team’s culture from the way the players and coaches communicate with each other in press conferences, open practices and clipped conversations in locker rooms and on the bench. I know the things they say to each other when they are running up and down the court together, working as a team.
I know this team, even if none of its members know me. I don’t mean this in a creepy way, after all this is my job. I’m supposed to know this team. But THIS team in particular has really grown on me.
I went through some of my old photos Monday night and saw one of the first pictures I ever took of Marcus Paige and cried a little, because the photos I took Monday night will probably be the last I ever take of any of these players. And that tears me up.
Covering the UNC men’s basketball team is a lot like coming home and being with family. While the players and coaches might not know who I am, and while I have no photos of myself with this so-called family, I consider them to be a major part of my life in a way that hits me deep in the chest. It’s a feeling I don’t think I will ever be able to wrap my head around, but I know I am grateful to have been a part of The Daily Tar Heel and to have also been able to watch this team grow and photograph them from the sidelines.
Monday night was one of the hardest nights for me, even more so for the players, but I am so grateful I was there to see them to the end of the road.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.