But it's where the ACC tournament lives.
And Roy Williams, for all his down-home, deep-fried, sugary Southern-ness, surely has never been there. Any man that takes as little interest in the ACC tournament as Williams does, has never been there, especially one that treats the conference tourney with the chagrined displeasure of visiting your mother-in-law.
If he had, he would've never called the ACC tournament a "cocktail party," as he has repeated again this week, or called it an exercise in greed. In fact, in any small town across the state of North Carolina, those would probably be the same kind of fighting words as if you called someone's wife a down lineman, kicked their dog and poured their last beer out onto their television.
I know, because I've been there.
It's where I went to elementary school, and not far from where I'd go to middle school and high school further up highway 158 – a literal tobacco road where the trailers carrying golden leaves to market would drop the things all over the road like some sort of over-sized ticker-tape parade.
And it's where, every Friday during the ACC tournament, the granddaddy of them all was televised in every classroom.
A Friday-Sunday event in those days, the opening games of the ACC tournament was one of those moments you didn't deprive your kids of, the same way you'd gather around the television for a shuttle launch or a presidential address. It was part of the curriculum in the class of being from North Carolina. (The electives, including why NASCAR's restrictor plate is a plot of the unholy, were ever so politely declined)
Sure, whatever it was that we were supposed to learn that day never quite seeped in, even if the television's sound was likely off. (After all, unlike waterboarding, even the Justice Department agrees subjecting kids to Billy Packer is a form of torture).
So to this day I still think the primary colors are red, green, Duke blue and Carolina blue and for the life of me, the answer to where a train leaving from Miami at 9 AM and one leaving at New York at 12 PM might meet, is "I don't know, but I can guarantee you Muggsy Bogues would've been faster."
In middle school, we'd study gravity only to realize everything Sir Isaac believed held no water in the face of Grant Hill. We learned that, in basic geometry, the shortest distance between any two points was a Chris Corchiani pass. By the time calculus rolled around, the derivative of X-squared on ACC tournament Friday was Exree Hipp. And I'm still fairly certain Beowulf ends with Grendl not being able to stop Randolph Childress.
At least once a year we went to school with Bobby Hurley and Bob Sura, Rodney Rogers, Walt Williams, "Lethal Weapon 3," Fire and Ice. (In the case of "amphibious" N.C. State legend and questionable fellow scholar Charles Shackleford, I'm certain we spent more time in a classroom with him than any N.C. State student.) We guaranteed that the only time we'd earn five "As" on ACC tournament Friday was if Alaa Abdelnaby was playing.
Steve C. Wilson, AP
Gene J. Puskar, AP
Darron Cummings, AP
Danny Johnston, AP
Jae C. Hong, AP
Steve Helber, AP
Don Petersen, AP
Mark Humphrey, AP
Kevin Rivoli, AP
Tom Gannam, AP
Where the greed and cocktail party fits in all that, we never quite figured out. But if civics class taught us anything, it's that every man has a right to make his case, though if you're Dean Smith and Rick Barnes, it may result in technicals.
"It's what it is," Williams said again in a conference call with reporters Monday. "I said it's for money, said it's the biggest cocktail party. It's still a party, I don't care what anybody says. It's a party to make money. ... I loved it as a fan, I don't love it as much as a coach with the attention the other tournament gets and the emphasis we try and put on it.
"We won the ACC tournament the last two years in a row, but we didn't win the NCAA tournament. How do you think our fans feel about what we've done? One publication last year asked if our season was a success or a failure. We went 36-3, won the regular season and the ACC tournament, so you tell me how important it is if somebody's going to say you went 36-3, win those and then ask if it's a success or failure? You get to answer your own question."
Williams might have a national title and a pair of ACC tournament crowns, but when it comes to understanding what the ACC tournament means, the North Carolina coach can kick rocks.
If Tar Heel fans were upset at the end of each of the past two seasons, it was precisely because a team good enough to win the ACC Tournament flamed out so ineptly in the NCAA tournament. And that blame belongs on the coach himself.
In 2007, on a roster that included ACC freshman of the year Brandan Wright, two future ACC players of the year in Tyler Hansbrough and Tywon Lawson, and likely future NBA players Danny Green and Wayne Ellington, North Carolina blew a 10-point lead to Georgetown with six minutes left to play, making only one of 23 shots in a 15-minute span, including misfiring on its first 12 in overtime. The Hoyas finished on a 28-9 run.
You don't have to be Michael Jordan to make the leap that your fans may just have been miffed that their coach couldn't settle down one awfully talented team or figure out how to solve Georgetown's zone. Don't pin that on the ACC tournament.
Last year, the Tar Heels fell behind 40-12 to Kansas in the Final Four without Williams so much as calling a timeout. While Tar Heel nation probably gave the coach high marks for cleaning his glasses during that 40-12 run, it's hard not to blame them for feeling let down after a performance like that, particularly because those Heels had just swept their way to another ACC title.
And coach, If the expectations are too high, that's simply the price you pay for sitting on the sideline of one of college basketball's most storied programs. A program the ACC tournament helped build.
And no, the ACC tournament isn't a "cocktail party." Trust us, Mike Krzyzewski and Al Skinner aren't going to be talking about the virtues of the Bun Roller over brie and merlot at mid-court. Seth Greenberg and Frank Haith aren't going to have a friendly debate about the Obama stimulus plan, then fake a phone call so that they might leave before somebody breaks out Pictionary.
And it's not just about money, or else the tournament would be held in the cavernous Georgia Dome every year, as it is this year and as it was in 2001 when it set an all-time attendance record for a conference tournament. Rather, its most frequent homes are the cozier confines of the Greensboro Coliseum, the Verizon Center and the St. Pete Times Forum. Heck, this event hasn't sold a ticket to the public since 1966, so if it's profit margin the league is concerned with, then the ACC is run by a bunch of businessmen who make GM look visionaries.
The ACC tournament isn't irrelevant. In fact, it's the only conference tournament that matters.
Some others are still too new, like the Pac-10 and the Big Ten; others, like the SEC and Big 12 seem like something to do between signing day and spring football kick. The Big East matches the ACC for competition, but when the ACC tournament comes to town, it isn't just another name on the Madison Square marquee in a city that's in love with the Yankees, Giants, Rangers and a Travis-Henry's-family-sized laundry list of teams before St. John's and the rest of the Big East. And the ACC isn't dragged down by teams at the bottom that have as much hope winning the thing as Williams has appearing on the cover of GQ.
Compared to the ACC tournament, the importance of all the other conference tournaments exists only in the minds of their fans, like the national championship in football, or the appeal of soccer.
After all, it's where March Madness was born. The epic 1974 overtime final between Maryland and N.C. State gave rise to multiple bids from a single conference. In 1982, the Tar Heels' slowdown four-corner offense led to the introduction of the shot clock and the 3-pointer, wiping boring basketball from the face of the Earth. (At least outside the Big Ten).
It's where "Survive and Advance" was born. Without the ACC Tournament, Jim Valvano, who used the phrase to describe his improbable 1983 national title, never runs around the Albuquerque court in need of a hug the way everyone else needs oxygen. N.C. State was the No. 4 seed in that ACC tournament. It won its opening game by one point, its second in overtime and the title by three points, felling Virginia and its redwood of a center Ralph Sampson. Without this "cocktail party" one of sports' most joyous moments would have been an unexposed photograph, a moment in time that never happened.
It's where the best basketball in the nation happens. Six teams out of the ACC have been good enough to win the national title since 1991, but only two of them, Duke in 1992 and 2001, were good enough to win the ACC tournament in the same year. The last two national champions, Maryland in 2002 and Williams' 2005 team, didn't survive the ACC semifinals. Ten times the AP's No. 1 ranked team played in the ACC tournament. Nine of those went to the Final Four, with only Jordan's 1984 North Carolina team losing in the second round.
It's where experience still matters, in a game dominated by one-and-done players who treat college like a kid treats broccoli before his dessert. Only five freshmen have won the Everett Case Award as ACC tournament MVP and two of those were Phil Ford and Sam Perkins nearly 30 years ago.
It's where conference tournaments matter.
When Wake Forest won back-to-back titles in the mid-90s, its first titles since Packer himself wore the gold and black, it mattered. When Duke passed North Carolina with 16 titles to the Tar Heels' 15 in 2006, it mattered, and when North Carolina returned the favor two years later, it mattered again. It matters to this day to those same fans -- and their expectations -- that Williams grumbles about.
Sure, it's not as important as the NCAA tournament. But it still matters. It's going to the fair on the way to Disneyworld. It's salmon before steak. It's the Stones opening for the Beatles.
And with all due respect to Roy Williams, it's the only conference tournament that matters. Go ahead, ask anyone in Vaughan.