Carolina on His Mind

By Zachary Block '99 / March / April 2002
July 1st, 2007
Thad Williamson wasn't always a University of North Carolina basketball fan. For a couple of seconds when he was four, the Chapel Hill native actually rooted for rival North Carolina State. That was until his nine-year-old brother, George, set him straight. "No, that's wrong," George declared. "We all root for UNC. That's who we are, and that's who you have to root for."

Williamson has bled teal and white ever since.

He spent six years working the wooden scoreboard at the end of the North Carolina bench. Occasionally, when one of the other volunteers called in sick, Williamson would be allowed to wipe sweat off the basketball court. Although political activism took precedence over basketball during his time at Brown, Williamson kept in touch with the Tar Heels through a subscription to the weekly Carolina Blue and by dialing up game updates and making friends with basketball fans who had cable-wired apartments. After Brown he worked part-time for five years covering UNC games for Inside Carolina magazine and writing a column on the monthly's Web site. He continues to write occasionally for the magazine.

This lifelong commitment to UNC basketball informs much of Williamson's new book, More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much to So Many (Economic Affairs Bureau). The book - part memoir, part social-science tract - chronicles Williamson's personal relationship with Carolina basketball and takes a political and sociological look at its impact on fans. The book includes excerpts from fan diaries and interviews with legendary UNC coach Dean Smith, his successor Bill Guthridge, and current coach Matt Doherty. It also analyzes the results of a lengthy written survey completed by more than 600 UNC fans.

On a personal level, Williamson, who is pursuing a doctorate in political science at Harvard, says UNC basketball helped him get through the suicide of a friend during his sophomore year at Brown. For years, he says, watching a UNC basketball game was the only time he could turn on the television and not be cynical. "My alienation from mainstream American culture would have been a lot more thorough had it not been for my love for Carolina basketball," he writes in More Than a Game.

Williamson says he decided to write the book after Guthridge, a family friend, retired, prompting fans to become increasingly restless about the team. He says he wanted to explore how people approach sports, particularly college sports, and how fans can be loyal without letting the games take over their lives. It's a particularly relevant message this season, UNC's worst in decades.

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March / April 2002