The Assembly’s monthly literary column highlights all things books in the Old North State. Author Wiley Cash helms the newsletter, which includes older books with new relevance, new titles with timely appeal, reviews, author Q&As, and excerpts. You can sign up for the newsletter here.
This month’s book is Together: The Amazing Story of Carolina Basketball’s 2021-2022 Basketball Season by Adam Lucas, Steve Kirschner, and Matt Bowers. Tobacco Road Media, 2022.
After being drafted during the Vietnam War and stationed in Germany, my father returned home and went to college on the GI Bill at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He, my mother, and my older sister, who was a toddler at the time, lived in a trailer not far from campus.
Times were tough and budgets were tight, but they were happy, largely because they loved where they lived. If my dad was lucky, he’d sometimes get a ticket to see George Karl, Bob McAdoo, Bobby Jones, and other members of those early 1970s teams play at Carmichael Auditorium.
My dad loved Carolina basketball. Although I hadn’t yet been born during those years in Chapel Hill, I was touched by their magic each time my dad and I sat down to watch a game together. While our bond was not built around sports, it was certainly cemented by it. When the team lost big games, I grieved for myself, the players, and my dad.
I have a clear memory of my mom making me go to bed before the end of the 1987 East Regional NCAA Tournament game. I snuck out of bed, turned on the small, portable radio/television combo my parents let me keep in my room, and stared at the tiny black and white screen as the game’s final seconds ticked away, tears streaking my face. I was heartbroken that the season was over, but I was even sadder that I hadn’t been sitting downstairs on the sofa beside my dad when it ended.
The last Carolina game my dad watched was the loss to Villanova in the 2016 NCAA championship. I wasn’t with him; my wife had just given birth to our second daughter, and I watched the game in the hospital room, my newborn daughter asleep in my arms, my shoulder cocked to hold the phone against my ear so my dad and I could talk after nearly every possession.
He passed away two months later, and I stopped watching Carolina basketball. I told myself it was because I had a young family and a busy career. There was some truth to that, but the larger truth was that I missed my dad, and watching Carolina basketball made me miss him even more.
I especially missed him after Hubert Davis was named head coach before the 2021 season. The news would’ve delighted my dad. Davis was one of his all-time favorite Tar Heels: a sharp-shooting devotee of the game who proved Dean Smith’s concerns about his talent wrong. Davis had been an integral player and leader, and went on to a successful 12-year career in the NBA.
But Davis’ hiring still wasn’t enough to get me back into the habit of watching UNC-CH games, and Carolina’s last season was pretty spotty. By the time they were scheduled to face Duke University at the Dean Dome on February 5, they were 17-6.
Then my brother-in-law called. A family friend had given him lower-level tickets to the home game against Duke, which would be Mike Krzyzewski’s last game at the Dean Dome after 42 seasons as head coach. How could I pass it up?
Now, reader, you might be considering me a Fairweather Johnson at this point in our story, but I would argue that term would only apply if Carolina’s fortunes had changed enough to secure the support of lukewarm fans. But that wasn’t the case. I don’t think anyone was expecting Carolina to beat Duke, but there was the expectation that fans—current or lapsed—would take advantage of the opportunity to exorcize 42 years of rivalry during Coach K’s last visit to Chapel Hill. I expected him to get booed, and he did.
I also expected Carolina to lose, and they did. They lost spectacularly, 87-67, and never led once during the game. I had never seen a team play with such hesitation and uncertainty.
Except for, that is, forward Brady Manek, who had scored 15 of Carolina’s 28 points at halftime. Perhaps because he was a fifth-year player who’d transferred in from the University of Oklahoma, he seemed like the only starter who wasn’t cowed by the storied rivalry. A sharpshooter who always seemed to make the wise offensive play, he reminded me a little of Hubert Davis.
Forward Leaky Black also reminded me of former players that my dad and I had loved, especially glue men like Ademola Okulaja and Jackie Manuel, players who were willing to take on the toughest defensive assignments.
Hubert Davis made an emotional locker room appeal to his players’ battered hearts after the game.
“There are only two choices,” he said. “Stay down on the mat and whine and complain and point fingers and make excuses. Or get up off the mat. Those are the only two choices. I’m already off the mat. My hope and expectation is everyone else in this locker room will do the same.”
The moment is portrayed in the new book Together: The Amazing Story of Carolina Basketball’s 2021-2022 Basketball Season, by Adam Lucas, Steve Kirschner, and Matt Bowers. The authors are the ultimate UNC-CH insiders; Lucas is a featured columnist at GoHeels.com, the official website of Carolina Athletics, and Kirschner and Bowers are the senior associate and associate athletic directors for communications at UNC-CH, respectively. Their access to the behind-the-scenes story of the 2021-22 season is born out in revelation after revelation throughout the book.
For example, Davis took steps before the season to get to know his players on a level most coaches never reach. Over the summer, he personally shuttled players back and forth to the airport, taking advantage of precious time where he had their attention and they had his. He required players to visit the team office at least once a week, ensuring that they were familiar with the entirety of the basketball program. He asked the players what was important to them, from footwear to game gear to social issues. How could the program better reflect their personalities and interests?
“That really meant a lot to us,” said Armando Bacot, now a senior center. “He didn’t promise to do everything we asked for, but he heard a lot of those requests.”
When Davis asked the players to get up off the mat and join him after that Duke game, they heard his request. Carolina won three of their next four games before heading to Duke on March 5 for the final game of the regular season.
After a tight first half that ended with Duke up by two, Carolina shot 60 percent from the floor in the second half and adjusted the defense. Coach K’s final home game ended with a 94-81 loss for Duke that more than made up for the shellacking his team had given Carolina just weeks earlier.
Together details not just the personal details of the season, but the offensive and defensive adjustments that led to an unexpected turnaround. For example, UNC-CH had longed relied on the secondary break, but the coaching staff saw that they were wasting 10 or 15 seconds on each possession while holding out for the perfect high-low pass. Davis instead ran sets with two players in the corners and two players on the wings, with the big man—most often Bacot—free to roll toward the basket.
On defense, they reframed what it meant to play one-on-one; instead, they saw it as five-on-five.
“When you’re playing one-on-one defense, you’re only worried about the guy you are guarding,” said Black. “When you are playing five-on-five defense, everyone else has your back.”
“We started playing defense together instead of by ourselves,” added Manek.
These adjustments came to fruition in UNC-CH’s run through the NCAA Tournament, where they met Duke in the Final Four for the first time in the programs’ storied rivalry. They again beat Duke, and earned a spot in the championship.
They lost 72-69 to the University of Kansas, which hurt—but it was hard to feel too heartbroken for a team that hadn’t even been considered in the running a few weeks earlier.
What Together does best is introduce readers to the stories of thoughtful and interesting young men they might only know through their television screens, like Leaky Black. During his first three years as a Tar Heel, Black struggled with his role on the team, and his insecurity was highest after he wasn’t voted a team captain.
Introverted and quiet, Black was hesitant to voice his struggles with anxiety. That changed after former defensive specialist Jackie Manuel, now Director of Player and Team Development, gained Black’s confidence as a mentor. Soon, the two were praying with one another before games, and Black began to be recognized on campus as much for his defensive performances as for his willingness to publicly discuss his battles with anxiety. Black made the All-ACC Defensive Team.
Together also includes interesting insights: What kind of trash were Duke players still talking in the closing moments of the regular season’s final game? What did Bacot make of Coach K’s farewell tour? How panicked was the on-court huddle after Brady Manek was ejected during the tight contest in the Elite Eight against Baylor University? The retelling of these rather mundane moments make a magical season feel even more so.
I hate that my father didn’t get to see this season, but I’m happy that I did. I miss him, and I’d missed Carolina basketball. Together, perhaps even more than the 2021-22 season itself, reminded me why.
Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and the founder of This Is Working, an online creative community. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and he teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their daughters.