I watched the game at the bar where I made my first friends in Chapel Hill, the place where I met my wife, the place to which I keep returning from Pittsboro like a fish upriver, unlearning but obedient. The seat at the end of the bar was inexplicably empty when I arrived. “Take it, you’re one of the old regulars,” said one of the not-as-old regulars.
Later I watched the game outside, projected against the side of the old VisArt. We shouted and pleaded with the cinderblock wall, and then we celebrated it. I laid my hand on the brick and the picture went out.
I called my wife, who said as long as I was up there, I better go up to Franklin Street. I had been to basketball celebrations as a younger reporter, always inventing new ways to describe happy people burning toilet paper, but I’d never covered a national championship.
I quickly lost my companions–two bartenders, a poet and a friendly Scotsman. I plunged into the crowd anyway, and found myself moving unerringly toward the bonfire.
At the center the pressure was intense and applied itself according to the capricious natural law of crowds. The most desperate urge at the inner circle was not to jump over the fire, but to retreat from the precipice for fear of being consumed. We pushed back and held onto each other, and sometimes the crowd gave way, and sometimes we were thrust forward so quickly that there was no choice but to jump. I jumped five times.
I was the oldest person I saw, and so took it upon myself to act as a protector. I yanked people back when they stumbled toward the flames, which looked less like a bonfire than an industrial accident, wires and metal glowing and twisting and ashing white among toilet paper and articles of clothing. I brushed burning paper from the hair of a tall man to my left. I tried to explain to a hopeful young man that a metal tube probably wouldn’t make good kindling.
“Won’t burn!” I shouted.
“Go Heels!” he shouted back.
I walked back from the mob knowing that time could no longer be suspended by my daydreams, by the comforts of the view through that window across from my bar stool. Since arriving in Chapel Hill nine years ago, I’ve stared for hours at a time at those same cinderblocks on which Raymond Felton sank his last free throw. I sat in front of the window flanked by the photographs of two friends who had died too early, and under their watch I was a conqueror of worlds, a legend, an artist of renown, a great athlete, a good and decent man. Then the next day would come, and I would forget.
Over the years, some hopes fruited into something real; others disappeared. I found less to daydream about. Still the barstool drew me. And then a team, consistent for more than a decade in its futility if not its talent, won it all, and I became a man with a wife and a daughter, jumping over fire. The Iceman had cometh, only this time he broke free and tipped the errant pass his way. We celebrate this in basketball without reservation. In life, however, witnessing transcendence can inspire a happiness shot through with grief for lost time.
I had no need to jump over fires anymore, even if five minutes before it was all I could do. Something had been completed. The ball rested in Sean May’s hands. There were other things to do.