Carmichael Memories Won't Pay The Bills, but They'll Bring UNC Basketball History to Life

Brant Wilkerson-New

CHAPEL HILL — Watching the North Carolina women play games in Carmichael Arena, Brandon Robinson always wondered what it might be like for the men to return to the building that served as the home for Dean Smith’s Tar Heels from 1965-86.

“I always said, ‘Man, what if we played a game in here?,’” Robinson said.

Indeed, Carolina will return to its roots on Sunday when it plays host to Wofford (4 p.m., ACC Network) thanks to a scheduling quirk created by a graduation at the Smith Center and travel plans for next week’s game at Gonzaga.

Roy Williams has been around for the past two games the Carolina men have played in Carmichael: a first-round NIT victory over William & Mary in 2010 and the final regular season game, when the top-ranked Tar Heels beat N.C. State 90-79 on Jan. 4, 1986.

Then a 35-year old assistant to Smith, Williams smiled as he recounted the famous story of Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano taking the game ball after the buzzer and, still in his suit, dribbling in for a layup.

He wanted to score the “last” basket in what was then Carmichael Auditorium.

“If I had known that, I’d have run over and blocked the sucker,” Williams said. “Nobody knew he was going to do that, but I thought it was great for Jimmy.”

What sticks out in Williams’ mind from that day is Smith coming back onto the court after the game and waving farewell to the fans after what would be his final game in the building.

All these years later, he’s still got a special place in his heart that served as his first home as a Tar Heel when he arrived in 1968 and learned the game from his mentor, helping him land his first head coaching job at Kansas in 1968.

“It was just a great place to coach,” Williams said. “The enthusiasm, the noise. It was a tremendous home court advantage, which is what I liked … the attention from the crowd was just off the charts.”

He loved it so much, that at the time, Smith asked his staff what they’d like to see in the building that eventually became known as the Smith Center.

“My reaction was, ‘I want the closest seat in the Smith Center to be just like the closest seat was in Carmichael,’” Williams said. “He said, ‘Well, go measure,’ and so I did, and came back and gave it to him and supposedly, that's what they did.”

On Saturday, Carolina will practice in Carmichael ahead for a regular-season game there for the first time in more than 30 years, and that workout will most certainly include a little bit of a history lesson for the current Tar Heels, as they weren’t even born until more than a decade after it closed.

Robinson admitted he wasn’t versed in the history of Carmichael or what the Carolina greats had done there.

“I’ve never seen a game in Carmichael,” he said. “My dad has, though.”

And as nice as it might be for Williams and others to take that trip down memory lane this week, it’s unlikely to become a regular occurrence.

Just like Robinson, the coach has long wondered about the idea of the men playing a game there, talking it over with Clint Gwaltney, Carolina’s senior associated athletic director for operations and event management.

“There are so many things that go into it, you know, the season ticket holders and not getting games, not getting in there necessarily,” Williams said. “There's no simple answer to it.”

The issue isn’t tough to figure out, as the Smith Center seats 21,750 vs. the 6,822 that Carmichael holds after renovation, making an otherwise low-interest game a hot ticket on the secondary market, with lower-level prices starting at over $100.

Inevitably, folks with season-tickets in the Smith Center will be left outside of Carmichael on Sunday. Add that frustration to the revenue lost by having roughly 14,000 fewer fans in attendance via tickets, parking and concessions, and it simply doesn’t make financial sense to make a throwback game an annual event.

“I don't think you can, guys,” Williams said. “I mean, you’re paying a lot of money to have seats. There's a lot of things to consider … in today's college athletic world, you need money.”

Memories don’t pay the bills, but for a few hours on Sunday, they’ll certainly be enough to bring a part of Carolina history back to life for everyone from children in the stands who’ve only heard stories of Phil Ford, Bobby Jones and Michael Jordan to those like Williams who lived it on the sidelines.

It’ll be pretty neat for the guys on the floor, too.

“It’s happening now, so I’m excited and just can’t wait for it,” Robinson said. “I know it’s going to be loud in there.”

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