CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Every college campus in America with any charm to spare has this spot. A place where legend yanked ahold of fact long ago and created a magical story to be passed down to freshmen for eternity.
At the University of North Carolina, where I graduated seven years ago, that spot is the old Davie Poplar tree, hovering over the north quad here, a symbol for romantic dreamers.
The first Davie Poplar story is that Revolutionary War General William R. Davie supposedly stopped at Davie Poplar's trunk, picking this site to build the newborn country's first public university, chartered in 1789. That's likely not true.
The other Davie Poplar fairy tale is that any two people who kiss underneath its branches are destined to marry. That one is definitely not true.
The Davie Poplar's buds have become baby leaves by this Monday morning, just as they have every April for hundreds of years. But something is amiss.
Inside of colonial brick buildings all over this Southern campus, tenured professors must be bemoaning their half-empty classrooms. That's because many of their students are about 200 yards to the other side of the Davie Poplar, lining up for the chance to partake in a more tangible local legend.
The celebration of a men's basketball national championship on Franklin Street.
Every person on Franklin Street today has a story to tell. The folks' ages range from yet unborn to well into their 70s. Many of them have nothing in common except for the baby blue shade of their clothing and that they hope to God to be high-fiving each other tonight in what they call the "Southern part of heaven."
I'm no different. I see myself in all of them -- the little girl amazed that everyone in town is wearing blue as easily as I see myself in her grandfather whose hand she's holding crossing Franklin Street as he explains that there's a big game tonight and they embark on a stroll down the red-brick walkways of campus.
To borrow from another mythical character, Terence Mann, there's a reason we're all here. Despite the fact that the game's being played 492 miles away.
There's a reason why you can still buy a framed panoramic photo here of the mob scene on the 2005 title night (only $129.95!), and why I had a photo of the 1993 celebration on my bedroom wall as a teenager. And why that photo came with me to my dorm room in 1998.
There's a reason why I wore fondly for years the shorts that had a hole burned into the leg from a Franklin Street bonfire during the 2000 Final Four run.
There's a reason why the Chapel Hill police estimate that 50,000 people, roughly double the student population, will descend upon this street after the game, if the Tar Heels win.
There's a reason why the police have asked local businesses that sell paint to restrict their distribution of light blue.
There's a reason why Surplus Sids ran an ad in Friday's student newspaper boasting "We Have BLUE BODY PAINT!" anyhow.
There's a reason why a police officer told The Daily Tar Heel a story from 2005's fiesta, when cops had to stop a group from carrying a couch-turned-potential-kindling down the street to toss upon the already raging fires.
There's a reason why even though I turn 30 this year and am now officially too old to crash on friends' couches, that's exactly what I'm doing tonight.
There's a reason why the same scenes and anticipations, only in green, are playing out in East Lansing, Mich., today.
We want to be a part of this all, and we want this all to be a part of us.
There's a reason why Chris Webber is here.
Inside of 24-hour greasy chicken-and-biscuits joint Time-Out are photos from decades ago of former Tar Heels making a "T" sign with their hands for Time-Out. Michael Jordan is on the wall, in his 1980s early Air Jordan days, flashing the "T" on a Chapel Hill street.
But the biggest photo is of Webber, calling for that infamous timeout that Michigan did not have in the 1993 national championship game against the Tar Heels. Webber is known for a lot of things, but in Chapel Hill that will always be his defining moment. Seeing that panicked look on his face feels appropriate, given that UNC is about to play another Michigan school for another title.
Amy Smith, class of 1993, was here on Franklin Street when Webber called that timeout. I've just landed at Raleigh-Durham airport and spot her wearing a powder blue NC hat awaiting her luggage at the baggage carousel, debating with her boyfriend about where to watch the game.
He's a Florida State guy and isn't too keen on fighting the crunch in Chapel Hill, from parking, to traffic and the extreme effort it takes to even get into a bar. Amy mentions the idea of watching at the Dean E. Smith Center, where several thousand fans will watch and part of the band will play, but she doesn't even sound convinced herself.
They've more or less settled on watching out in Raleigh, where they live. There will be plenty of Tar Heels fans on the scene there to make a fun time. And Amy has experienced Franklin Street at this moment before. She has that memory, and is content to let it live. She loves that night in 1993, and her eyes get big and light up when she talks about, but she also remembers the savagery of the scene after the final seconds ticked off after Webber's timeout.
"I was startled," she says. "Pandemonium. I couldn't physically walk. I was practically being carried the crowd was so thick. People were throwing blue paint everywhere. It was a great memory, but once was probably enough."
There's a reason why 100 people are lined up outside the bar with the best postgame vantage point, Top of the Hill, at 3 a.m.
Even a couple of waiters have been in line since midnight. The owner, they say, could fill the place with friends alone if he wanted, but he doesn't want to play favorites. He prefers to give everyone a fair chance to make his or her own memories, and gaze down onto the delirious crowd from up above.
From a distance, all you can hear on an otherwise sleepy night on Franklin Street are birds chirping and a chant of "TAR! HEELS!" As you approach, there are people sleeping, snacking, studying, playing spades, drinking Natural Light out of plastic cups and reminiscing on the sidewalk. Many of them did the same thing two nights ago for the Final Four.
They're mostly a mix of students and recent graduates back to celebrate with friends who are still in school and can offer a free place to stay. But if they're sleeping on a sidewalk, that hardly seems to matter.
Reece Craven, class of 2008, works for a Fox television affiliate in High Point about an hour away. He was here Saturday, went back to work Sunday until 11 p.m., then drove straight back to Chapel Hill to join his friends on the sidewalk.
Mike Leyva, class of 2008, drove up from Jacksonville, Fla., where he's a sales and marketing rep for Hershey's. "In September, I told my boss I was going to work my a-- off for several months, so I could come here," he says.
Erin Littrell, class of 2008, came from New York, where she works in ad sales for The Wall Street Journal. She and her roommate woke up at 6 a.m. Saturday, caught a taxi to Penn Station, took the Long Island Rail Road out to Queens, then rode the AirTrain to Kennedy Airport to fly down. Erin was a freshman when UNC won the 2005 championship.
"Probably one of the funnest weekends I've ever had," she says. "It was not enough. It was so much fun. It was a disaster."
Brian Krug, class of 2011, says that several professors have canceled classes for Monday and Tuesday, knowing the cause was futile. His Spanish teacher was unaware of the basketball tournament, and after several minutes of trying to find the words to explain to him in Spanish how important this game and this day was, the students eventually broke class rule and filled him in in English. He canceled class, too.
"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity," Krug says. "I was fortunate enough to come to Carolina when we're recruiting like this. How lucky am I to be here for this, an undergrad on Franklin Street for a national championship?"
By 4 a.m., the line is around the corner. By noon the next day, they've made their reservations at Top of the Hill and nothing remains on the sidewalk except for some abandoned rain-soaked sleeping bags.
There's a reason why John Tyler and his son Rutland are here.
John was a freshman in 1963, '64 and '65, he says. While Rutland, class of 1999, is the co-owner of Linda's Bar and Grill.
Rutland's business has been fairly steady despite the recession, a fact he attributes to Linda's being a "hole in the wall, mom and pop" bar instead of a higher-end place. But he's thrilled to see his cash registers go off at about triple their normal pace during tournament games.
John, the Clerk of Superior Court in Bertie County, is wearing a blue and white bowtie with a v-neck sweater and recalling watching the 1957 triple-overtime national championship win against Wilt Chamberlain's Kansas on television as an 11-year-old.
He's tickled perhaps twice as much to be here for the game as anybody less than half his age. He was here for the title in 2005, fulfilling a lifelong dream that he's trying to make into a recurring fantasy it felt so good the first time.
When UNC won it all in 1982, his young kids, Rutland included, kept John at home to watch on TV again. Then in 1993, those kids were too old to leave at home alone or they might've "burned the house down" if he had come to watch Franklin Street ablaze in glory. So in 2005 he finally made it and had so much fun that he's back for more.
When asked if he'll jump over a bonfire, he says, "If I can get down there, I will." He's joking, but I wonder by just how much.
Two hours after this 2009 championship game has ended and the scene on Franklin Street is still lunacy, John is standing on the sidewalk a safe distance away taking it all in. His bowtie is a touch crooked now, as is his smile.
John looks almost guilty with pleasure, like a boy who put one over on his parents like his kids might have done had John not been home to keep an eye on them in 1993. He looks like a proud papa, pacing in front of Linda's and watching so many revelers spontaneously jump and dance and scream and shout like fools.
"For 53 years my entire life has revolved around the Heels," he says, pointing out that now he has been a fan for all five of their national championships, and he just wants to win one title for every decade of his life. But now that he's able to enjoy them on Franklin Street and he's seen two in five years here, his grin is getting greedier.
"Maybe two for every decade!" he says.
There's a reason why Tony Pough, class of 1995, is here.
He's been standing outside of Goodfellow's for four hours to get inside to watch the game. His wife, Von, had to work through the afternoon, so she couldn't come from Raleigh with him. But Tony lost his data management job two months ago, which made it easier for him to drop off their 2-year-old girl Ava at Von's aunt's house to head to Franklin Street, grab a book and a newspaper and stand at the front of the line for the party.
"I have a very understanding woman," he says.
Tony is from Queens, N.Y., but has been a diehard Tar Heel ever since coming to college and becoming a high jumper on the track team. He was on Franklin Street in 1993 and 2005, so he knew he couldn't miss this one, either.
"It's the real deal," he says. "Whew. Mayhem. It's going to be bedlam."
There's a reason why Nick Mentel, class of 2005, is here.
He, too, lost his job, on Oct. 29, the 80th anniversary of 1929's Black Tuesday on Wall Street. Nick worked in finance for Lehman Brothers in New York, and is headed to the Wharton School for business at the University of Pennsylvania.
His senior year he went to St. Louis to watch the national championship in person, and now he's back to cross the Franklin Street experience off his sentimental checklist.
Coming down from New York was a last-minute decision, but one that was inevitable. He hopped a cheap Chinatown bus to Philadelphia on Sunday, then rode down with a friend to Chapel Hill in a 1999 Pontiac Grand Am with no air conditioning, the windows down all the way on I-95 and the turn signal constantly making a clicking sound as if it was on, even though it was not.
"I've been here for big wins before, but never a championship," Nick says. "And you never know when this will happen again. I'm unemployed right now, so I can take the time to do this. It's a unique opportunity, and you have to take advantage of those opportunities."
There's a reason why Greg Rocco, class of 2001, is here.
He watched the Final Four games down in Atlanta on Saturday night, got home at 2:30 a.m. and was on the highway by lunchtime Sunday. But not before doing a one-item load of laundry.
He's worn the same pair of red-and-blue plaid J. Crew boxers for every tournament game this year. There's nothing particularly special about these boxers, just happened to be the ones he had on when UNC beat Radford in the first round. Thankfully he has washed them after every round. He threw them in the washer when he got home Saturday night, then into the dryer when he woke up Sunday morning. Good as new, and hopped in his car.
"I was here in 2005," he says. "Why would I take off two days from work and drive that far if I didn't already know how awesome it was?"
There's a reason why Clay Stapleford, class of 1997, is here.
He's wandering Franklin Street trying to scout out a location to watch the game later with more friends heading for town as we speak. He jokes that maybe the television inside a Subway restaurant will have to do.
Clay came up from Atlanta with his college roommate, Matt Wickline, class of 1998, Matt's wife, Taylor, class of 1997, and their daughter, Marin.
"She's a fourth-generation Tar Heel," Taylor proudly says about their 2-year-old girl. Perhaps she will be class of 2029 one day, back celebrating with the lifelong friends she made while studying in this town as well.
Clay makes a reservation at the Carolina Inn hotel here every year for the night of the national championship game, just in case.
"Until I have a really good reason to not be here on Franklin Street for a national championship game, I'm gonna be here," he says.
When asked what might one day qualify as a sufficient reason to miss this, he laughs and wonders if there is a possible answer because of how much these experiences with old friends and new strangers mean to him. As well as how much this town and university mean to him.
"That's a great question," Clay says. "I'm not sure." He thinks for a few seconds. "I can't think of one. Maybe if I was in jail. Or maybe if my future wife was in labor. Maybe."
There's a reason why I, class of 2002, am here.
I'm here in Linda's Bar and Grill, just like I was many nights in another life. A pint cost 50 cents more and the faces are strange now, but the looks in their eyes are not.
They all just want to have a fun time together, to release some steam together, in this moment, wherever their lives happen to be stationed.
Life is changing, bits at a time as it does, and I'm getting married next month. The priority that moments like this command will likely diminish a little more with each year. There will still be memories to be made, but the brand of memories will gradually evolve -- more family vacations and graduations, less basketball and bonfires.
The changes have already started happening. There's a reason why even though I live 500 miles away that this was the first season since 1997 that I did not attend a game in the Dean Dome, for work or pleasure. But there's also a reason why I still have a 919 area code for my cell phone.
And walking around town and campus on this Monday afternoon, I know without a doubt that I made the right call in scrambling to get down here from New York.
Campus isn't as crowded with backpack-lugging students as on a normal Monday. Instead the buzzing life around town between the blooming dogwoods is made up of generations of UNC families and friends sharing tales and pointing out to each other to remember where this happened or that happened back when they were in school. Some were parents reliving their youth through their children now in school here. Some were taking campus tours with their prospective-student children. There is a tremendous buzz about the town's busy sidewalks, and unmistakable looks on everyone's face that each one of them is in on a secret that they share with every stranger they pass, no matter how different we all are.
When I came to study in Chapel Hill, I daydreamed about celebrating a national championship on this street. And that looked entirely possible, perhaps likely, upon entry. The Tar Heels had been to four of the previous six Final Fours. But life did not pan out that way during my four undergraduate years.
So here I am again.
The game is over, the Tar Heels drilled Michigan State, 89-72.
I hop up off my bar stool, high-five some old friends I ran into while here as they head out the door single-file onto Franklin Street, and then I hit the street as well.
The crowd is coming, running up the road by the thousands. Hopping, skipping, singing, yelling, chanting, floating on air. It's all in slow motion.
I see champagne, cigars, fireworks, bonfires every direction I turn. But what gets me the most is how many unbridled embraces I see. Everywhere, people are leaping into each other's arms, feet off the ground for seconds at a time, squeezing each other like they can't believe this euphoric moment has arrived, that the journey has paid off. They're holding on like they know the moment will be gone as soon as they let go, too. But the memories will always be burned onto their minds, so they can tell their children and grandchildren all about it one day when they visit Chapel Hill again. They'll tell them how Franklin Street smelled like the best campfire that's ever been.
There's plenty else to tell, too. The giant street sign that is no longer on its perch atop a light post but instead is atop the outstretched arms of a sea of revelers, being used as a crowd-surfing board for a woman standing on top of it.
There's the fact that being anywhere near the heart of this happy beast of a crowd feels like being at the mercy of the sea's undertoe. Just like I had been told would happen, I have lost complete control of my feet. We're all moving in waves, forward two steps, back three steps. And all over again.
There's the three guys leaning against a building taking it all in, sounding like a barbershop scene from Coming To America.
"We whooped that a--."
"We whipped their a--."
There are tears and blood, and people climbing every light post and tree they can find. The police are almost powerless they're so outnumbered, and are getting pushed around in the crowd, too.
A spontaneous "Electric Slide" breaks out, about 100 people stepping in unison to the first dance they ever learned to do as kids.
Guys are taking off their shirts and lighting them ablaze to provide more bonfires to leap over. Then they drop to the ground to do pushups on top of the 18-inch high flames. When they hop back up their chests are black from the smoke.
I'm speechless from taking in the whole scene, and I feel a renewed sense of pride for this place. It's not the debauchery or shirtless pushups that I'm proud of, especially not after a brief fight brings a flying fist right by my head. It's just that seeing this many people care this much about this town and this school and this team, it validates all the feelings of nostalgia that well up inside of me when I think about my time here. I must not be crazy. I must have gotten it right. Just look at all these people who love like I do, too.
I finally fight my way through the crowd and circle the block down a more navigable street and head back to Linda's Bar and Grill. As I walk, I can't help but wonder, who will I be? Amy at the airport who was here in 1993 and said that once was enough? Or so many of the others I talked to these last two days who come back whenever a national title is on the line? After getting pushed around so much, I'm leaning toward the once-will-do camp.
I walk back into Linda's and find myself at a table of alumni who drove in from Raleigh when the game ended to soak in the scene.
Larry Green, class of 1965, is the leader of the bunch that includes his son, class of 1995, and a couple of his friends who graduated within the last five years.
Larry was here on Franklin Street in 1982 when Michael Jordan won Dean Smith's first championship. And he's been here for every national title celebration since. In 1982, there were no bonfires, he says, but Larry was a younger man then who got out into the crowd and mixed it up with everyone else.
Tonight he just wants to be here and see it and feel connected to it all again. He was the person in the group who wanted to drive to Chapel Hill most of all, leading the charge. Now they're here, sharing pints, toasting and swelling with pride. Larry looks pleased with himself to be passing this tradition on to his son and his younger friends.
I can't help but ask him, he's been here for 1982, 1993 and 2005 already, and he's not getting any younger in this rowdy crowd, so why does he keep coming back? Why is he here tonight instead of in bed?
"I don't want to get old," he says.
Now I know that I'll be back again, too.