Antionette Kerr: Tourney fever gets superstitious
Welcome to the final days of March Madness 2015, a month riddled with mythology and lucky charms that extend from locker rooms to living rooms. ‘Tis the season when emotions run higher than a longleaf pine.
We devote ourselves daily to watching college basketball, especially those in the Tar Heel state. Despite our rich basketball heritage, we understand that tournament time can be unpredictable. Regardless of ranking, seeding and predictions, we know that anything can happen. The most zealous coaches, players and fans aren’t content with leaving it all up to chance. Superstitions lead the way.
As a die-hard Carolina fan, I have learned all sorts of rituals and/or tourney traditions. I joined the ranks of the superstitious in 2012 when my alma mater was more likely to win when I watched the games on the couch with my Grandmother Gladys.
Our tradition involved Gladys wearing her Carolina Grandma sweatshirt, and I would wear my spaghetti-stained Carolina Alumni sweatshirt. Although we didn’t win the national championship that year, we had a great season. Gladys and I shared special moments that I will always cherish.
This is the first year that UNC is in the Sweet 16 since then, and Granny is no longer with us. The rituals and traditions from Granny’s couch prompted me to ask about others.
My good friend Kelly shared a childhood memory of her beloved Gigi, Arlene Sturdivant. When the Tar Heels are down, she swears that she can still hear the sounds of her late grandmother’s upright Wurlitzer piano. When the Tar Heels started to struggle, Gigi used to head into the parlor and begin tickling with ivories with motivational tunes from the Methodist hymnal.
One of the most well-known superstitions in basketball started with my all-time favorite Tar Heel, “His Airness” Michael Jordan. After leading UNC to a national championship in 1982, Jordan believed the uniform shorts he wore that year were lucky.
He continued wearing the shorts under his uniform during his wildly successful career with the Chicago Bulls (rumor has it that he never washed them). In order for Jordan to wear them under his NBA uniform, he needed to wear longer Bulls shorts to cover them. He is often credited with creating the style of wearing longer shorts in the NBA and solidifying the way for several other superstitious rituals.
The NBA changed the rules for Jordan, but the NCAA has had pressure to deal with its fair share of superstitions from players and coaches alike.
I recall people making a fuss in 2012 when Baylor won all four games in which the team wore new glow-in-the-dark neon green Adidas jerseys. They were quite ugly, but the superstitious Bears coach, Scott Drew, petitioned the NCAA to allow the team to wear the neon jersey in the Elite Eight matchup with Kentucky. Baylor was considered the “road team,” which would indicate a change in uniform.
The NCAA denied Drew’s request, and the Bears lost 82-70. Some say it wouldn’t have mattered against a dominant team like Kentucky and suggested that Baylor’s coach should be more concerned with who the team was playing rather than superstition.
I didn’t pull out my lucky sweatshirt when Notre Dame made history this year by winning its first ACC tournament against my beloved Tar Heels. I didn’t think we needed good mojo until I realized that the Fighting Irish were wearing lucky shoes. T
he New York Times writer Ben Shpigel described them best in his article “Notre Dame Rides a Streak with Shoes like Highlighters.” “It was as if they had been marinated in puréed Skittles, coated with ectoplasm and then dunked in Citrus Cooler-flavored Gatorade.”
The loss was bad enough, but for superstitious fans like me, those shoes added more insult to injury.
“Those hues have streaked across basketball courts over the last two and a half weeks, offending traditionalists, clashing with the Irish’s gold jerseys and blinding viewers at home. As the Irish are quick to mention, the colors have also propelled them to six straight victories, including in the ACC tournament championship game against North Carolina.”
I haven’t read much about UNC basketball rituals for this tourney. Years ago, former UNC players Kendall Marshall and Harold Barnes reported Coach Roy Williams had a few rituals. They claimed Williams usually throws away his tie and suit after losing a game.
I’ve watched carefully to see if this is true, but it’s hard to believe. Roy is a fashionable guy and wears some bright and colorful ensembles. I am almost certain I have seen a repeat tie or two after a loss, but I can’t confirm that fact. I would hope that rather than throwing away things, he would donate them to worthy causes.
We have some challenges ahead and, needless to say, I am interested in what the superstitious are doing in the locker room, the benches and their living room couches. From temporary tattoos or lucky underwear, what are people willing to do to bring luck to our favorite team in the Sweet 16?
Win or lose, I suspect there will be a moment of looking to the Carolina blue skies with nostalgia. Memories of being Tar Heel Born and Tar Heel Bred never die, and I am thankful for the opportunity to celebrate traditions of all kinds. I have calmed down with my rituals, but it looks like this Tar Heel tourney team might motivate me to pull my lucky sweatshirt out of retirement. It started getting a little smelly, so I haven’t worn it.
That being said, does anyone know how to remove a spaghetti stain out of a Carolina sweatshirt without washing it?
Antionette Kerr is a freelance journalist and author of “Just Sayin’: Conversations My Mother Would Never Let Me Have at a Southern Dinner Table.” You may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.