John Shearer: A Basketball Travel Trip

  • Friday, December 23, 2022
  • John Shearer

As I have grown older, I enjoy going to college basketball games and major league baseball games simply for relaxation.

I have too much passion for my Georgia Bulldogs’ football team to relax totally while watching them in person, but with basketball and baseball, I can in most instances just watch in a laid-back manner and forget about any worries. Or I can concentrate on important matters like how my hot dog or popcorn tastes.

With my wife, Laura, taking a few days to visit her son’s family in Portugal over the Christmas holidays, I decided to squeeze in a couple of college basketball trips. As I have written about before, I have gone to see the University of North Carolina a few times in recent years, even though it is about a seven-hour trip. So, I did that again recently.

And on the way back home the next day, the timing worked out to stop by and watch the Lady Vols play.

Then, this past Wednesday, I went down to visit my college alma mater of Georgia and watch them play the UTC Mocs in an afternoon game. Based on the reports after the game, I was apparently the only member of the Chattanooga area media to see that game in person, although I was simply there for fun. I was as focused on filling my Coke as seeing how each team filled the rim.

I arose on the early morning of Dec. 13 and headed east, once again thankful one of the dreaded diseases circulating was not keeping me from getting to take a little break. Most people don’t like to go anywhere by themselves, but I have a little bit of an independent streak and don’t mind it on occasion for small stretches like an overnight trip. I consider these my form of rest and reflection, like someone going to a retreat center or even a former monastery available for renting.

I was able to make good time after leaving about 7 a.m. and arrived in Chapel Hill about 2 p.m., despite stopping at a McDonald’s for a Big Mac and at about every rest stop located every 50 or 60 miles along Interstate 40.

I checked into my room at the historic Carolina Inn by the campus where I always love to stay and was a little disappointed my first-floor room looked out over a parking lot. Not only that, but some men were working there and using some noisy machinery.

But I knew I would be spending most of my idle and non-sleeping time in the inn’s neat and spacious lobby, so I did not bother to complain or ask for another room. I instead walked down to the Mediterranean Deli along West Franklin Street by the campus and ordered some kind of gluten-free brownie. Like my room’s view, gluten-free was not necessarily my choice, but it was tasty enough, so I enjoyed it while glad I had completed my long drive.

The temperature seemed a little colder than it had been in Chattanooga, and the UNC campus was pretty much devoid of students. I had been to games there before perhaps a little earlier in the season and had seen students walking around and had even seen a glee club type group sing holiday songs around the landmark Old Well, but not this time.

But as I walked around the campus, I did notice that the Old Well now has a handicap ramp up the couple of steps to the landing, and the water fountain there now works again after perhaps being shut off during the pandemic for health concerns. The domed and attractive Old Well is always a popular site for pictures, and it is hard to have the landmark to yourself for very long, I have noticed. While I was going past it, a couple was posing for perhaps engagement pictures or something like that.

Because I have been to the UNC campus several times since about 2015, I quickly noticed a new marker near the pit area by the mid-century-modern Student Stores, or bookstore. It was a memorial to a black man named James Cates Jr., who in 1970 had been killed while attending a campus dance intended to improve racial relations. The marker had been dedicated just days before I arrived.

I reflected on that for a few moments, and then went back to my room to get ready for the evening UNC men’s game against The Citadel. And for the first time, I had seats in the lower level.

After walking roughly 15 minutes through the cold to the back part of campus, I arrived at the Dean Smith Center and was thankful my electronic ticket on my phone worked. I got a hot dog, a box of popcorn and a soft drink and headed to my seat about 45 minutes before tipoff.

As I was sitting there and enjoying the surroundings, something did not seem complete. I realized I needed another hot dog! So, I went and got another one, although the line was a little longer this time.

North Carolina has returned every key player except star Brady Manek from last year’s squad that caught fire late and reached the NCAA championship game, but the team had been struggling a little this year with four losses. However, they had beaten Georgia Tech the weekend before and played well against The Citadel, another team that dons light blue, that Tuesday night to win by a score of 100-67.

Armando Bacot set a UNC career record of most double-digit rebound games, breaking a record of 61 set many years ago by Billy Cunningham. As a result, he received an ovation from the fans in the process. And young reserve Tyler Nickel was evidently a crowd favorite with 16 points.

But the key stat of the game dealt with money, but not a Nickel. Every time UNC scores 100 points or more at home, everyone with a ticket gets discounted sausage biscuits from Bojangles the next day. The Tar Heels appeared as if they would come up short, but then some reserves got hot at the end, and the pep band members and others started a cheer of “We want biscuits.”

And then, with only about 10 seconds left, senior reserve Jackson Watkins made a three-pointer to allow the Tar Heels to reach the hundred mark. As a result, the crowd went bananas, or should we say biscuits.

It was a fun ending to a night also highlighted by a Tar Heels promotions department staffer, who talks to the crowd over the loudspeaker during timeouts and is quite entertaining with his comments while live videos of fans in the stand are shown. And the young man does it all while wearing a mascot-like ram’s hat.

Also entertaining as usual was the UNC band. They were diagonally across from me, so at halftime I decided to move over near them to hear them better. I had spotted an empty row or two behind a man in a red shirt, who obviously had not gotten the memo regarding what color to wear, so I sat behind him.

All was well until about three girls came back a few minutes into the second half and were sitting on my row. They obviously knew I had crashed that row since I was not there the first half, so after feeling guilty that someone knew I was not sitting in my correct seat, I found another empty seat a couple of rows away. From there, I was able to stay the rest of the game without being bothered.

I especially enjoyed that spot after the game, when the pep band played the alma mater and then broke into the popular upbeat song, “I’m a Tar Heel Born.”

With the band and the clever announcer, I would experience by far the best in-game, non-basketball-watching experience of any of the three games I attended.

After walking back out in the cold and seeing a disheartening scene of an older woman who had fallen and injured and bloodied her mouth, I then made my way back through the cold while hoping she was OK and knowing she was getting the needed medical attention.

Instead of going down to Ben and Jerry’s on West Franklin Street and getting an ice cream cone as I had done in the past and eating it in the cold weather, I opted for the warm comforts of the Carolina Inn lobby and a couple of house chocolate chip cookies from a jar.

The next morning, I climbed out of bed and took a jog around the older parts of campus, trying to run off some of the high-calorie food of the night before. My jog went past the Old Well, where I took a sip of water. When I came back by it a few minutes later, some people walking a dog were hanging around this popular place, despite the 7 a.m. hour.

After about 30 minutes of a run that also included circling the Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower, I continued jogging down to the Panera on West Franklin Street to enjoy a couple of warm breakfast items made warmer by me using their microwave.

I then went back to my room, took a shower, and worked on a story on my computer before leaving about 10 a.m. That day, well before this week’s arctic blast, a heavy rain with possible high winds and storms was the key weather concern.

I had planned on stopping by and walking around the Wake Forest campus in Winston-Salem a little over an hour west of Chapel Hill on the way back. But I realized I misread what business highway to exit on, so I continued driving on while feeling not too disappointed, knowing I could reach Knoxville plenty of time before the game and without worry.

The split-second decision also gave me time to eat a Wendy’s meal quietly without being so rushed. Unfortunately, I received a Baconator double burger after just ordering a single with cheese and some chili. It did not take me long to realize who had gotten my single with cheese, because I heard two men talking at a nearby table about one of them not getting any bacon or the extra hamburger patty he had ordered.

Like in the old commercial, that guy was probably thinking, “Where’s the beef?” Although I would have said something over the honest mixup if I had been the victim, I did not since I got everything I ordered and just took the bacon and extra patty off, although I did take a quick bite of each one in the process.

I continued in my Honda Accord, and the rain started about an hour east of Asheville as I was still feeling rather full. But I made it on to Knoxville and parked in the free area by the veterinary and agriculture schools and rode the free shuttle up to Thompson-Boling Arena. I was going to see the Lady Vols play Central Florida at 6:30 p.m.

My goal was to keep my shoes and feet dry under my umbrella, and I managed to do that! And if I managed to enjoy the game – and some concessions – that was going to be icing on the cake!

Having trouble ordering a single ticket online, I had called the UT ticket office a week or so earlier and the young man found me a ticket on the front row of all places. The attendance was kind of small due to the holidays and probably the fact the UT women are still trying to get back to the Pat Summitt era of fan enthusiasm.

Realizing the view over the Central Florida bench was not great and because of a coughing woman behind me, who claimed it was the popcorn, I moved away and up a couple of rows, where the view was a little better.

Speaking of popcorn, I had ordered a box along with a hot dog and a Coke at the concession stand before the game, and once again after realizing that was not enough, I went back and got another one. “I’m baaaack,” I told the same female concessionaire when I returned, although I am not sure she recognized me.”

I was wearing the blue-colored Lady Vols sweatshirt, just as I had been wearing a North Carolina basketball sweatshirt the day before.

Central Florida played the Lady Vols close in the first half, but UT pulled away in the second half and won, 99-64. I don’t think there was a Bojangles promotion here, so there was no drama at the end. One player who impressed me, though, was freshman Justine Pissott from New Jersey, who was a good 3-point shooter for a tall person.

I was not that familiar with her, and then I read where she had been a McDonald’s all-American and was one of the Lady Vols’ biggest recruits in several years. So much for me following the Lady Vols closely!

As I watched her and the other players, I saw the female sideline reporter for the SEC Network- plus broadcast nervously look over her notes and practice what she was going to say. However, I realized that was great she was getting some valuable experience and was already in the bigtime, so to speak.

I also noticed from sitting so close that you could see the strain of being a head coach of the Lady Vols on Kellie Harper’s face before the game and at halftime. That was probably partly because they had already dropped five games by that point.

But perhaps the second half energized her, and I think I heard her wishing everyone a merry Christmas and happy holidays over the intercom after the game ended while I was rushing to the restroom before catching the shuttle.

As I waited on a shuttle afterward under the cover, I saw three people I knew from my old Knoxville church, Church Street United Methodist Church in downtown Knoxville, and it was good to reconnect with old friends from when we lived there fulltime.

After getting back home and catching my breath for a few days, I awoke early this past Wednesday, Dec. 21, and headed for Athens, Ga. At only a three-hour drive, it seemed like a drive to the grocery store compared to the jaunt to Chapel Hill.

I had picked this game out not because they were playing the Chattanooga Mocs, but because it seemed a convenient time to go. Also, the game was at 3 p.m., and I figured it would be a competitive game. And it was!

After arriving in Athens late that morning and meeting my old college friend, Dave Williams from Athens, at the Fully Loaded Pizza restaurant in what was a former Waffle House in the Five Points area, I munched on a tasty piece of pepperoni pizza.

At my request, we then went over to the historic Oconee Hill Cemetery near Sanford Stadium. He pointed out where several people famous in Georgia Bulldog football history were buried while I unsuccessfully tried to find the grave of a woman with UT connections I recently wrote about.

Needless to say, it was not an activity probably any other Georgia fan attending that game did beforehand. But I usually always combine business with pleasure by necessity and hope to write a separate story on my cemetery wanderings.

With only 15 or so minutes before the game was to start, we drove the short distance back to campus, and I realized a lot more new buildings in old grassy spots had been built than I previously realized.

I had bought another front row seat for this game but realized later it was the front row of the upper deck. But Dave works for the athletic department, and he found us some unused seats in the lower level, where we sat and enjoyed the game.

From there I could see new Georgia coach Mike White enthusiastically encourage the team on. I also saw from a distance longtime UTC announcer Jim Reynolds, and he, unlike everyone else on that front row wearing a pullover, was dressed in a coat and tie. He was old school, and I like that.

I was also in a good location to run up and get a bucket of popcorn and a Coke to hold me until I stopped at the Varsity restaurant in Atlanta.

As was documented, UTC led by a small margin most of the game and would eventually hit 14 three-pointers, including six from Jamal Johnson. But Georgia in front of a cheering home crowd that friend Dave said was larger than usual and impressive for a weekday afternoon right before Christmas came storming back late.

In part by holding tall center Jake Stephens to only 10 points overall, the Bulldogs were able to take the lead in the closing minutes and win, 72-65. I usually pull for UTC, but on that day I was a Bulldog and had on my Georgia sweatshirt as evidence. It was my third sweatshirt to wear in three different games.

After the game, as we were leaving the adjacent parking garage where we parked for free, it was slow going due to the full garage and the fact we were on the top level.

But it ended happily, because when we were down near the bottom, Georgia coach White was walking back to his car. At least for this game, he was parking just like us and did not have any fancy VIP space. We rolled down the window and I said, “Good game, coach,” as he walked to his car, and he shouted back, “Go Dawgs!”

After letting Dave off at his house, I then reached the Varsity restaurant off I-85 near Atlanta, where I had a great fast-food meal that I enjoy two or three times a year. I then made it through the Atlanta traffic and only needed to stop one more time.

It was at the Buc-ees mammoth convenience store and gas station in Calhoun that I had heard so much about. I enjoyed checking out the beef jerky deli and even another stand, where they were making chopped beef brisket barbecue sandwiches that smelled delicious.

I then drove the final 45 minutes or so back to Chattanooga, still savoring not only the aroma of the barbecue sandwiches, but also the memories of the three relaxing and fun basketball games.

Until next year…

* * *

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