Inside the Dean Dome: My Pilgrimage to College Basketball’s Mecca
Author’s Note: I wrote this in the spring of 2011, shortly after I had the opportunity to visit the Smith Center in Chapel Hill for the UNC-Duke basketball game that decided the 2011 ACC Title. I also got a tour of the facility, which was one of the coolest things I’ve done in my lifetime.
It’s quiet at the bottom of the hill; A little too quiet, actually. Sure it’s only 6:30 and the game doesn’t tip off until 8:00, but this is North Carolina and Duke in Chapel Hill. This is supposed to be the biggest rivalry in all of college sports, the Yankees and Red Sox of the basketball world. I’ve been to plenty of Syracuse University games before, and you can’t hear yourself think if you walk through the SU quad ninety minutes before tipoff. I can hear the thoughts in my head right now, and they’re thoughts of utter disappointment. There are hundreds of people milling about, mostly students, but they all appear to have no idea where to go, as if this is the first game that they’ve been to all season. These are real fans? Painting your chest and waiting shirtless in line for hours might make you a true fan somewhere up north where it’s still snowing in March, but its sixty degrees out in Chapel Hill. That’s not making a sacrifice to show support for your team, that’s getting drunk and looking like a fool! Maybe Sam Cassell, the former Florida State guard, was right when he called the crowd at the Dean Smith Center a “wine and cheese crowd.”
The Smith Center, more affectionately known as the Dean Dome, opened on January 18, 1986. The arena lists a capacity crowd of 21,750, the fifth largest on-campus basketball arena in the NCAA, and is named after Dean Smith, the former coach at the University of North Carolina. UNC faithful and college hoops enthusiasts know Smith as the man who retired in 1997 as the all-time winningest coach in NCAA Division I basketball with 879 victories. Although UNC is a state-run institution, the Smith Center was built entirely through private donations, mainly through a Carolina-fan organization known as the Rams Club. No state tax or university funding was used, which is why the majority of the lower level seating are sold to Rams Club members as opposed to students, faculty, and staff. The building is a testament to the passion that UNC fans have about their Tar Heels. Every seat in the building is Carolina blue, a color that dates back to 1795, when the University’s Dialectic and Philanthropic societies (Di-Phi) chose representative colors. Carolina blue is slightly bluer and whiter than a turquoise, but darker than a sky blue, and its presence in every structure in the arena is a constant reminder that you are in Tar Heel country.
There’s a line of students, probably 500 deep, forming from one of the gates into the arena, and they keep talking about “student tickets.” Not knowing what that means, my dad and I get into another line, much shorter, and generally consisting of much older people. If that’s the student line, this might as well be the geriatric line. The student line starts to move, but the gates don’t open to our line for another five minutes, and once we finally get into the Dean Dome, three sections of seats are already completely filled by students. Apparently the student sections are all general admission. You get there early and you don’t get up, or you end up losing your seat. The tradeoff, however, is that the Carolina student section is right behind the visitors basket in the first half, the best seats in the house that aren’t held exclusively for Rams Club members. The seats are close enough to the court that during warm-ups the Tar Heel students crowd into the first few rows, less than fifty feet from members of the Duke Blue Devils, certainly within earshot of a few individual insults. Still, for much of the hour and a half prior to tipoff, the best that the students can come up with is a chant of “Duke Sucks,” followed by sarcastic cheers whenever a Blue Devil makes a layup.
Despite being one of the largest arenas in the country, there isn’t a bad seat in the house. The lower section creates space by moving in more of a horizontal direction away from the court, with about ten rows of seats all of the way around the arena being covered by the upper level. Unlike the lower level, though, the seats in the upper level extend away from the court in a much more vertical direction, creating more of a bird’s eye view while keeping the audience reasonably close to the center of the arena. Perhaps the most spectacular aspect of the arena that is visible to the fans, though, extends downward from the roof. On one end of the Smith Center are the banners from the seventeen Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament and twenty-seven ACC regular season titles that the Tar Heels have won. On another end are the eighteen Final Four banners. Above the student section, hanging in white from the rafters, are banners honoring the jerseys of thirty-five former North Carolina greats. In order to be honored, a player must be the Most Valuable Player of a National Championship-winning team, an ACC Player of the Year, a consensus first- or second-team All-America, NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, or a member of a gold medal-winning Olympic Team. In front of these jerseys, hanging in blue, are the jerseys of eight former Tar Heels whose jersey numbers will never again be worn. To have a uniform number retired at UNC, one must win one of the six National Player of the Year Awards. Among the retired numbers is the number 23 jersey worn by Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest player to ever play the game of basketball. Directly across the arena from these are the banners honoring the six National Championships in Tar Heel history.
Down in the stands, it becomes obvious that Cassell’s “wine-and-cheese crowd” is a comment made about a previous generation of Carolina faithful. After clearing the floor to go to their respective locker rooms, the teams return to the court for their official warm-ups with about twenty-five minutes remaining before tip-off. The Blue Devils enter to a chorus of boos from an arena that has become about three quarters full. Moments later, the large video screens in the corners of the upper level show the Tar Heels running through the tunnel and then a roar begins to erupt unlike anything I have ever heard. I’ve been in the Carrier Dome, the home of the Syracuse Orange, for a game with an attendance of over 33,000, and never in that time did those Syracuse fans make more noise than the Tar Heel fans that arrived half an hour early made. Cheerleaders waving large white flags with the letters U-N-C and a Tar Heels logo emerge from the tunnel first, taking a lap around the court, followed shortly by freshman point guard Kendall Marshall, who leads the Tar Heels out to begin their warm-ups.
Even with a capacity crowd, there was no problem moving around the concourse in the Smith Center. With only two gates, one would think that there would be lots of traffic near the entrances, but inside each gate is a large open area that allows you to figure out where you are and how to get to your seat without worrying about being in someone’s way. Once you do begin to walk about the concourse, the sense of pride in UNC history becomes apparent immediately. Plastered along the walls throughout the arena are large chronological team pictures of every North Carolina Tar Heels team from 1910 until 2009, complete with team rosters, schedules, and accomplishments. The entire history of the program is literally a part of the walls of the arena. What other school in the country can say that? Banners with the UNC logo plastered on top of photo collages from 100 years of Tar Heel action hang from the ceilings. This is not the selected works of North Carolina Basketball, this is the full package. Everything is included, from the 2009 National Championship to the 2002 team that finished 8-20. This is a proud program, with more than enough history to push aside the bad years, but it is a credit to the sense of family that exudes from the program that they choose to acknowledge everything, not just highlighting the positives.
With three minutes left on the pregame clock, the horn goes off and the clock stops. Tonight is the final home game of the year for the Tar Heels, a night that colleges across the country choose to honor their senior players, managers, and cheerleaders. The video boards play a short highlight clip of the seniors as well as a clip of each reminiscing about their time in Tar Heel Blue, and all three mention the disbelief and awe that they felt the first time they stepped out under the lights at the Smith Center. The arena is probably ninety-nine percent full now, with only a few people still finding their seats, but when the video montage ends, just before the arena erupts in applause, you could hear a pin drop at center court from any seat in the building. The respect that the fans pay to this moment is incredible. All four of the seniors have played just one year at UNC; Three are walk-ons who formerly played on the junior varsity team while the fourth is a graduate student who transferred to UNC to play out his final year of eligibility, but as each is introduced they receive cheers loud enough that one can only imagine mimic those that were once received by the men who’s jerseys now hang from the rafters on their senior nights.
Success is said to breed success, and that is obvious at North Carolina. While the fans and their surroundings are certainly incredible, it is what sits behind the court, far out of sight of the fans, that is truly the Tar Heels’ most effective recruiting tool. The Smith Center is Tar Heel Basketball, which means that everything, from the players’ lounge to practice facility to the coaches’ offices are located within its walls. Immediately after the 2010 season ended, the staff moved out and renovations were done, resulting in the beautiful combination of court-like hardwood floors and interior walls to go along with crystal-clear, full-wall glass windows. In the lobby are the trophies from each of the six National Championships, as well as a copy of the championship ring from the five most recent titles. Through a large set of glass doors frosted over with a translucent UNC logo lays a long hallway. In this hallway sits perhaps the most enticing item in the entire building for Tar Heels recruits; a trophy case titled “Carolina in the NBA,” containing the signed jerseys of some of the most recent and successful pro players that have come through Chapel Hill. Also along this hallway are large photos built into the wall of the eight players whose jerseys have been retired, and the offices of three assistant coaches. At the end of the hall is UNC Head Coach Roy Williams’ office, which more closely resembles something befitting of the President of the United States than the coach of a college basketball team. Bookshelves line the walls on two sides of the office, with a third built around a 72-inch television opposite a full U-shaped leather sectional. Is it all necessary? Certainly not, but to an 18-year old recruit who’s grown up in the inner city it is certainly a sight to remember, and the prep school phenom will feel right at home.
Do you NEED 11-foot shower heads? Well, when you have a bunch of 7-footers on your team…
The pregame clock sits at 0:00, the National Anthem has been sung and the Duke starters have been introduced to a chorus of the loudest hate-filled boos that I have ever witnessed. Anticipation fills the arena, and suddenly the lights go out. To the Carolina faithful this was nothing new, and was met with screams of delight. To a first-time Smith Center attendee, however, it was a shock to the system. It was then and there that it became apparent that this program truly was run like an NBA organization, right down to shutting the lights off during introductions of the home team. The video boards flash team highlights, then show the name and position of the first player to be announced, one of the senior walk-ons. Traditionally the seniors will start and play the first few possessions of the game on Senior Night, even if they are walk-ons who normally never see a minute of playing time. It’s certainly an honor that is deserved, but it makes for an anticlimactic introduction when four of the starters are players that half of the arena has never heard of. Still, true to the sense of pride and family that I’ve gotten to this point, the Carolina fans applauded just as loudly for the three walk-ons as they did for freshman point guard Kendall Marshall, the one normal starter who remained in the starting lineup.
If Coach Williams’ office gave me visions of the White House, then the lower section of the Smith Center is Coach Williams’ secret bunker. Instead of using access cards, several doors in the lower level have a palm reader, which is programmed to allow access to the palms of the players, coaches, and training staff. Supposedly this is to eliminate the need to bring one’s ID everywhere within the arena, but you get the sense that it is really done to remove any chance of people getting into the players’ lounge, locker room, training room, coaches’ lounge or weight room if they don’t belong there. The stairwell is lined with massive photos of the greatest players in Tar Heel lore. To the left is a fifteen-foot high picture of Vince Carter in mid-air preparing to dunk. Across the way is a twenty-foot tall image of Tyler Hansbrough pumping his fist. On the lower level wall is Michael Jordan, holding his shooting form immediately after releasing the game-winning shot in the 1982 National Championship game. Open the door at the bottom of the stairs and you immediately face a wall that that contains the words, “Play Hard. Play Smart. Play Together. The Carolina Way.” If the goose bumps haven’t risen already, that will certainly do it while you look to the right and see that the entire hallway leading to the players’ lounge is lined with images of the Tar Heels’ National Championship teams. The players’ lounge is the ultimate man-cave, to which the players have twenty-four hour access. Housing a fifty inch HDTV, the room is complete with an Xbox video game system and all of the latest games to go along with a Digital cable hookup with all of the premium channels, as well as a full kitchen that is kept stocked full of whatever the players request and is cleaned nightly by a cleaning service. Two large tables sit to one side, each holding four large swiveling desk chairs for the Tar Heels to conduct study hall. Through the lounge is the Tar Heels locker room, complete with eighteen wardrobe-like lockers large enough to hang a jersey on game day and house as many pairs of Jordan’s as a twenty-year old male can ask for. Off of the locker room sits the showers, which are no different than a normal shower, with one exception: the showerheads sit eleven feet off the ground to accommodate even the tallest of players. No expense has been spared to make the UNC players comfortable in their home away from home.
The lights are still not back on, but anticipation in the building has reached a new high, and finally I understand why. A high pitched squeal, reminiscent of a horse in pain, is blasted over the PA system, and a loud cheer goes out through the crowd. It is in fact a saxophone squeal, the first notes of the House of Pain’s 1992 hit single “Jump Around,” featuring the clever lines “Jump, jump, jump.” On cue, the entire Smith Center is on its feet jumping like a mosh pit. Students, faculty, staff, “jump, jump, jump.” Children, businessmen, grandparents, “everybody jump, jump, jump,” and jump they do. Before every home game at the University of North Carolina they jump, 21,750 fans, in unison they jump. The players jump. Even the coaches do a little bounce. The lights are on now, the music stops, and the jumping turns to applause. The sound of 21,750 clapping fans becoming one, and the video screens now show former greats as one by one they say, “Seventeen ACC Tournament Titles. Twenty-Seven ACC Regular Season Championships. Eighteen Final Fours.” The starters leave their benches and make their way to center court. “Twelve ACC Players of the Year. Nine Naismith Hall of Famers. Eleven National Players of the Year.” They shake hands and take their positions for the opening tip. “Six National Championships.” The ball goes up…
“This is Carolina Basketball.”