Tomorrow, the 67th annual ACC tournament will kick-off from Greensboro, North Carolina. To simply put it, I love the ACC tournament and look forward to it every year. Fourteen teams will be featured in the 2020 edition of the tournament to see who will reign supreme for a whole year as tournament champions. But to be honest, the more I crave and enjoy the ACC tournament of today’s time, I find myself longing for the ACC tournament of old.
Being the product of the 1980s and 1990’s childhood and growing up in the triangle area of eastern North Carolina, the ACC tournament was the epitome of college basketball. Allegiances were claimed loudly and often. Early on in life, every child in this part of the county had to make a choice: baby blue or red, some kids would occasionally pick dark blue, only to get weird looks in return, but whatever stake you claimed to represent that choice was no more prevalent than during the ACC tournament.
In the era of my childhood, the ACC was simple, it consisted of only nine teams that were compacted together from Maryland to the panhandle of Florida. The tournament started on a Thursday back then, at noon of course, and only featured one game on opening day. The eight seed against the nine seed. It had not national ramifications but to ACC fans it spoke volumes. Clemson, N.C. State, Florida State, and Georgia Tech were the usual suspects in this opening game and often produced some competitive games. The winner would be invited to embark on a journey with the rest of the ACC foes, which was to the big show, Friday!
Friday, was the day that shut down ACC territory due to basketball being played from noon well on into the night. Office breakrooms would have TVs airing the current game, students at school would do worksheets all day because their teachers wheeled in TV carts from the audio-visual room just to watch the games, barbershops broadcast the games over transistor radios and restaurant owners said the hell with the news and changed their TVs to catch the live-action.
There was also more to the ACC tournament than just the teams. There were the coaches, the players and nail-biting games that meant nothing to you the four months prior, but in the moment of the ACC tournament, you found yourself pulling for one side of the other in the seemingly insignificant Wake Forest vs Virginia matchup. But above all else what I remember the most is the intensity and how badly everyone involved wanted to win this tournament.
Gary Williams, former Maryland head coach, would often sweat through his suit jacket during tournament games due to stress and anxiety or when Rick Barnes, former Clemson coach, made a beeline for Dean Smith during the 1995 tournament which almost led to a brawl as a result of a comment Smith made after a Clemson foul or when Randolph Childress, a former Wake Forest guard, scored 107 points in three games during the 1995 tournament to lead the Deacons to a title or when a blizzard rolled through the south in March of 1993 causing for odd circumstances to surround the ACC tournament and lead to an odd result where mediocre #6 seeded Georgia Tech won it all or… I could go on for hours.
Looking back on all of these memories, characters and moments, it gives me chills just thinking about them. It was a simpler conference back then. Everyone knew where your team stood and no team was overlooked or lost in the shuffle. Everyone cared about all of the other eight teams in the conference. Now whether the term “cared” was defined as genuine love or outright hatred was up to each fan and fanbase, but regardless they still cared. The ACC tournament of today won’t ever be like it was back then and in some ways, I hope it never is.
However, now and then this new iteration of the ACC tournament gives us a small sliver of a moment that resembles that of the past and for that I am grateful.