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PASSING ON A PASSION A dad shares his love for hoops with his daughter the freshman

It's been a couple of months since you went off to college for the
first time, and I was sitting here missing you more than you will
ever know. And it occurred to me, dear daughter, that all of a sudden
you're actually a big-deal college freshwoman, the very same age and
class as Billy Owens and the rest of these young basketball players
for whom everybody is predicting such marvelous things. And now I
have just figured out that I am, right now at this very moment,
precisely old enough to be their father!
Excuse me, I had to take a deep breath there.
In a small personal way, then, the dawning of yet another college
basketball season -- which, as you well know, is my favorite stretch
of the sports calendar -- somehow seems infinitely more special and
revitalizing this time around, if only because it's my first season
as a college dad.
In between your long hours of classes, parties, studies, parties,
dormitory filibusters, lectures and parties, as well as those
interminable trips to the, ahem, library, you have undoubtedly
noticed that the ancient notion -- rehashed and bashed though it may
be -- that college life revolves around its athletic teams has never
been more accurate. Why, even among Ivy Leaguers, who connects
Princeton with Woodrow Wilson anymore since Bill Bradley took Old
Nassau to the Final Four?
As you have no doubt further noticed, in Wake Forest you have
chosen a school -- as did I, in the University of North Carolina --
where the sun rises and sets on basketball rather than on football.
Which is as it should be, of course. It's a good thing, you see, when
your Demon Deacons, while struggling through a horrid season (10 wins
against 18 losses, and just 3-11 in the ACC), can rise up and whip
your dad's Tar Heels, who were having their usual terrific season
(27-7, 11-3). Which is exactly what happened last January. Of course
you weren't there yet, but I'm sure you'll hear some upperclassmen
reliving that one. College basketball is just that simple and
wondrous a game.
When we last spoke, you expressed some surprise at the excitement
on campus for football. I think you only wanted to rub it in about
the Wake 42, Carolina 24 score. But just wait till basketball gets
going there in Winston-Salem. If it's anything like the way it was
over at Chapel Hill in my freshman year , -- and it will be -- you
should soon be feeling an anticipation in the air, an energizing
tingle and spark like no other in your college experience (and, yes,
that includes that presidential debate that happened a few yards from
your dorm).
Then again, you will be far too cool to acknowledge such emotion.
''Chill out, Dad,'' I can hear you saying.
Well, let me tell you this: Out of the airheaded haze of my own
freshman sojourn 27 years ago (spare me!), the one memory that most
clearly remains is that of the first night of the basketball season.
I sat high up in rickety old Woollen Gym, where I was treated to a
debut in triplicate: Dean Smith coached his first college game; my
classmate Billy Cunningham made his initial appearance on the
freshman team; and a sophomore named Bryan McSweeney started for the
Well, Sage, I made some calls to try and get a handle on that
time, to see if it meant as much to others as it meant to me. It did.
Cunningham still remembers arriving at school the previous winter (he
was a midyear high school graduate). He says he was met at the
airport and taken not to his dorm but directly to the gym for
basketball practice. Since he was ineligible to play in games until
the next season, he was raring to go by the time that opening game
arrived; he scored 24 points that night as the Tar Babies beat
Virginia, with me up there in the rafters cheering them on. Later,
Cunningham married a Carolina coed, Sondra Childress, and their
oldest daughter, Stephanie, is now a sophomore at Chapel Hill.
McSweeney also had a momentous start: He scored 20 points in the
first half as the varsity routed the Cavs. But he took an elbow in
the eye and had to come out of the game. ''That night might have been
the most exciting of my career,'' McSweeney tells me. ''Basketball
down there . . . you got emotionally involved very quickly.''
We all come back, of course. Bryan McSweeney Jr. is a senior
forward at Stanford who will play in Chapel Hill on Nov. 28. ''I'll
be there,'' says his father. ''I asked Dean who I should root for.
Dean said, 'If I had a son playing, I know who I'd root for.' ''
Sons and daughters. Wake Forest opens the season that same night
against Richmond. You'll get involved. You'll remember it. I promise.
And I know who I'll root for, at least until Jan. 25. That's when
Wake plays the Tar Heels. The game is there at your place. Maybe you
and I. . . .
Whoops! Your sister Chelsea just smeared finger paint all over
your beloved, practically life-size Betty Boop doll, the one I
promised to guard with my life. Gotta go.
Chill out.