The radiant heat from the black asphalt cooked my sneakers to medium well. I stood in line with my friends surrounded by a flock of other middle-school boys waiting for an autograph from their favorite college basketball players. I wasn’t the signature-seeking type but I was here for support and the experience.
There were four of us from Carteret County who convinced our parents to sign us up for Campbell Basketball Camp even though they knew none of us were destined for the NBA, ACC or any other three-lettered hoops organization. But they loved us and we loved pulling for our favorite teams and players. This was a time in US history when youth sports were seasonal. If you identified as an athlete, you played soccer or football in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring, and had your summers off to play golf, surf, swim or do nothing. These days, by the time a kid takes their first steps, the parent chooses their sport and commits them to year-round training and competition.
The line moved slowly, like a ninety-foot millipede wearing Nike Airs and Reebok Pumps. I could see Rick Fox and the top of King Rice’s flat top. We were getting closer to the action.
The players sat in the shade. Their elongated bodies spilled into folding chairs behind brown cafeteria tables littered with black pens and white paper. The Carolina players were in the middle. North Carolina State’s Chris Corchiani and Rodney Monroe were on the left, as was Virginia’s Bryan Styth, Wake Forest’s Rodney Rogers, and a handful of others. The Duke players held the right flank. There sat Bobby Hurley, Thomas Hill, and Christian Laettner.
If you’re unfamiliar with how Tobacco Road basketball works in North Carolina, let me give you the rundown. Elementary children are placed before a tribunal and made to declare who they will root for until the day they die. Parents do their best to brainwash the child from an early age to keep the family unified, but sometimes the son or daughter will lose their birthright and choose a team other than their parent’s alma mater. All my friends pulled for UNC. My dad and brother pulled for Duke, so I chose the path of the contrarian, opting for NC State.
And once the choice is made, pulling for “your team” means hating, with a fierce passion, your team’s rivals. Carolina fans hate Duke and NC State. Duke fans hate Carolina and NC State. NC State fans hate UNC and Duke. Good sportsmanship goes out the window, friendships are put on hold, and battle lines are drawn from January to April. That’s just how it works.
I was only three tweens back from my turn and biding my time to meet “Fire and Ice”, NC State’s dynamite backcourt of Corchiani and Monroe. That’s when I noticed the kid next in line walking over to the Duke table. His backward hat caught my eye. Instead of a Blue Devil mascot staring at me, I saw the angry gaze of a ram wearing a UNC logo. Ramses! I leaned in as the kid approached his enemy’s territory.
He reached Duke’s table. Like Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter, the boy squared up to Christian Laettner as if preparing for a duel. The Duke power forward’s six foot ten-inch frame seemed dwarfed by the brazen twelve-year-old wearing Jordans.
Without a word, the boy placed his foot on the table. Laettner sighed and uncapped his Sharpie.
“Hey, buddy. Where do you want me to sign?” He asked.
“No! That’s what you play like.” Scowled the boy, pointing at the bottom of his high tops.
The heel of his left sneaker was covered in bubble gum, pine straw, and mud. I thought it was mud. It was mud, right?
Laettner’s eyes ignited in fury as his smile evaporated. He exploded out of his chair. The Sharpie was wielded like a weapon.
Before the kid’s pre-pubescent brain could register how far out of bounds he stepped, number thirty-two was on him. Laettner grabbed the boy’s ankle with one hand. With the other, he scribbled up and down the pencil-thin leg like a sugar-charged toddler coloring outside the lines. Black ink wet across tanned skin.
The other Duke players pulled Laettner back. His marker slashed the air. The boy tumbled backward but regained his balance before falling to the concrete.
Like a shark attack you can’t turn away from, I, along with everyone else in line, watched in disbelief. We were mesmerized.
The boy took account of his person. His shirt, shorts, white shoes, and legs were tattooed with permanent marker. No amount of Tide and Ivory would undo the damage. He looked back at Laettner whose composure was beginning to return. A devious grin stretched across his face. As he walked past the gaped-mouth crowd he turned to us and said,
“Totally worth it.”