By Tamiya Troy
Calia Johnson stared at the television as there were 16 seconds left on the clock in overtime. The score was UNC 96, Duke University 93. She eased into a daydream.
On this day two years ago, she went to her first Carolina versus Duke basketball game. She originally didn’t win a ticket through the lottery, but a friend found a ticket for her to attend the game.
Too excited to think, she stood in the mirror then ransacked her closet to find an outfit. She wore a Carolina blue shirt, black pants, a grey scarf and a black North Face jacket. She wore Uggs and brought earmuffs and gloves to wear as she waited in line.
She walked up the hill to the Smith Center and saw lines of shivering students. The lines were wrapped around the entire building, and she didn’t know if she wanted to wait that long. “I saw Roy Williams through the basketball museum windows and I knew it’d be worth it,” Calia said. “I realized I didn’t mind waiting two hours for something I looked forward to my whole life.”
The cool air against her face was nothing compared to the warm feeling throughout her body. When she finally entered the arena, she could feel the anticipation in the air. There was a sea of Carolina blue faces, t-shirts, foam fingers and towels. Her heart filled with joy and she smiled from ear to ear.
Calia attended almost every home basketball game that season and this was the one she was most excited to experience. She was used to sitting in the first row of the student section at every game, so she didn’t know what to expect. Sitting in the nosebleeds wasn’t ideal, but Calia cared more about being present.
The Smith Center was dark. People pulled out their phones and prepared for the light show. Across the arena, the cellphone lights flashed in sync as Michael Jordan, Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Luke Maye appeared on the jumbotrons. Cheers filled the air while highlights from the unforgettable 2017 National Championship win played in the video.
The teams walked onto the court. It was officially game time. The fans stood the entire game, watching as both teams hustled across the court. By halftime, Carolina fans had their hands on top of their heads, standing in distress. UNC was down by four.
But any true Carolina fan knew that the team would pull through. The scores were close. The fans were restless. With 15 seconds left, Carolina had a five-point lead and possession of the ball. People started to gather their belongings in preparation for what was to come.
Seconds passed by and screams began to fill the atmosphere.
The clock hit zero, and the arena erupted with excitement. Carolina defeated Duke 82-78. The stress and anxiety of the game turned into joy. Calia grabbed her friends as they jumped and yelled into their cameras. She couldn’t believe that she had experienced her first Carolina versus Duke win.
People hastily ran out of the Smith Center. They didn’t even bother singing the alma mater, which is typically sung after a Carolina win.
The Carolina fans that filled the arena had one place in mind. More than four decades ago fans rushed Franklin Street for the first time. Today, they still run to Franklin Street to celebrate a win over Duke or a championship game.
Calia and her friends joined the crowd. It would take about 25 minutes to reach Franklin Street, but her heart was beating fast and time was moving slow. They waited eagerly for people to exit the arena.
When they finally reached the pavement, they walked up the Skipper Bowles hill, thinking about how to avoid getting tired too quickly. News stations were parked at every curb. There were so many people and no way to run around the barricades.
They walked through SASB Plaza, past Chase Hall and Kenan Stadium. As they approached the Bell Tower, they began to run. “At that moment, I knew it was real,” Calia said. “I would never run this far across campus for anything else.”
You could hear crowds screaming from every direction. Their journey consisted of sporadic chants of “Tar… Heels!” They ran through the Pit, past the Old Well and by Silent Sam. Despite slowly running out of breath, they continued their trek until they reached Franklin Street.
Students are not the only ones who rush Franklin Street. Fans young and old, as well as health and safety professionals line the street to rally and ensure safe celebration.
Members of the Critical Incident Response Team, like Aisha Pridgen, were also running toward Franklin Street, but for a different reason. “I remember my colleagues and I trying to figure out the best route to beat the crowd,” Aisha said. “But the bonfires and fireworks had already started by the time we arrived.”
Calia weaved through thousands of people, searching for her friends. “We kept trying to call them, but the signal was so bad,” Calia said. Every time they got through one crowd of people, they found themselves in the middle of another. She started to lose hope.
Music was playing, people were dancing and everyone was screaming. “It was a huge mosh pit that I thought I’d get lost in,” Calia said. Unexpectedly, she spotted her friends standing at the corner of Franklin Street and Colombia Street, in front of Lotsa. She ran toward them, screaming with excitement. They laughed, cried and took pictures together in the middle of the chaos.
The energy was at an all-time high and she couldn’t believe her eyes. She interacted with random people as if she had known them her entire life. The fact that some people never experience the Franklin Street rush was absurd to her.
As she looked around, people were standing on things, climbing light poles and holding friends on their shoulders. The only thing everyone cared about was the win over Duke. They spotted the bonfire and decided to join the crowd. One…two…three! She jumped over the fire and everyone cheered. “It was electrifying. I felt like I was dreaming,” Calia said.
She knew that this was the epitome of the Carolina experience.
It hit Johnson that this experience would be incredibly different than the 2018 game she attended.
As she shifted back to reality, the clock hit zero seconds. Duke defeated Carolina 98-96.
Tears filled her eyes, and at that moment, she realized that she wouldn’t experience the thrill this time around.
Edited by Rachel Sauls