By Sterling Sidebottom
A rush of bodies joins the players on the court, hugging each other and jumping in excitement. For the second time this season, UNC has triumphed over Duke in basketball.
As the intersection of Franklin Street and South Columbia Street fills with unmasked students just a few blocks away in downtown Chapel Hill, a different scene begins to unfold, albeit with the same excitement.
In the parking lot of the University Presbyterian Church, clusters of people are standing in groups of five to 10. Orange traffic cones block both the entrance and the exit to the church. There’s a large white screen in front of the brick wall of the building. In the center of the lot sits a projector and two speakers, all of which are humming with the excitement of the game that just ended.
Slowly, the small clumps of UNC-Chapel Hill Presbyterian Campus Ministry students wrap their arms around their pod members and begin to sing “Hark the Sound.”
It is a special moment for everyone who’s there. It is particularly special for Garrett Hubbard, a UNC-CH junior who has finally returned to his in-person community after nearly a year apart.
It’s not as fun to be alone
Hubbard spent the first half of his junior year at home in Clemmons, N.C. While home, Hubbard would watch UNC basketball games with his parents. His mom would leave the room when Carolina turned the ball over. His dad would yell at the TV or the announcers. Though different from watching with his college friends, Hubbard enjoyed this new bonding experience with his parents.
After January 18, that all changed when Hubbard returned to Chapel Hill for the spring 2021 semester. Living in an apartment by himself, Hubbard no longer had the energy of others to keep him going when the team was bad.
“Watching the games was easier earlier on with my parents,” Hubbard said. “It’s not quite as fun to just sit in your apartment alone.”
But, the team started to pick up the pace. Exhilaration and a want to cheer and share emotions took over the PCM GroupMe which began to function as a pseudo-Twitter — one where all your mutuals are also in your campus ministry.
For Hubbard, it became a place to let loose.
“I wanted to initiate conversation about the game and generate hype around it, just like I would in person,” Hubbard said.
The GroupMe got so into basketball season that they no longer have a heart emoji, the typical indication of a ‘Like’ on the app. In its place now is a basketball going through a hoop.
For Hubbard, the GroupMe that he turned to for solace this past spring has always been a way for him to connect with members of his campus ministry. In February of his freshman year, when Hubbard walked through Gate C and into the Smith Center for the first time, he was joined by two other PCM freshmen.
“I got tickets and I think I just put it in the GroupMe,” Hubbard said. “Ya know, the general, ‘If you wanna go with me, let’s go!’ I knew that everybody was into it, it felt easy.”
When not actually going to the Dean Dome, Hubbard and PCM will set up watch parties in the campus ministry’s couch room in their communal space at 110 Henderson St. Aptly named, there are four large couches in the room each filled with pillows and blankets, two of which directly face a large flat-screen TV.
Excitement, even at a distance
In a normal year, the couches and floor below would fill with familiar faces and an anticipation would envelop the room. Members would cheer for the Tar Heels, order food and talk about their days. They would build the community they already have through church services around the basketball games.
“Basketball’s great and it’s amazing to watch Carolina basketball when they’re at their best, but it’s so much better when you’re with somebody else,” Hubbard said.
That sense of community members of the campus ministry love was clearly missed by everyone this past year. As the spring semester continued to blaze ahead in Chapel Hill, and as Carolina basketball began winning games, members of PCM began to think about what the rest of the season would look like for them — a community that loves basketball as much as they love God.
“It was brought up in a Leadership Team meeting,” Reed Frellick, one of the PCM members who set up the watch party, said. “We were trying to make it feel like the community that PCM has always felt like around watch parties.”
The Presbyterian church and the parking lot PCM set their watch party up in is located on Franklin Street directly across from McCorkle Place. It’s as close to the center of action as one can get without being in the actual center.
“There’s an excitement that you get from being that close even if you’re experiencing it from a safe distance,” Hubbard said.
A miraculous moment
On the night of the Duke game, members of PCM file in. They greet each other with waves and cheers from a distance. All are wearing masks sporting UNC-CH’s logo or Carolina colors. As much as this scene takes place in a different world, there is still a sense that this is exactly what happens every other time UNC plays a basketball game.
“It felt like pre-COVID,” Lillie Chilton, a member of PCM, said. “I’ve never really been a sports fan, but the Duke game is different. The game is more about the people you watch it with.”
Pews of chairs, set up in groups according to COVID-19 pods, are facing the screen which will soon light up with the campus ministry’s Saturday night service.
“I wasn’t as into the game as much as I was in the moment of realizing that this is my last Duke game as an undergrad,” Zoey Howe, a senior member of PCM, said. “It was important to be with my people.”
For Howe, Chilton and Frellick, this moment together was special. For Hubbard, who had waited so long to be back with people and regain the sense of community that had been lost for so long, this moment was miraculous.
“It’s that weird sense of fan obsession with the team,” Hubbard said. “It was beautiful. It was cathartic. And it felt good.”
Edited by Britney Nguyen