The consummate fan: an interview with John Edwards

~~ Originally printed in Carrboro (NC) Free Press, March 2009 ~~

College basketball has undeniably captured the imagination of the people of North Carolina, and Carrboro and Chapel Hill enjoy a full concentration of true blue fans. Former Democratic Presidential candidate and US Senator, John Edwards, is one such fan. “Part of it is tradition,” he said of his passion for the sport. “People who are my age have grown up being saturated with competitive, high quality basketball. We have had good basketball for decades.”

Of course, the million dollar question is… Who is John Edwards’s favorite Carolina player? “Everybody’s favorite player is Jordan,” he said, “so that would probably be true for me, too. But,” he added, “Kenny Smith was so fast. I loved watching Kenny Smith play.”

Like many in North Carolina, Edwards grew up playing basketball and watching the games on television. “During time outs we would go out in the yard and shoot basketball,” he said. “Three or four friends would come over. Those are very vivid childhood memories for me. I remember watching NC State and UCLA in 1974, my last year in college, going out and shooting basketball, coming back in and watching. It was the same old stuff.”

Edwards played on his junior high school’s basketball team in Robbins, NC. “Like most teams, we practiced after school and had games against other middle schools,” he said. “We tried to figure out ways to get into the gym on the weekend and at night. We’d leave the doors unlocked so we could sneak back in. We just loved to play.”

Edwards points to the illustrious basketball legacies of not just UNC, but also NC State, Duke, and even Wake Forest. He easily admits that he has not always been a Tar Heels fan. Edwards was born in South Carolina, just a few miles from Clemson. The family later moved to Robbins. “I was a big Clemson football fan,” Edwards said.  “I went to Clemson and played football for one semester.” But going to college at Clemson meant paying out-of-state tuition, so he transferred to NC State University and quickly became a Wolfpack fan. “They had a great basketball team,” he said. That was in the heyday with players such as David Thompson and Monte Towe, the duo largely credited with popularizing the “alley oop” pass.

After graduating from NC State, Edwards entered the UNC School of Law. There, he said, “I was surrounded by UNC sports. My wife, Elizabeth, and my kids have all grown up as diehard UNC fans.”

It’s not much fun being a fan if you’re not a “real” fan, and Edwards handily draws lines of distinction. “The real fans support the team when things aren’t going well – no matter what,” he said. “The real fans find it painful to watch UNC lose, especially in the NCAA tournament. And real fans at least understand the game well enough to know what’s happening.” Edwards paused. “I’ll tell you a story,” he said. “It was the 2005 championship game against Illinois. Jack [the Edwardses’ youngest child] would have been four years old. Halfway through the game, Jack turned and said, ‘Dad, we’ve got to defend the “three” better.’ Now Jack’s a real fan.”

Every spring, with the advent of March Madness, rivalry becomes as life-giving – and life-affirming – as breathing.  It seems that some of us just need to have someone we love to hate. The idea makes Edwards laugh out loud. “Here in NC, with schools like Duke and Carolina so close together, it creates a natural sense of competition,” he said. “I think it’s just human nature to want to have really strong competition, and that’s what happens with Duke and UNC basketball.”

There are those, even in this part of the world, who still do not see the allure of watching a group of people come together to play a sport. But Edwards is a perfect evangelist. “Basketball in particular is a beautiful game to watch,” he said. “It requires thinking, athleticism, strategy, good coaching, and skill. It brings together all the elements, and there’s lots of action and lots of scoring. In NC, high quality basketball combines competition with a beautiful game to watch.” Somebody say Amen.

Edwards has high praise for legendary UNC Coach Dean Smith, whose contributions to the world of college basketball have positively influenced the way people think about the state of North Carolina. “I was always a fan of Coach Smith,” Edwards said. “He is a fine human being and a class act.” Edwards had long been an admirer of Smith’s, and the two became well acquainted during Edwards’s run for Senate. “When I got into politics, Coach Smith was a supporter,” Edwards said. “I got to know him best the two times I was running for President. He came to events for me and publicly supported me.” The families became close, and one of Smith’s children worked for Edwards’s campaign for the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination.

“Coach Smith played a huge role in the positive progression of NC,” Edwards said. “I have enormous admiration and respect for him. When he brought Charlie Scott in to play basketball, that was a big deal in our state. That was classic Coach Smith,” he said. “Charlie Scott wasn’t the first African-American player, but he was one of the first African-American stars, and he had enormous influence because he was such a star.” A three-time All-America, Scott was named ACC Tournament MVP after leading the Tar Heels to the ACC title in 1969. He was just named an ACC Tournament Legend and will be honored March 14 in Atlanta. “Coach Smith continued to recruit African-Americans,” Edwards said, “and he conducted himself in such a way to show what North Carolina was capable of.”

Like a lot of parents, Edwards has had the opportunity to coach children’s basketball. He’s seen a lot of coaching and a lot of games. He has a good understanding of what’s going on down on the court, and the role the coach plays in a team’s success. Would he make it in the big leagues? “I think I could coach basketball,” he said. “It requires an enormous amount of patience –that’s what I’ve learned.”

And what player does Edwards most identify with? “I was never any great athlete,” he said. “I was the guy who practiced the most and worked hard.

The player I would identify most with is certainly Hansbrough, in today’s team.”

Edwards might also identify with the basketball statisticians. His mind holds volumes of shots and scores and players and plays. It is easy to believe that he has hours of game footage catalogued in his brain.

Where was he when Jordan hit “the” shot [1982]? “I remember that vividly,” he said, before confirming the exact location with his wife, Elizabeth Edwards. “We were at our house in Raleigh. Our daughter Cate was three weeks old,” he said, “and we were watching the game at home.

Where was he when Chris Webber called time out [1993]? “I was there,” he said, without missing a beat. “We were in the Superdome. Me, Wade, Cate and Elizabeth. We were all there. Cate was sitting next to me, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came walking into the gym. Cate yelled out, “Hey, Kareem,” and he just looked like, ‘Who is that kid?’”

Where was he when Felton hit the “three” [2005]? “We were there,” Edwards said, “all five of us: me, Elizabeth, Cate, Emma and Jack. It was in St. Louis.”

One might naturally assume that a family who watches so much serious ball together has come up with a ritualistic dance or two out of a sort of solidarity in sportsmanship. But, Edwards said, “our only superstition is, if Carolina is doing well we keep our same seats. If Carolina’s doing badly we’ll change seats or move to a different room. Of course,” he joked, “how the Tar Heels are doing depends on where we are. We are a little superstitious.”

This Sunday at the Dean Dome, Carolina v. Duke: who is Edwards’s pick to be the star of the game? “Hansbrough or Lawson,” he said. “I’m going to say Hansbrough.”

And the final score? “Oh, I don’t want to jinx us,” Edwards said. “93-85, Tarheels.”

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