End of a basketball era in South

A conference that once epitomized the region's pride and prowess is poised to expand

As usual, they might as well have called it a holiday.

When the fabled Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) hoops tournament tipped off Friday, thousands of Carolinians - from farmers to state government flunkies - somehow skipped work: Here in central North Carolina, the heart of the conference, there were only faint echoes in government buildings; tractors stood silent in fields; and hogs got slopped a little faster.

For 50 years, lanky players from the South's rural reaches have turned the ACC into a regional obsession that can be compared only to junior hockey for folks in Toronto or Manitoba. But this year, the one-point games that are hallmarks of the ACC - as much a rite of spring as blooming dogwoods - had a tinge of sadness, nostalgia, even frustration for all involved. On Sunday, the Terrapins and Blue Devils met to decide the champion.

This was the last year of the ACC as they knew it, largely untouched by big-league bravado. Next year, Miami and Virginia Tech will come, and the year after that, Boston College - turning the little tournament that could into a superconference. Not only will South Beach suntans and Boston brogues mix with the gentle drawls of ACC aficionados, but many fear an evaporation of the innocence of down-home basketball, the last traces of small-town country values in big-time sports.

"It's a powergrab that makes sense on the national stage, but at the cost of a ... delicious regionalism," says John Llewellyn, a professor at Wake Forest University who's watched - and talked about - the ACC for over 30 years. "The ACC always used to be perceived as a family gathering, and now you've got cousins from Boston and places you've never seen, and it's not likely to be as intimate.... It won't be down-home anymore."

The classic format and humble profile is an anomaly in sports leagues. Perhaps because of that, tickets haven't been available at a box office since 1966. All this and an early TV contract capturing the 1957 classic between UNC and Kansas City means that just about every native Carolinian, his dad, and his grandma grew up watching the game, and the tradition of taking TVs to work is an old one. At Adams' Convenience Mart and Grill, a worker can attest to that as he watches State squander a 21-point lead and lose to the Terrapins of Maryland.

Says Damian Mescanti, a Raleigh carpenter who stayed on the couch Friday to cheer on his Tar Heels, "This is the last year of the real ACC.... This weekend feels a little more special."

At this year's event at the Coliseum in Greensboro, Shavlik Randolph, grandson of ACC legend Ronnie Shavlik, took the court for Duke - 50 years after his granddad played in the first ACC tourney, and won in a double overtime over Wake Forest.

Sure, the tournament will go on despite the biggest expansion in its history. But gone will be the touches that made it a spring ritual for millions, like the round-robin format that ensures every team plays every other at least twice each season. Competition will be watered down, and only a third, as opposed to half, of teams will be from North Carolina. The pressure to find a bigger venue - the Georgia Dome in Atlanta is the most promising - threatens to undermine the local flavor.

Basketball defined this region in a way no other sport had, and at the very least, new accents and distant sponsors will dilute the Dixie flavor. "The preeminence of the ACC was a way in which the South became part of a nation," says Professor Llewellyn. "We were best in the nation at something, which, other than writers of modern fiction, we haven't managed in too many categories."

To many, the ACC helped break ethnic and racial barriers: When Lenny Rosenbluth led the Tar Heels to victory in 1957 in triple overtime, legend has it that all of North Carolina stayed up to watch four Catholics and a Jew play basketball. Charlie Scott, the first black ACC player in the mid-1960s, was turned away from a lunch counter when he got off the bus at Davidson. So he came to UNC instead, refusing to play basketball in a town where he couldn't buy a hamburger. Subsequently, he twice foiled Davidson's chances at nationals. [Editor's note: The original version had the wrong name for Charlie Scott.]

Expansion critics like former UNC chancellor and TV host Bill Friday bemoan the emergence of secrecy and "greed" in the ACC. To some, the secretly negotiated expansion is symptomatic of changing values in the South.

Still, some were just glad to throw themselves down on the couch and get into the game. At Sadlack's Heroes tavern at N.C. State on Saturday, an old Beatles album played as counter-culture types enjoyed the spring breeze through open windows. A beat-up TV played the State game, and two long-haired men pumped their arms at every sunk shot.

"I'm proud to say I was born in Chapel Hill," says one woman, whose family fealty to the ACC spans three generations. "My grandpa used to take me to all the UNC games. It's in your blood - and that'll never change."

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