Bo Butler has cheered the UNC Tar Heels at 43 straight ACC men's basketball tournaments, but this year's woeful team had Butler originally planning to skip the journey to Greensboro.
The seven-hour drive from his home in Chattanooga, Tenn., seemed like too much of a haul, especially since many expect a one-and-done affair for North Carolina. So in mid-February, Butler placed an ad on a Tar Heel message board and offered his two sets of tournament ticket books at face value, $792 for the pair.
Nobody wanted them.
One year removed from a national championship, Tar Heel fans are finding that the blues come in all colors, even shades of Carolina blue. In addition to the slow secondary-ticket market, this year's gloominess about the ACC tournament has affected businesses along Franklin Street and the general mood in Chapel Hill.
True, for fans of that other blue Triangle team, things are much more upbeat. Duke is the tournament's No. 1 seed and has a bye in today's first-round games. But with the exception of the Blue Devils, the state's other three ACC teams - UNC, N.C. State and Wake Forest - must play among the other lower-ranked teams today. And win a grueling four straight games to take the tournament title.
The Wolfpack, the 11th seed, has faced the first round several times before. Being a low seed has been less common for the Demon Deacons, this year's fifth seed. But the Heels, who face Georgia Tech tonight at 7, have never played in a qualifying-round game in the ACC tournament. Carolina is the 10th seed, a record low.
It has been that kind of year for the Tar Heels, who finished the regular season with a 16-15 record. Still, Butler, 48, was shocked when he couldn't find any takers for his tickets. He began attending the tournament as a child with his father, and for the past few years, he has taken his own 10-year-old son, Trip.
With no buyers, he decided to scoop Trip out of school and make the drive to Greensboro anyway. He's not expecting a miracle from his beloved Tar Heels. He doesn't even expect them to beat Georgia Tech. On the bright side, the trip will be his 44th. "It's keeping my streak alive."
Tracy Hill, 43, didn't attend UNC-Chapel Hill, but his father did. So even though he lives in Reno, Nev., Hill has been a lifelong Tar Heel fan who always dreamed of attending the ACC tournament.
For his 20th wedding anniversary in December, his wife surprised him with two sets of tickets so he could attend this weekend with his brother.
"Unfortunately, this year was our 20th anniversary, not last year," Hill said, laughing. "She feels terrible about that."
In preparation for the trip to Greensboro, Hill spent part of Wednesday afternoon hitting the T-shirt shops along Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. He picked up T-shirts and gifts for his kids. He was one of the few shoppers inside The Shrunken Head Boutique.
Last year, crowds crammed into the narrow store all season long, and especially in the week before the tournament, said owner Shelton Henderson. For a man who is fond of tying his business forecasts to the fortunes of the men's basketball team - "when we win, I win" - this season's business atmosphere can be summed up in one word.
Not far away, UNC graduate Steven Gould dribbled a basketball across campus on his way to shoot hoops with his buddy, a fellow graduate and current master's student, Michael Davis. Both men wore white T-shirts and Tar Heel blue shorts.
'Dream come true'
Gould, 28, attends law school at the University of Virginia and picked up a couple of ticket books for the tournament on eBay. He paid $410 for the pair. A book includes tickets to all 11 tournament games.
He couldn't believe the price. Even though he might see only one Carolina game, "to watch the full tournament is really a dream come true."
And besides, this year's team is young and has a lot of potential. Gould fully expects coach Roy Williams to field a better team next year.
Compared to the Matt Doherty-led team that finished 8-20 in 2002, "this is nothing."
Even if the Heels lose tonight, Butler and his son plan to make the most of their trip to North Carolina. He'll sell his remaining tickets to fans of a winning team and head to Durham and Wilmington, where they'll visit relatives and watch the tournament on TV.
If Carolina is knocked out, Butler said, his family's energy will shift to a secondary, but still-important task: rooting against Duke.