The ACC Tournament in Greensboro just feels like home

Like reuniting with an old friend

Pitt and Wake Forest tip off for the first round of the 2020 New York Life ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (Photo by Sara D. Davis, the ACC)
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R.L. Bynum

@rl_bynum

GREENSBORO  — There are plenty of clear preferences for fans of the remaining charter ACC members, particularly the older fans. At the top of that list are having a regular-season round-robin schedule and the league’s tournament being played in North Carolina.

The first has been discarded and the second only occasionally happens in the 15-team league.

For many around the conference, the tournament returning this week to Greensboro feels like reuniting with an old friend.

“I love Greensboro. It’s where I grew up,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who actually grew up in Chicago but saw his coaching career grow here. “A lot of amazing memories, wins, amazing wins, tough losses, great games. 

“When I think of Greensboro, I think of the ACC and the magnificence of our conference, it’s a showcase,” Krzyzewski said. “Other venues have been good, I’m not sure any venue showcases our basketball for the ACC as well as Greensboro, because everyone who’s there and the city themselves, they embrace it.” 

After the first 13 tournaments were held in Reynolds Coliseum, 14 of the next 22 tournaments unfolded in the old barn in Greensboro. This is the 27th tournament in the Greensboro Coliseum. Raleigh and Charlotte, which has been the site 13 times in four arenas, have been arena hosts the second-highest number of years.

The tournament has grown just like the arena, which averaged 8,766 fans when it first came to Greensboro in 1967 (UNC beat Duke 82–73 in the final), which still stands as the lowest attendance in tournament history.

By the time it welcomed the event for the second time in 1971 (the classic 52–51 South Carolina victory over North Carolina), the arena seated 16,000 and drew near-capacity crowds. When it returned to Greensboro in 1995 (more on that final later) after a six-year absence, the seating capacity was up to 23,000 and it drew a then-record average attendance of 22,809. 

The Gate City community embraces the ACC’s iconic event when it comes to the Greensboro Coliseum. In Brooklyn or Washington, D.C., people just blocks away barely knew the event was taking place. (Neither of my Airbnb hosts in the two years at Brooklyn knew what the ACC was.)

Those venues, as well as the NBA arena in Charlotte, do a fine job with the event. Greensboro just feels like home. The women’s tournament wouldn’t be in Greensboro every year if the arena didn’t do a good job.

Wes Durham grew up in North Carolina and has seen the league love Greensboro.

“I think it grew up here,” says Durham, the ACC Network sportscaster and host. “I think the comfort level with a lot of people, even through expansion, has been good. To me, I just think of the memories of the building. The things that have happened in the building, whether I was a kid or whether I was working it or whether I live somewhere else. I was watching the tournament. You know, that’s what it means to me.”

Even with expansion, some of the newer coaches know the Greensboro tradition, such as Pittsburgh’s Jeff Capel (who grew up in North Carolina and played at Duke), Notre Dame’s Mike Brey (who was a Duke assistant), Miami’s Jim Larranaga (a former Virginia assistant coach), and Louisville’s Chris Mack (a former Wake Forest assistant).

If you look at the history of this league, this is where the tournament traditionally was before we had expansion,” Capel said. “You think of the greats of college basketball, they played in this building. This state loves basketball and they love the ACC. And you know, anytime you play here there’s going to be passion in the building, there’s going to be excitement, there’s going to be people and there’s going to be people that just love basketball.”

The tournament’s opener matched two coaches who grew up in North Carolina in Capel and Wake Forest’s Danny Manning.

“To me, the schools that are in this league understand the history of this league and their way into the league. We need to move off of the thinking that schools don’t like coming here,” Durham said.

Despite the past views of Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, it’s just more special in Greensboro. Even he admits that it’s a better place to play than a big city. He insists his previous comments about the city were regarding the fan experience.

“For coaches, for me, I’d rather come here because it’s less traffic, less hassle. People are really nice. Been to Greensboro a couple of times, it’s a great place, a nice city. I never thought anything different. It was strictly a matter of I think a big city is a better venue for fans to have an experience. But, for me, I’d rather come here than go to a big city. It’s easier, easier to get around, easier to do what you have to do.”

Unlike when the event has been in a big city such as New York, Washington or even Charlotte, there is an ACC FanFest for the first time since — you guessed it — the event was last in Greensboro in 2015.

There is plenty of parking available in Greensboro, which definitely wasn’t the case the past four years.

UNC’s Cole Anthony is disappointed that the event isn’t in New York because that’s his home. But he’s clearly in the minority.

After four seasons at other venues, it’s back to what fans love: seeing ACC basketball at the Coliseum and going across the street for some barbeque at Stamey’s.

Every fan base has special memories.

N.C. State fans particularly remember the classic 103–100 overtime victory over Maryland in the 1974 ACC Tournament championship game on the Wolfpack’s way to its first NCAA title.

“We got a sneak preview of Greensboro Coliseum because we played UNCG,” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said. “But I like it because our fans have the opportunity to watch us play.”

The Wolfpack has good recent memories of the facility. Markell Johnson hit a half-court buzzer-beater to beat UNCG 80–77 on Dec. 15. 

The tradition of Greensboro is lost on players, even for Wolfpack players who grew up in North Carolina such as Fayetteville’s Manny Bates and Charlotte’s C.J. Bryce. Bryce would prefer that the event was in Charlotte like last season.

UNC fans remember the crazy run to the 1975 title during Phil Ford’s freshman year when the Tar Heels beat Wake Forest 101–100 in overtime, then Clemson and Tree Rollins 76–71 in overtime before dethroning the Wolfpack 70–66 in the final.

For Duke fans, 1986 was special. Johnny Dawkins led the Blue Devils to the title with an 86–67 win over Georgia Tech in the final on their way to a national runner-up finish.

“That’s where we won our first ACC championship,” Krzyzewski said. “And I can remember beating Bobby Cremins’ team, an amazing game, and hugging Johnny, and that was our first ACC tournament championship, and we’ve won a number of them since then.”

For Wake Forest fans, the 1995 title is among the best memories of an arena that was its home venue for many games years ago. Randolph Childress’ driving jumper in overtime propelled the Demon Deacons to an 82-80 victory.

The event certainly will be back in Greensboro at some point but it’s not clear when. Next season, it will be back in Washington at the home of the Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards, and in 2022, it will return to Brooklyn in the New York Nets’ home arena.

You might want to pack some good North Carolina barbeque for the trip.

Triangle Sports Network: 401-323-8960, @tsportsnet