Dean E. Smith Center: Welcome to basketball Valhalla in Chapel Hill

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The last-second thriller ended like many of the Tobacco Road games that have made the UNC-Duke rivalry so storied. But that final conference game of 2005 is arguably the most memorable in the series for home fans at the Dean E. Smith Center.

"That was the loudest I have ever heard the Smith Center," North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said.

The sellout crowd at the Chapel Hill arena, for 23 years the holy grail of Tar Heels fans, was erupting as Sean May & Co. scratched and clawed their way out of a nine-point deficit to the Blue Devils with three minutes to go.

High-octane freshman Marvin Williams' three-point play capped an 11-point closing run, and UNC ended the regular season with bragging rights -- and a sea of Carolina fans storming the court -- by holding off Duke 75-73.

"I can say that's one of those moments I'll never forget in my basketball career," Marvin Williams, now with the Atlanta Hawks, said of his winning bank shot and free throw.

Sure, Duke has historic Cameron Indoor Stadium (see that Pilgrimage here), which holds 9,314 and its famous student fan corps, the "Cameron Crazies."

But to feel a record crowd of 22,125 shaking the much larger dome that is the Smith Center (which soaks in enough sunlight for the Tar Heels to practice without electric lighting when open in the early afternoon) is something else entirely.

Welcome to basketball at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the oldest state public university in the country.

Founded in 1789, it comprises a good portion of the town of Chapel Hill itself. The campus spreads throughout most of "downtown," including Chapel Hill's main drag, Franklin Street, with brick and stone buildings separated by oak and elm trees, lawns of grass and sidewalks made of brick.

Carolina basketball's inaugural official home was Bynum Gymnasium. The first home game was played Jan. 27, 1911, and UNC beat Virginia Christian 42-21. Carolina was 62-11 in what is now the administrative building Bynum Hall before moving on to the Indoor Athletic Court, aka "the Tin Can," in 1924. The Heels played in the Tin Can for 13 years, compiling a 120-18 record. In 1938, the Heels moved to Woollen Gym, where they remained for almost 30 years. They amassed another strong home record of 219-30 in what is now used for university exercise classes and intramural sports.

On Dec. 4, 1965, the Heels played their first home game in Carmichael Auditorium, where they'd remain for the next 21 years. Now the home for women's basketball, wrestling and volleyball teams, Carmichael housed the 1982 men's championship team that boasted Michael Jordan and James Worthy. What fans may remember most about Carmichael, however, was the difficulty of securing game tickets.

"People think it's hard to get tickets today, but it's nothing like it was in Carmichael," said Adam Lucas, the founder and publisher of Tar Heel Monthly and a columnist for TarHeelBlue.com. Lucas has missed only a couple of games at the Smith Center since its inception. "You had to know somebody who knew somebody because it was so small, maybe 10,000 seats, and the students got a lot of those."

In 1979, talks began of building a new home for UNC basketball. Unlike many facilities, the Smith Center was funded entirely by private donations, mostly from the UNC fan organization known as the Rams Club. No university funding or state tax money was used, which helps explain why the majority of the Smith Center's lower-level seats are sold to Rams Club members rather than students, faculty or staff. At the time, Lucas said, students were given the option of paying a fee to help support building costs and, in turn, obtain more seating. The student body voted and declined, meaning the more than $30 million raised for the Smith Center's construction was entirely from private funding.

Construction began in 1982 on a site that existed as a university-owned, wooded ravine.

"No one was trying to build the biggest facility in the country, we just wanted to accommodate the fans," said Glenn Corley of Corley Redfoot Zack, one of the lead architects on the team charged with designing the new arena. Its 21,750-capacity seating makes the Smith Center the fifth-largest college basketball arena in the country, even today.

"I remember Bill Guthridge, the head coach after Dean and his longtime assistant, always said he wanted it big enough so that everyone who wanted to go to a game could get in, and there wouldn't be one guy outside waiting," Corley said. "He wanted it to fill up."

That hasn't been a problem. Most games sell out, particularly during the ACC season. The UNC sports media relations department reports that although exact stats aren't kept on sellouts, the Tar Heels have ranked in the top five in the NCAA in home attendance every season since the Smith Center's first full season (1986-87).

Before most games you can find fans outside in search of tickets and a number of sellers. When I attended the UNC-Boston College ACC home opener Jan. 4, I saw a man position his four small children outside holding "tickets needed" signs to enlist sympathy from potential sellers. Sellers had scattered themselves along the hill approaching the arena, hoping to find potential buyers around the stadium's circumference.

Although students don't set up a "tent city" like their rivals at Duke down the road, they must sign up for and retrieve tickets through a ticket-lottery system. Graduate students also get a shot at seats in the student sections, which are found mostly in the bleachers behind the baskets. Students in the bleachers aren't assigned a specific seat; instead, they wear a wristband and fill the bleachers via a first-come, first-served format.

One of the center's biggest construction challenges, Corley said, was ensuring the view from all angles wasn't obstructed while still allowing fans to feel "close to the court." That's why when you enter the Smith Center, seats are located both above and below concourse level, giving the perception that the building is smaller than it is.

Seating itself is divided into three main areas -- lower, middle and upper levels, where the maximum distance from seat to court is 675 feet. The more recent addition of large TV screens on the four corners near the ceiling allow for close-ups of the on-court action. Several suites are located beneath the middle level throughout the concourse.

If you're buying tickets in advance, chances are you'll be purchasing upper-level seats. Most of the lower sections are reserved for Rams Club season-ticket holders, players' friends and families and students.

The highest point is perhaps the most impressive. Hanging from the ceiling are rows of banners, from ACC titles to national championships, as well as retired player jerseys (Antawn Jamison's being the most recent). The sheer volume of banners, jerseys and titles draw tourists from around the country.

"To see my jersey up in the rafters, to know I was a part of that history … you just get a great feel for all that's happened there," said Jamison, now with the Washington Wizards.

"I think the first thing you always see opponents or first-time fans do -- or, you'd be surprised how many tour buses pull up in the summer -- they always go inside and look up," Lucas said. "They want to see the banners, the jerseys, the history. It's pretty impressive to look up and see that many ACC banners, Final Four banners, etc. Probably the only place with a similar collection would be UCLA."

The Smith Center was originally called the Student Activities Center and was slated to house various events in addition to basketball games; it now hosts major concerts and graduation ceremonies. Smith, then the head coach, at first didn't want the building to be named for him, but was told the use of his name would bring in more money. On the building's dedication night, the Dean E. Smith Center, often called the "Dean Dome," became official.

Roy Williams was an assistant on Smith's staff for the first game held in the Smith Center, when the Heels played -- who else? -- Duke on Jan. 18, 1986. "I remember we had Steve Hale and those guys, and Warren Martin scored the first basket," Williams said.

Since that first battle (UNC won), the Smith Center has hosted an array of memorable games. Eric Montross, a member of the 1993 national championship team and now a broadcaster for the Tar Heel Sports Network, remembers a huge game during the 1992 season.

"I think one of the highlights for me was when we played FSU. We were down by 22 in the second half and we came back to win," Montross said. "That was the year after Sam Cassell [then a Florida State guard] -- I like him a lot, he's a character -- had called out the wine-and-cheese crowd. We came back to beat them, and it was an emotional game. The crowd was amazing."

Cassell, now with the Boston Celtics, likely didn't realize his quote about the UNC fans ("This is not a Duke kind of crowd. It's more like a cheese-and-wine crowd, kind of laid-back") would cause such a ripple effect. The Tar Heel faithful didn't like it -- probably because, as Lucas said, Cassell wasn't entirely wrong. "When Cassell said 'cheese and wine,' that was true; the crowd did kind of sit and wait for something to happen then," Lucas said.

Today, crowds are better but still need the occasional nudge, encouraged by all the pregame hype. Before each home game tip-off, a camera follows the players as they walk down the tunnel from the locker room onto the court, while fans clap slowly and in unison. Several players howl and yell until they meet in a huddle for a final cheer. A dramatic video montage complete with music is played on the screens before the starting lineup intros. Prior to tip-off, House of Pain's "Jump Around" is blasted while Danny Green (most notably) and several other Tar Heels dance on the sideline (as do a lot of the fans).