Busting Brackets

UNC Basketball: Love in the Time of Carolina – Caleb Love appreciation post

CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 12: Caleb Love #2 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after making a three-point shot against the Florida State Seminoles during the first half of their game at the Dean E. Smith Center on February 12, 2022 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 12: Caleb Love #2 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after making a three-point shot against the Florida State Seminoles during the first half of their game at the Dean E. Smith Center on February 12, 2022 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) /

I’m so bummed out right now. Sports can do that, of course. Our favorite teams and players can take us to the highest of highs when they succeed, and the lowest of lows when they don’t. This feels different, though. Caleb Love announced on Monday that he’s entering the transfer portal, ending his time at UNC Basketball.

I feel like I usually do a pretty good job of keeping things in perspective when my teams lose. Sure, I can get really down when, say, Carolina gets knocked out of the NCAA Tournament. Or worse, when they don’t even make it at all. At the end of the day, though, losses always happen for a reason. The team didn’t make enough shots. Or they turned it over too many times. Or time just ran out on a comeback attempt. Sports can be emotional, but they still make sense if you can be objective after the elation or disappointment is stripped away.

I know that at some point, the disappointment of Caleb Love leaving will allow me to be objective about the whole thing. But I don’t think the sadness of it will ever fade. Caleb’s transfer wasn’t a surprise, as Tar Heel Twitter has been speculating that this was the likely outcome for weeks. But even knowing that this was probably going to happen didn’t help my mood when I read the news.

The weird part of this is that I think Caleb’s departure is actually the best thing for all parties involved. It gives Caleb a chance to pick a new home and get a fresh start, which I think will really benefit him after the abuse he took this season from a fanbase that has been spoiled by success. It gives the Tar Heels a chance to reconfigure their lineup and put this nightmare of a season behind them. It also gives Caleb’s new team a chance to get a really talented player that cares immensely about winning.

Let’s go back to this time about a year ago. Caleb Love was the talk of college basketball, putting the 8-seeded Tar Heels on his back and willing them to the Final Four. Caleb played every minute and hung 30 points on a UCLA team in the Sweet Sixteen that had returned nearly everyone from the previous season’s Final Four run. He was just as good against Duke in the Final Four, playing the entire game while scoring 28, including one of the most iconic shots in Tar Heel history, a three-pointer right in Mark Williams’ grill in the final minute. He was the best player in the most important game Carolina has ever played, and if you don’t agree, I’m sure you can find a wall with which to argue.

I drove from Raleigh to New Orleans to be there in person for that Final Four. There was no conceivable way on Earth I was going to miss that, and no amount of money I wouldn’t have paid to get there. Say what you want, but there is exactly a 0% chance that Carolina would have been there without Caleb, and a 0% chance I would have been in bed most of the next day after consuming a few too many hurricanes in the aftermath.

Caleb’s shotmaking during that tournament run was incredible, but even more impressive was his fearlessness. No moment was too big for him, and he seemed to relish every chance with the game on the line. I’ve described him many times as a superhero, and I’ll always stand by that.

When UNC got the ball back, down three in the national title game against Kansas, with one more shot to try to send it to overtime, I stood and screamed with what little remained of my tattered vocal chords that this was Caleb’s time. We found out later that the play was supposedly drawn up for Brady Manek, but just like Shohei Ohtani facing Mike Trout to end the World Baseball Classic, Caleb getting the ball seemed like the only way that game, and the tournament, was destined to be decided.

That shot, of course, missed, but that moment when the ball left Caleb’s hands and flew towards the hoop is the moment we live for as sports fans. If I could bottle that feeling and experience it anew each day, I would. There’s nobody else I wanted taking that shot.

Here we are a year later, and everything has seemingly changed. Carolina was ranked #1 to start the season, and all the good vibes of last March and April quickly dissipated, giving way to frustration and disappointment. For everything that panned out last year, just as many things and more flopped this time around.

It’s funny how it all works. Sports, and fans, can lift you up to god-like status when things are going right, and tear you down and kick you when you land when they go wrong. Think about it. If Carolina hadn’t gotten hot at the end of last season, thanks in tremendous part to Caleb, would they even have been ranked coming into this season? Probably not, since late last February a tournament bid was still very much in doubt. Caleb’s late-season heater was the biggest reason expectations were so high. Then when the team didn’t meet them, it all gets placed at his feet? Come on. Maybe, just maybe, let’s appreciate that last year was pure magic, a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience. It’s my favorite Tar Heel run ever, even over the national championships, and I know I’m not alone in feeling that way.

Today’s college basketball landscape would be unrecognizable to someone like Dean Smith. Heck, it probably contributed to Roy Williams’ decision to retire when he did. The transfer portal has made it easy for players to leave for greener pastures, and Carolina is finding that out more than anyone in the past couple weeks. RJ Davis and Armando Bacot have announced their return, but Caleb is the sixth Tar Heel to enter the portal this offseason. Though I’m absolutely going to miss Puff Johnson, Dontrez Styles, Tyler Nickel, and the rest, those guys never got a chance to etch themselves into Tar Heel lore the way Caleb did, which, come to think of it, is probably why most of them are leaving.

that moment when the ball left Caleb’s hands and flew towards the hoop is the moment we live for as sports fans

Gone are the days when you could welcome a freshman like Reyshawn Terry to campus and watch him blossom over four years, from a little-used bench player to a vital part of a winning team. Players want to play, and it’s hard to blame them. Life is too short. Sitting on the bench and hoping your turn comes in a year, or two, or even three just doesn’t cut it when you could go somewhere else and take on a larger role. Likewise, if a fanbase turns on a player, it’s hard for that player not to want to move on to a more positive environment.

Caleb put up with such abuse from his own fans this year, that honestly, I can’t blame him for wanting a fresh start. Sports fandom these days has become so toxic, relying on tearing players down instead of celebrating them for their successes. Make no mistake, Caleb’s career in Carolina blue was a success. Was he Michael Jordan or Tyler Hansbrough? No, but who is? If we only celebrate championships, we’ll spend too much time feeling terrible. I celebrate Caleb’s fearlessness, his toughness, his bravado, and the roars he would let out after making a big shot. All the time, I saw posts online of him taking pictures with kids. He’s a good dude and I’m going to miss him.

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In the end, I hope Caleb transferring works out for everyone involved, but I especially hope it works out for him. There are so many great players in college basketball, and no shortage of them have played for Carolina. Tar Heel fans have been extraordinarily lucky in this regard. There are jerseys hanging in the rafters, and though Caleb’s isn’t one of them, what he did in his time here will live on. I’m going to be watching that shot over Mark Williams decades from now, probably telling my grandchildren about the time their grandpa almost spontaneously combusted. Man, what a feeling.

Thanks, Caleb. Go be great.