RALEIGH — Below the hurricane warning flags and amid the aroma of charcoal grills, the parking lots surrounding PNC Arena serve as the Triangle’s unofficial demilitarized zone, sun-splashed tailgates offering brief periods of détente for the state’s rival fanbases.
Sworn enemies for the other 18 hours of the day, members of the Wolfpack and Tar Heels come together as one in his unholy alliance, welcoming Blue Devils, Deacons, Mountaineers, Pirates and anyone else who wants to be a part of the Bunch of Jerks as the Carolina Hurricanes continue their run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The same passion that’s on display from August through March in the arenas and stadiums belonging to those schools is now in PNC Arena, and those fans are largely putting it toward the same goal.
“We’re loud as hell in that building because we’re good fans, and college basketball teaches you to be,” said Mike Hawkins, a retired IT Administrator at UNC. “You grow up in that age, you go to college and you’re into; you’ve seen ACC games, you’ve seen ACC Tournaments and you’ve gone nuts over it…you’re just a sports fan.”
As Carolinians focused on March Madness with two teams contending for the Final Four, the Hurricanes were cementing their first playoff appearance in a decade. This isn’t the first rodeo for captain Justin Williams around here, and he understands the dynamic for fans.
“Six months ago, I could go to the grocery store without anyone saying good luck to me,” he said before Wednesday’s game. “People are recognizing, and people are excited, and that gets us excited as well. So, the town here with all the basketball done, this is hockey time and time that we all enjoy, and time that we can take ourselves and be selfish with it.”
There are hints of the uneasy partnership outside the arena. Sometimes it’s a tent shielding tailgaters from the sun, other times it’s a cap or a decal.
For Hawkins, it was a Tar Heel license plate on the car next to the spot he and his wife, Debbie, were tailgating in the shade.
Their story is a familiar one: after Mike came to a few games, he brought Debbie along for one and she was “immediately hooked,” leading to their decision to get season tickets in 2006.
“The first time she walked into this arena, she looked around and said, ‘This is too nice for State people,’” he said, laughing. “It’s a great arena. It’s a couple of eras past the Dean Dome; its’ a wonderful place to see any event.”
Facing a choice on whether to keep Carolina basketball or Hurricanes season tickets, the Hawkins chose hockey.
“This is just so much more fun, this is so much more action. I’d much rather watch this and I don’t have to pretend it’s not a professional sport; college basketball is a professional sport, I don’t care what anybody says.
“We decided we just enjoyed this more; it’s not that we were disloyal to Carolina.”
Across the parking lot, State graduate student and Greensboro native Thomas Hall was sipping a beer in an N.C. State camp chair as he reflected on first going to Monarchs games at the Coliseum before becoming a Hurricanes die-hard during their brief tenure.
Originally a Duke basketball fan, Hall went to Davidson, so he admitted he doesn’t exactly have the same perspective on ACC rivalries before backtracking.
“That was a priority for everyone, right? Everyone goes nuts over it,” he said. “I don’t have the deep ACC hatred …. that’s not true, I hate Carolina.”
That aside, Hall is happy to put away his differences with the Tar Heels for a few hours if it means they’re cheering the Hurricanes toward victory together.
“It definitely creates a more intense version because everyone is so passionate about one, it’s easy to transition that to another sport,” he said.”
As March Madness has turned to April Absurdity and now May Mania, those good vibes are even spreading beyond bubble of euphoria that has surrounded PNC Arena as of late.
Back home in Pittsboro, Hawkins has had a few folks in Duke and State gear approach him after seeing his Hurricanes cap — fans that would usually only approach to rub in a loss.
“I think North Carolinians, be they natives or transplants, they’re excellent sports fans,” he said.
To steal a line from Bill Murray in Ghostbusters: “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!”