Story by Stephen Schramm Photos by James Robinson
GREENSBORO – The pork shoulders had been on the pits in Stamey’s brick smokehouse for six hours. But by 11 a.m. Wednesday, there was more wood going on the fire.
With each new piece of hickory, flames shot out from behind an iron door.
“It breathes like a dragon,” 17-year Stamey’s veteran Alan Harrison said just before he began preparing a mountain of the restaurant’s trademark pink slaw.
With the ACC tournament tipping off in a few hours across the street at the Greensboro Coliseum, everyone at Stamey’s knew it was going to be a busy day.
For generations of fans, the 2206 W. Gate City Blvd. (formerly High Point Rd.) barbecue restaurant and the ACC tournament have been inextricably linked.
The restaurant opened this location in 1953, the same year the ACC was founded across town at Sedgefield Country Club. Chip Stamey, the establishment’s third-generation owner, said the number of customers it sees during a tournament day can be double what it gets on a busy day at any other time of year.
“It’s a big event for us on our calendar,” Stamey said. “We’ve sort of grown up with the ACC.”
But this is a different year for the conference and its signature event.
The addition of three new teams has stretched the tournament over five days for the first time in its history.
It culminates with today’s final between top-seeded Virginia and No. 3 seed Duke. But Wednesday’s slate featured the six teams at the bottom of the ACC standings. There were as many teams from Indiana and Massachusetts as there were from North Carolina, the spiritual heart of the conference.
Wes Durham is a North Carolina native who spent 18 years as the radio voice of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and now broadcasts ACC games for Raycom and Fox. The league’s new reality hit home for him when he was on press row early Wednesday afternoon and the band of new league member Notre Dame launched into its familiar fight song.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this really is happening,'” Durham said.
But as much as the event has changed, here it retains a timeless feel. Greensboro has hosted 25 of the conference’s 61 tournaments, turning places like Stamey’s into unofficial ACC traditions.
On Wednesday morning, a light drizzle fell on the expansive parking lot that Stamey’s opens up to tournament fans. Howard Wallace and Don Lindsay of the Hamilton Lakes Lions’ Club were collecting money. The group has done it for more than 15 years and uses its cut of the proceeds to fund college scholarships and vision programs for kids in need.
“This is our biggest generator of cash at this point,” Wallace said.
“We used to sell brooms door to door, but we’ve all aged out of that,” Lindsay said.
In Stamey’s lobby, black-and-white photos hang on the wood-paneled walls. A long lunch counter stretches down one side of a crowded dining room filled with fans wearing North Carolina’s powder blue, Wake Forest’s old gold and Virginia Tech’s mishmash of maroon and bright orange.
On ACC tournament Fridays, when the top teams take the court for the first time and the crowds swell, Stamey’s goes from busy to jammed. Foot traffic clogs up the drive-through window, forming a line that can reach to the street. Patrons from rival fan bases eat side by side in the dining room, temporarily shelving their hostilities.
“They’ll even offer to sit together,” Stamey said. “If there’s two of them and there’s a booth that holds four. Instead of hogging the booth with two, they’ll sometimes sit together and eat. I’ve seen that happen a lot. … Now there’s some mixtures of fans that probably wouldn’t do it.”
While the scene at Stamey’s hasn’t changed, this year, there were new wrinkles.
Hanging from the ceiling were banners of the ACC’s 15 teams. Stamey said he had to buy ones for new league members Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.
The Maryland banner was making its last appearance.
About noon, three Terrapins fans were waiting for a table by the front door.
Bill Lightner, Bob Grove and Wink Suder are part of a nine-person group from Hagerstown, Md., that has made it to every ACC tournament for the past two decades.
Like every other year the event has been in Greensboro, they’ve rented a cottage near Winston-Salem and reveled in a weekend of hoops.
“Even if Maryland loses, we don’t sell the tickets or anything,” Grove said. “We stay. We’re basketball fans, you know?”
The Terrapins, one of the league’s charter members, are leaving after this season to join the Big Ten. While they understand the financial factors leading to Maryland’s move, the trio are disappointed that their annual treks to Greensboro will end. They’re not sure what they’ll do next year.
“We haven’t thought about that yet,” Suder said. “We’ll wait and see.”
The basketball across the street Wednesday was unremarkable. Wake Forest, Miami and Georgia Tech all won games that were forgotten not long after they were completed. All three teams were gone before Friday.
Perhaps the most memorable parts of the tournament’s first day were the concert by country singer Scotty McCreery, the brief blackout brought on by an early evening thunderstorm and the large black curtain that closed off parts of the upper deck to hide swaths of empty seats.
“That’s where this event is now. It’s changing,” Durham said.
But by Thursday afternoon, the familiar feel of the tournament was in full effect.
Florida State’s last-second win against Maryland and Wake Forest’s collapse against Pittsburgh gave fans plenty to chew over.
On Friday evening, North Carolina fans still stung from an afternoon loss to Pittsburgh sat next to rowdy N.C. State fans during the Wolfpack’s upset of Syracuse. Scattered among them were Duke fans who later endured the Blue Devils’ dramatic escape against Clemson.
Over at Stamey’s, Friday was slightly busier than usual as Syracuse and Pittsburgh fans mingled with those of the ACC’s old guard.
On Thursday, one of Stamey’s managers climbed a ladder and took down the Terrapins’ banner. A Maryland fan had bought it and wanted to take it home. The money already has been designated to go toward buying a Louisville one.
The Cardinals will make their first ACC tournament appearance next season when the event returns to Greensboro. In 2016, it will head to Washington, D.C.
On Friday, news broke that the league is nearing a deal to move the 2017 tournament to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
While Greensboro’s connection to the event is unique, the potential rewards of moving the tournament around to the conference’s bigger markets could outweigh it.
“It’s a really big league now,” Durham said. “There are a lot of things about it that are good. There are things that are really kind of different and, some might say, uncomfortable.
“But I think, for the most part, it’s a really big league, and we’ve got to get our arms around it.”
Standing in front of a van Wednesday in the Greensboro Coliseum parking lot, Raleigh’s Jackie Weathersby was open to the idea of change.
The van had a North Carolina flag, Virginia magnets and Duke gear scattered around its interior. Weathersby, who was there with a group of longtime pals who have been going to the tournament for 30 years, is an N.C. State fan.
None of those four teams was playing that day.
“It’s about ACC, not any individual teams,” Weathersby said. “It’s not really about basketball for us. It’s about getting together and doing what we’re doing.”
The group doesn’t buy tickets in advance, instead scoping out the best deals from scalpers or fans whose teams have lost in the earlier rounds. They’ve followed the tournament everywhere it’s gone, tailgating in Atlanta, Tampa and Washington.
Greensboro, he said, is where the tournament is at its best. But if it needs to move, it won’t dampen their fun.
“It’ll all depend on where the tournaments go from here,” Weathersby said. “Greensboro’s great for this, what you see. But if you move it to (New York) … that may change some things.”
The van’s speakers blared the music of Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino. Around them in the lot, Notre Dame fans were walking to their cars after their team had been eliminated by Wake Forest, one of the league’s original schools.
“If they let us tailgate, we’ve got no problem with it,” Weathersby said. “If they say no tailgating and you have to take a subway or a taxi, that may be a problem.”
Staff writer Stephen Schramm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 486-3536.