This first thing Chris Hobbs notices is the smell.
“It smells like game time,” said Hobbs during his return visit Friday night to East Chapel Hill High School. “It’s very nostalgic.”
There’s no sense of finality for Hobbs during his reunion with his fellow teammates from the 1997 3A state championship team. In fact, he’ll be on a court with two of the members of that team, Eric Henderson and Cooper Healey later this week in various recreation leagues across the Triangle, which is no surprise.
The 1996-97 East Chapel Hill Wildcats will always be linked together. They’re still the only team in North Carolina history to win a state championship in their high school’s inaugural year – without seniors. The ’97 Wildcats also went into the NCHSAA record book as North Carolina’s best-shooting basketball team ever.
Time hasn’t caused them to drift apart.
But 18 years can fade memories of some events, even the biggest in a school’s athletics history.
Last summer, East Chapel Hill basketball coach and athletics director Ray Hartsfield received an email from teacher Jennifer Martin, who had heard something about East winning a state championship in basketball in 1997, but never really knew anything else about that.
Hartsfield confirmed the facts, and that led to the 1996-97 Wildcats getting a commemorative spread in the upcoming East Chapel Hill yearbook.
It also sparked Hartsfield to organize a reunion, which 12 of the 15 members attended on Friday during East’s “Night of Champions.”
“Those guys hung out all the time,” said Hartsfield, the only basketball head coach East has had since it opened. “When you saw one, you saw 15. It was so family.”
Before game days, there would be pasta night at the house of Holly Fitzgerald’s, whose son Brian was named MVP of the ‘97 championship game after getting 13 points and 9 rebounds. Pasta was followed by countless hours of GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64.
Ironically, the togetherness was born out of East’s archrival, Chapel Hill High. Or the division of it.
Fitzgerald, Andy Jones and Paul Kingdom were childhood friends. Brad Woodley later joined the group after moving from out of state. The core of the group played pickup basketball and in middle school with a natural dream of playing together at Chapel Hill High.
Then reality set in.
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro district announced the creation of its second high school in 1993, and the group was worried they would be separated.
Luckily, no one was interested in leaving the others behind. The group that started together would finish together, even if it meant not playing in gold and black.
All four would be starters for the Wildcats during the magical 1997 campaign, and their roles would be clearly defined. Hobbs was the intimidating low-post presence who was a Division one prospect by his sophomore year.
As for Jones ...
“He was the leader, period,” said Hartsfield. “He was the consummate point guard. Whenever he went, they went. And the team believed in him.”
Possibly the most famous play in the history of the Chapel Hill sports that doesn’t involve UNC is Jones’s three-pointer at the buzzer that won East the 3A state title over Hickory 60-59 – in the Smith Center, no less.
The irony is that Jones was hardly a scorer. It was his only 3-pointer of the day, and just his fourth of the state tournament. In the sectional final victory over Ragsdale, Jones went scoreless.
Jones, who now coaches Charlottesville High in Virginia, drove 6 hours to spend the weekend with his teammates, which included watching the current group of Wildcats beat Person 62-55.
At first, Jones told Hartsfield he would miss the reunion because his team had a game scheduled. It was only after his athletics director told him he would have an excused absence to reminiscence that Jones returned home.
“I’ll have to send his AD a thank you note,” said Hartsfield.
Hobbs would go on to play at Clemson under Larry Shyatt. He smiles at the memory of blocking a Julius Peppers driving dunk attempt in 2001 on the very floor where he won the state championship four years earlier.
Hobbs now works with the local chapter of the American Red Cross when he isn’t playing rec ball.
A lot of time has floated down the hourglass since East cut down the nets at the Smith Center, but the bond of basketball keeps them bonded, literally and figuratively.
“It was a once in a lifetime experience,” said Hobbs. “We were just a group of kids that loved to play together. We didn’t know it would lead us back here now.”