Why I'm rooting for Jeff Capel
A kid who loved the Tar Heels reflects on fandom, ALS and that stuff that matters. Watch ESPN 9 pm ET.
Anyone who knows me learns pretty quickly that I went to Wake Forest. That’s usually the case with Wake alums.
We can’t help it. We suffer from Small College Syndrome. With just 5,500 undergrad students enrolled, the tiny campus in Winston-Salem, NC., represents the smallest Power 5 school in the country. We could multiply our enrollment by five and we’d still be smaller than Florida State. We wear that chip on our shoulder everywhere we go. I love the Deacs.
Which is why most people think I’m lying when I tell them my first AOL screenname:
It’s true. Living in UConn country, my brothers and I drove our friends mad with our unhealthy obsession with the Tar Heels. My grandparents lived in North Carolina when I was a kid, and my grandma always sent us UNC t-shirts at Christmas time. We were hooked. Sheed. Stack. Ed Cota. Shammond. Serge. Montross (RIP). Vince. Jamison. Julius Peppers! I mean, how could you not? I’m afraid to admit that, at one point, we got haircuts with NC shaved in the back of our heads.
Look at 11-year-old me, with a CALF SWEATBAND (???), and my Jordan 12s (Tar Heel, remember), shaking hands with Dean Smith at UNC basketball camp.
So when I say that us Haberstrohs sports-hated Jeff Capel growing up, you better believe it.
Because Jeff hit the shot.
Any college hoops fan knows the one I’m talking about. Cameron Indoor. Feb 2, 1995. Stack had the iconic reverse head-bobbing dunk. Sheed was Sheed. The Tar Heels were rolling. Then Duke came rallying back.
Down six with less than 10 seconds left, Jeff hit an and-1. Duke fouls to get the ball back. UNC center Serge Zwikker missed both free throws.
And then … bedlam.
Watch this. With the volume UP.
ESPN called it, “The Shot That Reignited College Hoops’ Greatest Rivalry.”
Here’s a more accurate label: “The Shot That Made The Haberstroh Boys Cry.”
I was nine years old. I’m pretty sure we threw the remote control at our Mitsubishi TV set. We might have torn our cable box out of the wall. We were a mess.
A funny thing about that shot: UNC won that game in double-overtime. I don’t remember it that way. That’s how devastating Jeff Capel’s shot was. Some shots are so demoralizing that nothing after it matters. As a Red Sox fan, it’s like being reminded that Bill Buckner’s error occurred in Game 6 and there was still a Game 7 in the 1986 World Series. Technically, that’s right. Emotionally? Nope, it ended as soon as the ball went through his legs.
I say all this because I’m rooting so hard for Jeff Capel as he leads his Pittsburgh Panthers against his former team, the Duke Blue Devils, tonight on ESPN at 9 pm ET. I’m cheering for him not because he’s coaching against Duke. (Normally, as a Wake alum, that would be enough).
Unfortunately, Capel and I share a bond that, in some ways, I wish never tied us together: we both lost a parent to ALS aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
He lost his dad Jeff Jr., in 2017.
We lost Mom this past summer.
This game holds extra meaning for us in the ALS community because it is the inaugural Hoops4ALS game, an initiative that Jeff spearheaded with a group of hoop-heads who hate ALS. I’m one of those basketball-crazy folks who helped build Hoops4ALS, and so is P.J. Murphy, who lost his brother Andy to ALS this summer, just days before I lost Mom.
Some months ago, Jeff, P.J. and I put our heads together and wondered if we could turn Pitt-Duke games this season into Hoops4ALS games. For Andy. For Patty. For Jeff Jr.. For everyone who has fought ALS, is fighting ALS and will fight ALS one day.
Jeff said he’d do his best. No promises. He reached out to Duke coach Jon Scheyer. He contacted the athletic department heads for both Pitt and Duke. Some days went by. And then he texted us back, “They’re in.”
And so we went to work (P.J. did most of it, not me). We linked up with the folks at the ALS Therapy Development Institute. In quick order, Glynis Murray and Mike Shannon at ALS TDI put resources together to get merchandise and a fundraising site up and running. (Players and coaches will be wearing Hoops4ALS shooting shirts tonight). ALS TDI does great work trying to find cures and effective treatments for this horrible disease and they were wonderful partners in the ALS Pepper Challenge. We were really thankful that they agreed to partner with us on this project. You can donate here: als.net/pittduke.
There’s an old saying that you should never meet your heroes. The thinking goes that those same heroes, in real life, will never live up to your expectations. As a sports fan growing up, so many of those heroes were athletes. And sometimes that may be true. It’s better to keep that childhood innocence alive.
But what about the other side of that equation? What happens when you meet your sports enemies?
I can tell you with certainty that I’m a big advocate of meeting your sports enemies. Because I met Jeff.
I remembered being nervous about talking to him. Jeff Capel and Wojo and Cherokee Parks were such a big part of my childhood. They were the bad guys. He hit the shot.
At some point when we were on the phone talking about our visions of Hoops4ALS, I finally came clean and joked with him that I was a huge Tar Heel fan growing up and I will never forget the shot. I’m sure he gets this all the time. His younger brother Jason starred at UNC and in this state, the Capel family is royalty. He laughed it off.
You went to Wake, right?
I did, yeah.
Lemme send you something.
So he texts me back a photo. It’s this one right here.
That was the cover of the Wake Forest media guide in 1986-87. Muggsy Bogues wearing his gold medal and Team USA jersey after winning gold at the FIBA world championship.
The kid on the right with the GO DEACS/Mickey Mouse sweatshirt?
That’s Jeff Capel.
Seated next to Jeff on the right, in the Nikes, is his younger brother Jason.
Lemme tell you. This blew my MIND.
He told me a story about his dad. Jeff Jr., was the assistant coach for Wake Forest that season under coach Bob Staak. They did a photo shoot that day with Muggsy, who was a 5-foot-3 rock star at Wake and wanted to display how he was basically the height of a child. They asked some kids of the coaching and administrative staff to be a part of it. And so there is 11-year-old Jeff, looking eye-to-eye to Muggsy, on the publication.
It’s pretty much a perfect photo.
And Jeff telling me that story is a perfect window into Jeff as a person. He didn’t have to tell me that story. He didn’t have to send me that photo. The Duke star would be perfectly justified in telling No1Heelfan to kick rocks.
Instead, he brought me in closer. Oh, you were a kid that used to love UNC? Well, here’s a photo of me in a GO DEACS sweatshirt. Check this out.
And then he talked about his dad and Wake. What he meant to him. Why he wants to do Hoops4ALS in his honor. Jeff wrote a wonderful tribute to his father and about his battle with ALS. Reading that, you’ll want to fight for Jeff, too. You’ll also want a box of Kleenex nearby.
Jeff and I talked about the brutality of ALS. What it’s like to see a parent wither away. The stuff no one really talks about. The feeding tubes. The unending pain. The evil of it all. After a while, we were just two men missing their parents.
This is the stuff that matters. Jeff Capel and No1Heelfan are linking up to fight ALS. I’m a No. 1 fan of Capel, Pitt and Duke right now. They’ve engaged in the battle against ALS because of Jeff and his father Jeff Jr., and what the Capels represent in the basketball community. I’m grateful. Two games this year. Today and January 20 at Cameron Indoor. I’m going to the one at Duke. My first time ever at Cameron Indoor.
To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ll even think about my ties to Wake or UNC that night. None of that matters. I hope I just soak it in. I’ll be thinking about Jeff’s dad. And Andy. And Adam. I’ll be thinking about all the awareness and money we’re raising to end this disease. I’ll be thinking about Mom, and wishing she was there with me to see it all.