“It was late, close to midnight, one December night in 1956.”

These are the opening lines of “The Classic: How Everett Case and His Tournament Brought Big-Time Basketball to the South,” Bethany Bradsher’s book about The Dixie Classic, which will be featured on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch this weekend.

She continues, “A thirteen-year-old boy named Tim Nicholls had feasted all day at the hulking arena called the William Neal Reynolds Coliseum—feasted on hot dogs, on barbecue served up in the Reynolds basement, and most of all on basketball.

“Nicholls was worn out, but it was the good kind of tired that comes from overdosing on something you love. As a Christmas present, he had received a coveted book of tickets for the Dixie Basketball Classic, so he had spent his day in Raleigh on the North Carolina State University campus watching four games featuring his favorite team, North Carolina, the host team, N. C. State, local favorites Duke and Wake Forest, and visiting squads Iowa, West Virginia, Utah, and DePaul.

“Nicholls had one of the best seats in the house for much of the action—he had befriended the woman who played the coliseum organ, and she let him sit on the bench when she wasn’t entertaining the crowd during time-outs or between periods. The teams from the North Carolina colleges, known as the Big Four, had dominated that day in the Classic’s opening round. They all easily dispatched their out-of-state opponents, and the next afternoon Tim would come back to see his Tar Heels take on Duke.”

These words took me back 60 years when my father gave me a memorable Christmas present. We drove from Davidson to Raleigh for the Dixie Classic’s opening round, a daylong, four-game marathon of “big time” basketball. It was more than the games for me. I was with my dad, by ourselves, in the crowd, talking about the players and the teams, as colleagues.

Whenever folks my age start talking about basketball, there is likely to be a story or two about Dixie Classic tickets in their Christmas stockings.

The late Pete Brennan, talking about the unbeaten 1956-57 national championship Carolina basketball team, never forgot to mention that team’s victory over Wake Forest in the Dixie Classic’s championship game.

These wonderful memories are disappearing. Those of us who were kids in those days from 1949 through 1960 are fading away. So Bradsher’s history of the Classic is a gift to us.

At a time when we are struggling to deal with the fallout from the puzzling and passionate relationship between big time sports and universities, an understanding of the powerful hold the Dixie Classic had on North Carolina sports fans and university partisans is an important key.

Bradsher tells of the glory days. The crowds. The close games. The humiliation of the nation’s top teams, none of which ever won the tournament.

But she also tells the tale of the tragic and scandalous demise of the tournament.  Point shaving by players under the direction of seedy petty criminals threatened to destroy the reputations of the universities that Dixie Class fans loved, the same universities that were beloved treasures for every North Carolinian.
UNC President William Friday and the chancellors of Carolina and N.C. State did not hesitate. They shut down the Classic.

Their audacious, decisive action angered a generation of Dixie Classic fans and put their jobs in jeopardy.
But, by sending a clear signal that athletics did not control the universities’ agendas, they solidified their institutions’ educational reputations and set an example that should inspire and guide the leaders of today.