In the minutes before North Carolina played Syracuse in the ACC Tournament Wednesday night, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams came by to wrap up Wes Durham in an embrace. That was only one indication of the uniquely difficult assignment that Durham, the ACC Network play-by-play man and Atlanta broadcast fixture, was handling.
The game’s three officials did likewise, stopping by Durham’s post at midcourt at the Barclays Center. The Tar Heels took the floor wearing long-sleeve t-shirts with “Woody” on the back. It was homage to Woody Durham, Wes’ father and the legendary voice of Tar Heels football and basketball. Woody Durham died in his sleep early Wednesday at the age of 76, having succumbed in a battle with primary progressive aphasia, a rare neurological syndrome that impairs the ability to use language.
Less than 24 hours later, honoring the wishes of parents Woody and Jean Durham, Wes Durham called two second-round games at the ACC’s signature event, the tradition-bound basketball festival that connected Woody and Wes Durham.
Durham flew up to New York on Monday aware that his father’s time was coming to an end. He was to stay no matter what happened.
“Basically, (Durham’s parents) had a conversation and so when I started to find out about the decline, where we were, she basically said that he intimated that whatever happens, Go to Brooklyn,” Durham said prior to his two game calls. “Just kind of shows you where he was – his love for the event and my love for the event.”
Dan Bonner, Durham’s broadcast partner, deemed it a fitting tribute.
“It wouldn’t have been as effective or good – whatever the proper terminology – had he not been here,” Bonner said.
The Falcons radio play-by-play man and the longtime voice of Georgia Tech before moving on to the ACC Network, Durham called the 7 p.m. game between Virginia Tech and Notre Dame and the nightcap between Syracuse and, as things would have it, the Tar Heels.
“It’s not easy, but it’s certainly comfortable being here as opposed to not being here,” Durham said early Wednesday evening. “The irony is that I get the night games and Carolina ended up in the night game, so now all of a sudden, it’s all coming back full circle.”
Moreover, Durham was effectively doing the job from his father’s chair. Before Woody Durham began his 40-year run in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1971, he called the ACC Tournament for a precursor of Raycom Sports, which produces the ACC Network, Wes said.
“He did the tournament and so now I’m doing the tournament for essentially the same company, offshoot three times, but, yeah, that’s pretty neat,” he said.
Durham played it straight during the broadcasts. He called the action with fluidity, his voice clear and resonant. He was on top of names and statistics and conducted the broadcast with Bonner and sideline reporter Jason Capel like a conversation.
When North Carolina’s Theo Pinson launched a long downcourt pass to a teammate for a layup, he and Bonner lingered over the play, with Durham likening it to a post route thrown by a quarterback.
“(UNC football coach) Larry Fedora’s sitting at home wondering about a grad year for Pinson,” Durham cracked.
Durham said that during the broadcast he thought back to the messages of support he had received Wednesday. But he sounded, as he usually does, like he was having fun. If his mind and heart were elsewhere, it wasn’t evident.
“I have to admit that I was a bit nervous because I felt like I didn’t want to do anything to upset Wes or trivialize what we were doing, but he handled it so well,” Bonner said.
Durham was following the example set by his father, in whose path Wes’ brother Taylor has also followed, of meticulous and in-depth preparation.
“So the No. 1 thing was, if you’re prepared, you’re going to be fine,” Durham said. “And because of his love for the event (the ACC Tournament), I have a love for the event, so my preparation to do these games never changes. It’s always part of that process. My brother was funny when he said, ‘You’ll kill it. You’ll handle it.’ So it was almost like he knew what I needed to do.’”
Woody Durham’s diligence in learning and memorizing as much as he could for a broadcast was such that in a statement from ACC commissioner and former North Carolina athletic director John Swofford, the commissioner observed that much of his excellence was due to the fact that “he worked incredibly hard at it.”
Wednesday night, the broadcast drew attention to Woody Durham’s passing twice. Just before tipoff of the UNC-Syracuse game, the arena observed a moment of silence and a short tribute was read on air before going to commercial.
During a television timeout midway through the first half, Durham walked to mid-court from his sideline seat to accept the Bob Bradley Spirit and Courage Award from the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association on his father’s behalf, an honor which had already been planned. As warm applause bathed the moment, Durham waved to the crowd.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you very much.”
Coming out of the commercial break, ACC Network colleague Tom Werne, from an in-arena studio perch, recapped the brief ceremony and then passed back to Durham, who offered his thanks to the University of North Carolina for its care for his father in his fight with aphasia and for the messages of sympathy and support that he and his family had received during the day.
And then it was back to basketball.
“The game is always the most important thing,” Durham said. “That’s the way I wanted to treat it (Wednesday night). Hopefully, I did a good tribute.”
In the final minute of North Carolina’s runaway win, Williams emptied the Tar Heels bench. Into the game came freshman walk-on Walker Miller, anonymous to all but North Carolina fans, and then perhaps only as a name and number. Miller had played a total of 25 minutes this season. If he were to play in this game, it would be briefly, and at the end of a blowout. It could be easily glossed over. And yet…
“Walker Miller, whose brother Wes just punched his ticket to the NCAA Tournament, by the way, with the Spartans of UNCG…”
And, yes, Wes Miller, coach of the UNC-Greensboro Spartans and older brother of the UNC walk-on, is indeed taking his team to the NCAA Tournament after winning the Southern Conference championship on Monday.
It was not long on sentiment, but it sure sounded like a tribute.