Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall, which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays Friday, covers the whole sonic spectrum. It’s host to the University of North Carolina’s bands and choirs, visiting “Big Five” orchestras and celebrated quartets — even hometown alt-rock trio Ben Folds Five (which curiously offered its “Battle of Who Could Care Less” at a hall named for lost soldiers). But across Polk Place at the old gymnasium, once the Piedmont’s loudest soundscape, Carolina remembers its recent heroes and their winning, silent swishes.
For three basketball seasons in the early ‘80s, Carmichael Auditorium shouted out its Tar Heel tonsils for lanky guard “Mike” Jordan and his stellar lights-out shooting.
Third in a series: Concert halls and iconic venues in cities the CSO tours
The worthy freshman from Wilmington, with junior James Worthy from Gastonia, nabbed a 1982 championship banner for the low, close Carmichael rafters — the loud little gym seated 10,000 those days. Draining a clutch Carolina jumper with 17 seconds left was the moment that defined MJ until he hit that clutch Bulls clincher 17 years later and walked away with six Chicago titles. During Jordan’s reign, the packed, tiny Carmichael — awash in Carolina blue — was a visual and sonic nightmare for visiting teams. Cavalier opponents used to complain that they went deaf by the time the starting lineups were announced.
Jordan and the Tar Heels were bound for bigger places. In 1984, the North Carolina guard left school a year early to spark the Bulls at the Chicago Stadium, then the Tar Heels hoops program doubled its audience across campus at the new Dean Smith Center, UNC’s basketball tabernacle since 1986, with bigger rafters for more championship banners (1993, 2005 and 2009).
Now remodeled, the Carmichael hardwood still draws basketball aficionados, including a 6’4″ Chicago hoopster who became the nation’s 44th president.
“Hello, North Carolina! What’s up, Tar Heels?” During his 2012 re-election push, in the campaign’s most whimsical one-day news cycle, Barack Obama pitched student-loan reforms on the legendary Carmichael floor. (And played to the crowd: “This is an arena with some serious hoops history. … I just want to remind you right off the bat — I picked UNC to win it all in March Madness.”)
Then the Leader of the Free World dashed across campus to Memorial Hall to tape an appearance on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” while the show was on a college road trip, and afterward, jetted west to Boulder, Colo., landing in a sorority pledge’s spilt yogurt outside a local dive, where he also bombed coed Madalyn Starkey’s “best photo ever! :)” (According to press accounts: “It was not known if the photo was taken before or after the yogurt spill. There were no telltale signs of the dairy product on the president’s shirt or pants in the picture.” Conspiracy theorists, take note.)
A decade back in 2005, before the president’s 2012 Carolina/Colorado college hijinks, many Chicagoans might remember a dignified junior senator from Illinois who raised the level of political discourse and symphonic narrative in his Millennium Park cameo with the CSO, when Obama joined the orchestra for composer Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, the 1942 patriotic staple born of the 16th president’s stirring oratory.
Jordan might have been Chapel Hill’s basketball icon before becoming Chicago’s, but Obama was the CSO’s concert partner years before taking Memorial Hall’s concert stage with Jimmy Fallon to “Slow Jam the News” — arguably the president’s most original, uncommon and memorable one-shot musical partnership.
Making sense of the white-bread late-night television host’s topical soul musings is a little like explaining how Obama, who intoned the words of Abraham Lincoln for the CSO — “The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion; as our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew” — left it all on UNC’s stage with Fallon’s band singing, “If Congress doesn’t act, it’s the students who pay; the right and left should join on this like Kim and Kanye.” The president’s compelling agenda that afternoon? Stafford student loans and Pell Grants.
Fallon introduced the Memorial Hall crowd, and TV insomniacs, to “The Preezy of the United Steezy” (if you don’t know that Kanye West shout-out, it’s probably just as well), who straight-talked baseline interest rates above a smooth bass riff. If the wonk oratory and funk harmonics never rose to composer Copland’s stately aspirations, the siren call of “The Barackness Monster” (in Fallon-speak) still floated mystically. After all, he’s the President of the United States, or as Fallon dubbed him, “The POTUS with the most-est” — and it’s every politician’s right to grab the final word.
Obama’s soft, confident coda subsided into the Carolina afternoon — “Ohh. Yeahh.”
He dropped the mike and walked away.
Andrew Huckman, an attorney, writes about baseball, football, basketball and hockey for CSO Sounds & Stories.
TOP: Late-night television host Jimmy Fallon interviews President Barack Obama at Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall, where the CSO visits Friday. | Photo: White House Press Office/Pete Souza