- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Rev. John Peters is such a devoted fan of the ACC tournament that for one Sunday in each of the past 25 years, he has chosen hoops over his own congregation.

Mr. Peters’ dedication, however, pales next to that of Jack Heise: The Bethesda lawyer has missed the Atlantic Coast Conference’s annual men’s basketball tournament only twice since it began in 1954.

The four-day tournament opens today at MCI Center, and Mr. Heise and Mr. Peters will be on hand once again — along with the other die-hards who share their whatever-it-takes zeal to every year attend one of the college game’s greatest events.

“My friends think I’m nuts, and my priorities aren’t right,” Mr. Heise says. “But I cover that by taking the family to Maui for basketball tournaments and the trip to Italy” with Maryland’s team last year.

Gray Boyette has attended 45 ACC tournaments and before that a dozen tournaments of the Southern Conference, the ACC’s predecessor.

Dr. Boyette, a retired doctor who lives in Winston-Salem, N.C., has followed the basketball fortunes of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons since the 1940s. The tournament is about more than just basketball for him.

“Basketball is a part of me that wouldn’t go away,” he says. “It has become such a social and cultural event.”

To longtime fans, the tournament has the feel of a reunion of an extended family — year after year drawing distant hoops cousins whose faces are familiar even if the names are not always remembered.

“It’s an old-timers atmosphere,” Mr. Heise says. “People come to party, they come to meet old friends, they visit in the arena hallways. People live for it.”

The 80-year-old Mr. Heise, like Dr. Boyette, attended the event when it still was the Southern Conference tournament. He was passionate about it even then: Only a three-year stint in the Air Force during World War II kept him away.

Mr. Heise is ardent even by the standards of the ACC tournament die-hards.

He attends Maryland Terrapins lacrosse, field hockey and some baseball games. When there’s a conflict between Terrapins football and basketball games, he has the solution: Charter a plane and see both.

Mr. Heise is usually seated at basketball games near political pundit and fellow die-hard Maryland fan Robert Novak, each wearing sweaters of Terrapins red.

“It’s become a big part of his life,” said Terrapins basketball coach Gary Williams says of Mr. Heise. “He’s always been a big part of things around here.”

Mr. Heise has missed only two of the ACC’s 51 tournaments, once because the Maryland Terrapins were banned from the event and once because of the birth of his daughter.

The tournament at times can test the bonds of family and friendship and an employee’s sense of obligation: Ardent fans will skip weddings, funerals and — no question — work to maintain their annual hoops habit.

“My daughter was once mad at me and threatened to get married during the ACC tournament or when Maryland played Penn State in football,” Mr. Heise says. “I said, ‘There will be one less person there.’”

That conversation would sound familiar to Gayle Goodloe.

The Winchester, Va., resident and her husband, John, schedule everything around Virginia Cavaliers football and basketball games.

“My daughter wanted to do something during an ACC tournament and I said, ‘That date is cast in stone,’” Mrs. Goodloe says. “She said, ‘Mother, get your priorities straight.’ I said, ‘I did.’”

Mr. Peters, the pastor of a Methodist church in Richmond, feels the same.

Mr. Peters is a Duke graduate-turned-Virginia fan, but more than anything, he is a basketball junkie. He has attended 25 straight ACC tournaments and wouldn’t give it up for anything.

“It’s my vacation time,” Mr. Peters says. “It’s great therapy for us all.”

William Rice has attended 33 ACC tournaments — first as a Terrapins fan and now as a supporter of the Cavaliers. He graduated from Maryland, but switched loyalties after moving to Charlottesville in 1968.

His lasting loyalty is to the ACC tournament.

“The routine when you get there is to exchange pleasantries with other schools with some good-natured ribbing and wander the concourse for souvenirs,” Mr. Rice says. “It doesn’t have the impact of a Super Bowl, but other than the NCAA regionals [and Final Four], the ACC tournament is the largest basketball attraction in the world.”

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