The rest of the All-North Carolina Team

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During last night’s North Carolina-N.C. State game, sometime before Jess flipped the channel in disgust, Dick Vitale unveiled his “All-North Carolina Team” – the five best college basketball players who played in the state.

I’m not sure if he did this with filling out the positions in mind, but it actually works out really well.

— Phil Ford (North Carolina, 1974-78), easily the best floor general in ACC history, is the obvious choice to run the point, and Michael Jordan (North Carolina, 1981-84) joins him in the backcourt.

— David Thompson (N.C. State, 1972-75) is, at 6-foot-4, actually two inches shorter than Jordan, but played quite a bit of small forward in college due to his 48-inch vertical leap, and Ford would have a great deal of fun serving Thompson the alley-oops that Thompson essentially invented at N.C. State (they were alley-oop layups, though, since dunking was outlawed in NCAA basketball from 1968 to 1976).

— Christian Laettner (Duke, 1988-92) and Tim Duncan (Wake Forest 1993-97) both stand 6-foot-11 and alternated between power forward and center in their careers, so they’re really interchangeable.

It’s a formidable lineup, for sure, and I think Vitale accurately identified the best five.  But every basketball team needs a bench, and coaches.  So who fills out the roster?  First, some ground rules.

1. Since Vitale apparently balanced the starting five by position, I’ll do the same with the bench: four guards, four forwards, and two post players.

2. Only players’ college careers are taken into account.  If Vitale considered NBA accomplishments in making his starting lineup, Laettner and Ford don’t make it, and Thompson is iffy.

3. Criteria, in no particular order, are simply collegiate statistics and the accomplishments of the players’ team(s).  “Bonus” consideration may be given to players who were local products coming out of high school.

Let’s do this!

Guards

My favorite picture of Stephen Curry.

Stephen Curry (Davidson, 2006-09) fills a huge need missing from the starting five with his long-range shooting, hitting 414 three-pointers and averaging 25.3 points per game during his three-year career with the Wildcats.  He mainly makes the team, though, based on Davidson’s run to the Elite Eight in the 2008 NCAA Tournament, where the Wildcats, despite being only a #10 seed, defeated #2 Georgetown and #3 Wisconsin before losing by only two to top-seed Kansas in the regional final.  While Davidson had some solid role players on the team in Jason Richards and Andrew Lovedale, it’s safe to say that Davidson doesn’t go anywhere without Stephen Curry and his impressively gaudy statistics.

Johnny Dawkins (Duke, 1982-86) is the obvious choice to serve as the backup point guard.  The 1986 National Player of the Year held Duke’s all-time scoring mark until being eclipsed by J.J. Redick in 2006, averaging over 20 points per game.  He made his true mark in his senior campaign when he led Duke to a 37-3 record and their first national title game in the Mike Krzyzewski era, losing by three to Louisville.

Rodney Monroe (N.C. State, 1987-91), the “Ice” in the Wolfpack’s “Fire and Ice” duo along with Chris Corchiani, surpassed Thompson’s all-time scoring mark at N.C. State en route to the 1991 ACC Player of the Year award, averaging 27 points per game during his senior campaign.  The one negative mark on his legacy is that the Wolfpack could not make it past the Sweet Sixteen during his career, despite the team having three highly talented players in Monroe, Corchiani, and Tom Gugliotta.

Jay Williams (Duke, 1999-2002) saw his NBA career cut short by a motorcycle accident and subsequent nagging injuries, but had a stellar career for the Blue Devils.  The consensus 2002 National Player of the Year scored 2,079 points in three seasons, including an average of nearly 26 points per game in the 2001 NCAA Tournament during Duke’s run to that year’s national title.  His postseason performance puts him ahead of one very notable contemporary in the state during this time, Chris Paul.

Honarable mention: Brett Blizzard (UNC-Wilmington), Randolph Childress (Wake), Vinny Del Negro (N.C. State), Earl Monroe (Winston-Salem State), Jeff Mullins (Duke), Chris Paul (Wake), J.J. Redick (Duke), Dick Snyder (Davidson), Monte Towe (N.C. State), Henry Williams (Charlotte).

Forwards

Grant Hill (Duke, 1990-94) doesn’t have the huge statistics that some other candidates may have, but this team needs him in the postseason.  Duke won two titles and made a third championship game during his four years in Durham, and even though he scored nearly 2,000 points in his career, he’s best known in Duke lore for one assist – the 75-foot pass to Laettner that set up his legendary game winner against Kentucky in the 1992 regional final.  And while professional careers don’t factor into being named to this team, it’s worth noting that Grant Hill has had a much better pro career than most Duke players, in that he didn’t completely bomb.

Antawn Jamison (North Carolina, 1995-98) didn’t win a title with the Tar Heels, but did lead them to back-to-back Final Fours in 1997 and 1998 along with Vince Carter.  He would be a shoo-in for this  list had Carolina actually come away with a title during his career, but back-to-back losses in the national semifinal despite the Tar Heels being heavily favored put him on the bubble.  The Charlotte product and 1998 National Player of the Year makes it by virtue of averaging a double-double for his career (19.9 points, 10.0 rebounds), despite being on a loaded team along with the likes Carter, Brendan Haywood, and Shammond Williams.

Cornbread Maxwell led Charlotte with 25 points in the 1977 Elite Eight win over Michigan.

Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell (Charlotte, 1973-77) bypasses several nationally-recognized players on this list for two reasons.  First of all, it’s my list and I can include whomever I want, including legends from my alma mater.  Secondly, and most notably, Maxwell was crucial in taking the 49ers from neophyte unknowns to the college basketball promised land in the mid-1970s.  In four years, Kinston native Maxwell scored 1,824 points, all while he and point guard Melvin Watkins led the Niners to a 58-0 home mark, the 1976 NIT Finals (after beang N.C. State in the semifinals), and a shocking win over #1 Michigan in the 1977 regional finals in Charlotte’s first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.  The lone black mark, though, came in his final meaningful collegiate game at the Final Four, when a court-length pass by Marquette slipped through Maxwell’s hands and to Warriors player Jerome Whitehead directly under the basket, who laid in the game-winner at the buzzer to send the 49ers home.

James Worthy (North Carolina, 1979-82) had quite a year in 1982.  The Gastonia product was a consensus first-team All-American and scored 29 points in the Tar Heels’ 63-62 victory over Georgetown in the national title game – earning the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award in the process – and was the top pick by the Lakers in the NBA Draft.  Despite often being overshadowed on his own team by Jordan and Sam Perkins, and in the ACC by Virginia’s Ralph Sampson, Worthy sowed the seeds of his “Big Game James” moniker with the Tar Heels.

Honorable mention: Vince Carter (North Carolina), Len Chappell (Wake), Julius Hodge (N.C. State), DeMarco Johnson (Charlotte), Sam Perkins (North Carolina), Rodney Rogers (Wake), Lennie Rosenbluth (North Carolina).

Centers

Tom Burleson (N.C. State, 1971-74) actually only stood a slight 7-foot-2 instead of the 7-foot-4 that N.C. State advertised him as, but the Avery County native still towered above the opposition both literally and figuratively during his three year career.  Along with Thompson and Monte Towe, Burleson helped lead State to an undefeated probation-marred 1973 campaign and the 1974 national title while averaging 19 points and 13 rebounds per game for his career.

Mike Gminski rips down a rebound in the 1979 ACC championship game in Greensboro.

Mike Gminski (Duke, 1976-80) holds a special place in the hearts of many North Carolina fans for his stint as a fan favorite with the Charlotte Hornets during the twilight of his NBA career in the early ’90s.  Before that, though, he was a dominating presence in the middle for the Blue Devils, graduating in 1980 as Duke’s career leader in points, rebounds, and blocks; despite all the greats that have come through Duke in the past 30 years, he still ranks in the top five in all three categories.  He also led the Blue Devils to the 1978 title game, losing to Kentucky but setting the stage for Duke’s rise to national prominence in the 1980s.

Honorable mention: Thurl Bailey (N.C. State), Elton Brand (Duke), Artis Gilmore (Gardner-Webb), Tyler Hansbrough (North Carolina), Fred Hetzel (Davidson), Eric Montross (North Carolina).

Head Coach

Mike Krzyzewski (Duke, 1980-present) edges out the other obvious choice here in Dean Smith based on empirical evidence alone – four national championships to Smith’s two and Krzyzewski’s edge in wins.  The Blue Devils were an occasional good team but often languished in the middle prior to Krzyzewski’s arrival; under him, they’ve become an institution.

Assistant Coaches

Dean Smith (North Carolina, 1961-97) is the associate head coach on this dream coaching staff.

Jim Valvano (N.C. State, 1980-90) is clearly needed for the motivational speeches before the game and at halftime.  Don’t ever give up.

Lefty Driesell (Davidson, 1960-69) turned Davidson into a national power in the 1960s along with star players Fred Hetzel and Dick Snyder, and under his stewardship the Wildcats went to consecutive Elite Eights in 1968 and 1969.

Honorable mention: Everett Case (N.C. State), Clarence Gaines (Winston-Salem State), Frank McGuire (North Carolina), Bob McKillop (Davidson), Bones McKinney (Wake Forest), Jeff Mullins (Charlotte), Dave Odom (Wake Forest), Norm Sloan (N.C. State), Roy Williams (North Carolina).

So, who did I miss?  Who am I wildly wrong about?  I’m sure some people have some opinions and I’m curious to hear them.

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Perseverance

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Many schools – the ones I’ve attended or worked at, at least – reward academic achievement, whether it’s an honor roll reception or a big year-end awards ceremony with accolades handed out for scholarships, straight A’s, or high test scores.

Rewarding academic prowess is great, but at Research Triangle we’ve tried to reward other positive qualities we’ve seen our students exhibit in addition to doing great in class.  Once a month, we gather all of our students in the gallery (something we won’t be able to do next year when we add over 100 new freshmen) to recognize students for not only academic achievement, but other qualities they’ve exhibited such as zest, curiosity, gratitude, social intelligence, improved work ethic, and perseverance.

As the athletic director, I know that perseverance has been a quality that our student-athletes must have at a first-year high school.  Our cross country team was incredibly successful, but I knew that was probably going to end up being an anomaly; brand new high school sports teams just aren’t supposed to be good at much.  When I was at Robinson, it took some of the sports teams several years to get off the mat, and they had over 1,500 students to pull from.

Perseverance would definitely be needed as we began play in our first-ever holiday tournament yesterday – a tournament just for JV teams in Asheboro.  Since we only have freshmen, we thought this would be a good opportunity to play teams more on our level instead of getting drilled on a regular basis by varsity squads who have guards taller than our center.

The girls’ game got underway yesterday afternoon with our only five players on the court – everyone else was indisposed due to the holidays.  From the first minute, it was pretty apparent that things were going to go badly; among the missing players were virtually all the guards, so just getting the ball up the court was proving difficult.  We trailed 12-2 after the first quarter and 28-2 at the half.  A 16-point deficit at the half is not insurmountable in most cases, but everyone at the game – including the players – seemed to know that just making it to double digits would be an accomplishment.

It’s here that perseverance is really put to the test.  Sixteen more minutes of basketball to play, virtually no chance of winning, and no subs on the bench.  Packing it in and just running out the clock is easy.  But that’s not what most of our students do, and that’s not what the girls on the floor did.

Sierra Street, who also scored the team’s only bucket in the first half, added a basket in the 3rd quarter, but the scoreboard remained stuck there through the rest of the 3rd and into the 4th.  With two minutes remaining, we trailed 46-4.  I was sitting in the stands across from our bench, wondering how I was going to tweet this score to the people to whom I’d promised updates.  With about a minute and a half to go, Nikki Khoshnoodi got free with the ball near the top of the key and knocked down a three to pull us within 39 points – the comeback was on!  After a defensive stop, Katie Dixon knocked down another three pointer.  For the first time, the tens digit on the scoreboard lit up.  The final score: Chatham Central 46, Research Triangle 10.  That looks a hell of a lot better than 46-4, or even 46-7.  I can tweet 46-10.

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I intercepted Nikki and Katie as they were walking toward the locker room.  “Where was that the first 30 minutes of the game?” I joked as I high-fived them.  The Chatham Central coach was standing in the tunnel as we got there, and he was heaping on the praise.  “You guys played so hard,” he was telling our girls.  “It’s so tough to play an entire game, and you really kept after it.”  He went on to say that our girls did a lot of positive things and, if they keep working as hard as they did during the game, they’ll surely improve.

I doubt an athletic director has ever been as proud after a 36-point beating as I was at that moment.  Our girls worked hard and persevered, and other people noticed.  One of these days we’ll persevere and win, but I’ll take this for now.

Undefeated, Pt. 2

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Back in August, Research Triangle High School’s first-ever athletics competition ended in victory when our cross country team smoked the field at the East Wake Early Bird Invitational.  At the time, I joked that even though it may not last, we were undefeated for the moment.

A trend seems to be developing.

Our boys’ basketball team has had a bit of a rough existence since practices began in October.  Since we have no gym, we have to practice off campus (the team also gets in some time during lunch in our parking lot where we have two portable goals set up).  Since we only have about 145 students, the pool from which to draw players is pretty small and made smaller still by the fact that many people who wanted to play didn’t end up making the requisite grades.  Even still, the eight players on the team worked hard during the preseason and were looking forward to playing some real competition.

Since most athletics scheduling is done in January and February and we didn’t even exist until March, we took what we could get in terms of getting games.  Richard Jowers, our P.E. teacher and basketball coach, was incredibly aggressive and persistent in trying to get Triangle-area charter and private schools to play us, usually to no avail.  A lot of schools told us they didn’t have any space for us in the regular season but that we could play them in a scrimmage; as a result, we played in three scrimmages (teams typically play in one or two).  We were outmatched in all of them, but the team did appear to be improving as they encountered some game-like situations.

Today was Opening Day, the first day of the regular season.  We played Triangle Collaborative School, a school in Cary that’s just one year older than we are, at a gym in nearby Morrisville.  Since the game started at 4:00 and school isn’t out at Research Triangle until 3:55, I missed the first quarter, but when I arrived at the gym, we were tied 8-8 early in the second.  Both teams were clearly young, inexperienced, and not accustomed to playing together, and many of the possessions ended in turnovers.  At halftime we trailed 15-12, and the made baskets remained few and far between in the second half.  We couldn’t seem to use the backboard on wide-open layups; the Flyers seemingly had every other shot it took swatted by Raptor post player Josh Bynum, who sent a few shots back with Olajuwon-like authority.

The Raptors took the lead near the end of the 3rd quarter and held it throughout the 4th; a few defensive stops in the final minutes preserved a 28-24 victory.

And just like that, the Raptor basketball team is 1-0.  Once again, we’re undefeated.

Of course, the cross country’s team undefeated streak didn’t last as the level of competition picked up.  The basketball team will undoubtedly encounter similar luck.  Our next game is against a 4A school in Robeson County.  And remember how I said that most schools weren’t able to schedule us and we had to take what we could get?  Well, Mount Zion – yeah, that Mount Zion – had an opening on the schedule and we’re playing them in January.  Are we gonna be cannon fodder?  Probably.  But the team can use it as an opportunity to improve.

Right now, though, we’re 1-0 and the school is proud of the team and the win.  The next game is tomorrow, so there’s not much time to enjoy the win, but I hope that tonight the boys on the team are feeling pretty good about themselves.

Chipper

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When I went to my first Braves game in 1991 and saw them win their first of fourteen consecutive division titles, my parents bought me a pennant as we left Fulton County Stadium.  Below the tomahawk logo and the red “1991 NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST CHAMPIONS” banner was listed everyone on the team’s roster at that time.  Over the years, I lamented the departure of many of the names on that roster.  Terry Pendleton, Mark Lemke, Sid Bream, and Ron Gant were gone by the mid-1990s.  The big names on that pennant left later – Tom Glavine in 2002, John Smoltz in 2008, and finally Bobby Cox in 2010.  With every player who retired or left, it felt like a part of my childhood melting away.

Chipper Jones’s name wasn’t on that pennant – he was still coming through the minors one year after being drafted ahead of Todd Van Poppel with the top pick in the MLB Draft – but he is a piece of my childhood.  When Chipper made his big-league debut, I had just started fifth grade, which is a staggering thought.  Players came and went, success ebbed and flowed, the Braves even stopped playing on TBS – but Chipper was the one constant through the years.  The last remaining piece of the good ol’ days when the Braves routinely won the division by 15 or more games and won a playoff series every now and again.  The greatest Atlanta Braves hitter of all-time.

One of several Chipper Jones rookie cards I have, this one from 1991.

As I watched Friday’s Wild Card game slip away from the Braves in the late innings – thanks in part, ironically, to a costly error Chipper committed during what should’ve been a double play ball – it was surreal to think that I was watching the last Braves game in which Chipper would be playing.  With all due respect to all the players I listed earlier, Chipper Jones is the Atlanta Braves.  I clapped and jumped around my empty house when he got an infield single in what turned out to be his last at-bat, and was angry when the Braves fans’ barrage of bottles after the now-infamous infield-fly incident prevented a final glorious curtain call.

But mostly, I was sad.  Chipper has said time and time again that he has no regrets, and I guess that’s good because I think plenty of Braves fans have enough regrets on his behalf.  Regrets that he only won one World Series ring despite several seasons when the Braves were a dominant squad.  Or that the 1994 strike and his failing knees kept him out of enough games for him to give him a chance to reach 3,000 hits or 500 home runs.  But despite all that, he never complained or bemoaned his lot as his body let him down.  I feel fortunate that I was at Turner Field for one of his last milestones – his 1500th career RBI on a solo home run against the Marlins in 2011.  It was awesome to see someone pushing 40 still be able to hit the ball and field like that.

The Braves should have a great squad in 2013; the pitching is solid, and they have several awesome power hitters in Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward.  But without #10 at third base or “Crazy Train” blaring, it just won’t be the same.  The last link to my childhood with the Braves is gone, but the memories are plentiful and amazing.

Undefeated

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Our cross country team after the boys got their medals and brownies at this morning’s Wendell Park Early Bird Invitational. Pictured (L-R) are: Coach Victor Swepson, Joseph Campisi, Michal Swepson, Eric Young, Thomas Dang, Andy Klappenbach, Jack Puryear, Nikki Khoshnoodi, Madison Daniel, Katie Dixon (did not compete).

An old and soon-to-be-obsolete joke, told at bars and emblazoned on t-shirts around UNC Charlotte for decades, makes a tongue-in-cheek jab at the Niners’ lack of pigskin.

Charlotte 49ers Football:  Undefeated since 1946.

As we’ve built up Research Triangle High School’s athletic program, we’ve made similar cracks.  We don’t have many sports, we have no on-campus facilities, and we only have underclassmen, so we don’t expect to be particularly good at much in our early years.  So we figured we might as well enjoy our unblemished marks until we, you know, actually competed.

But that, as they say, is why they play the games.

This morning, the Raptors made their debut in high school athletics at the Wendell Park Early Bird Invitational, hosted by East Wake High School’s cross country team.  Not wanting to miss school history, Eric and I got up early – not quiz bowl tournament early, but pretty early nonetheless – and made the drive out to Wendell.  Our coach, RTHS parent and former college cross country runner Victor Swepson, had our young squad going through drills when we arrived about 45 minutes before the start of the boys’ open race (we didn’t compete in the varsity races that took place earlier in the morning).  We looked a wee bit ragtag without real uniforms – they’re about to be ordered – but the guys were pretty loose and looked ready to go as their race time rolled around.  Coach Swepson gathered them around, gave them one last pep talk, finished it with a bringing-in of the hands and a cheer of “1, 2, 3, RAPTORS!!!” that I could hear about 100 yards away, and sent the guys off to the starting line.  Eric and I, both cross country novices, stood on top of the hill near the first stretch of the course to capture school history on camera.

After the gun fired and the 100-or-so runners took off, we went with our parents and coaches to a spot down the course that the runners would pass twice during the race (which, for people who don’t know much about cross country, is a 5k, or 3.1 miles).  Several minutes later, we saw the “pace car” (A Gator utility vehicle) come around the corner about a hundred yards off, and shortly thereafter, a runner wearing a nondescript white jersey leading everyone by a decent amount.

Eric had the same reaction as me as we squinted to see: “Wow, is that….?”

Yes, it was.  It was RTHS freshman Madison Daniel, a junior Olympian in the 1-mile and 2-mile track and field events, beating the field.  Michal Swepson, our coach’s son, was in 4th at that point, and three more of ours were close behind.

That was cool, I thought to myself.  I guess we’ll see if we can keep it up.

Several minutes later, here came the Gator again, and it was again followed by Madison.  But this time, there was no one else in sight.  Madison passed by us and went around the corner, and we waited to see more runners.

And waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Finally, here came Michal, in 2nd.  Two more of ours, Andy Klappenbach and Jack Puryear, were running in the top ten.  It was at this point that I started to get really excited.  Eric, Victor, all of our parents and families, and I sprinted across the park – well, to me it was a sprint – to see the finish.

Madison Daniel approaching the finish line, with no one else in sight.

Madison continued to smoke everyone, crossing the finish line in 17:54, a time that would’ve gotten him a sixth-place finish in the varsity race.  Over a minute later, Michal came across in second at 19:20.  The Raptors kept coming – Andy finished 7th, Jack right behind him in 8th, and Eric Young (our tallest runner by far) in 25th.  Thomas Dang and Joseph Campisi, two of our more novice runners, finished the race in times I certainly couldn’t post in a 5k.

I spent the next ten minutes or so running around and finding the guys.  Madison was the first one I came across.  “Dude,” I said to my 5th period history student, “that was amazing!”  He smiled and shrugged as if to say it was just another day at the office for him.  All the other guys were considerably more excited with how they did.  They kept talking about brownies, and how they were hopefully going to get brownies, much to my confusion (I later learned that one of the prizes that the winning team would get was some Little Debbie brownies).

Nikki Khoshnoodi at the finish line in the girls’ race.

Before they would find out about the brownies, though, we still had the girls’ race to get through.  We have more than one girl on the cross country team, but only one ran this morning.  Despite not having any teammates running with her, Nikki Khoshnoodi finished in the top half of the field as an individual, placing 21st.  One of my favorite things that I saw today was seeing the guys include her in everything they did.  When she had to go warm up for the girls’ race, the boys – who had to be exhausted – went down to the starting line and ran through drills with her.  Then, as she approached the finish line at the end of her race, several of them ran alongside the ropes cheering her on as she crossed the line.  Camaraderie is strong with this bunch.

My other favorite parts of the day?  First, seeing four of our runners getting top-10 medals at the awards ceremony, and hearing murmurs of “Who are these kids?” every time our school name was cried out by the emcee.  And the sweetest announcement of all: “Your men’s open race champions, the Raptors of Research Triangle High!”  It wasn’t even close, either – we were way ahead of the rest of the field.  Also, watching the kids try to figure out how to evenly divide up the brownies they had won was a hoot.  We can run some cross country, but I think our math teachers have job security.

The school has been open for ten days, and we need a trophy case.

Of course, tougher meets are coming – like the Jungle Run in Fayetteville next week, when we’ll be running in the varsity race.  So I guess our undefeated days are probably numbered.  But it was great that our team had such a positive first experience, and it was awesome to see everyone’s comments of encouragement and excitement on the RTHS Facebook and Twitter pages as we posted pictures and results.  I have to imagine that having a successful athletic team so early in the school’s history will do wonders for school spirit and our sense of community.  I think I speak for everyone at RTHS when I say that we could not be prouder.  I think I’ll bake the team some real brownies as a reward.

And for at least one more week, we’re undefeated.

My favorite moments as a fan

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Whenever I talk to people about working for the Auburn athletic department for two years, they often say, “Wow, that must’ve been really fun!”  And in some ways, it was – I got to stand on the sidelines at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturdays, be in the locker room before and after games, and meet some famous people.

But do you know what I didn’t get to do?  Tailgate, enjoy games with friends and family, cheer, and eat funnel cakes.

I condemn violence in sports, unless Kenny Frease is getting jacked in the face.

Working sporting events can be really fun depending on your job – announcing is still my favorite sports-related job by far – but being a fan is always way more fun.  When you’re working a game you can’t get caught up in the moment and cheer your head off, or you’ll almost certainly forget to do something crucial to your task.  And you can’t be partial and yell at the officials, either.  Well, you can yell at the officials, but college basketball referee and notorious diva Jamie Luckie might threaten to throw you out of the game for pointing out that Xavier’s lumbering oaf of a center can’t touch the ball in the lane without taking four goddamn steps and hooking the defender with his free arm to get his shot off.  Not that I’m still pissed about that or anything.

Despite all my experience working sporting events, all my most memorable in-person sports moments have come as a fan, and my biggest “I was there” moments have come at three different levels.  Here are the top 3.

3. November 12, 1999 – The beginning of a miracle playoff run.  Northwest Cabarrus spent most of the 1990s winning one game a year in football, and even in years where they were pretty good, they would lose games 97-0.  But my junior year was different; thanks to some very exciting comebacks and a little help from West Rowan, who beat our archrival Central Cabarrus on the last night of the regular season, Northwest snuck into the playoffs for the first time since 1987 with a record of 8-3 (this was back before they doubled the size of the state playoffs and you actually had to be good to make it).  Our first round opponent was undefeated North Davidson, who had steamrolled everyone they had played all season.  But on that cold Friday night in Lexington, I watched from the marching band section as the Trojans held the favorites in check and took a 7-0 lead to the locker room at the half.  The Black Knights (that nickname helped make them more villainous in our eyes) clawed back to tie the game at 14 late in the second half, and got within field goal range as time ran down.  Thanks to a clock management snafu on their part, the details of which I can’t remember, they didn’t get the kick away in time and the game went to overtime.  North Davidson managed a field goal in the top half of the overtime period, but on the second play of Northwest’s possession, quarterback Ryan Woodham scrambled nine yards for a touchdown, giving Northwest an improbable 20-17 win.  The band bus was hopping on the way back to Kannapolis, with everyone on top of the world just because we saw it happen.

We won our second round game, too – a 35-14 thumping of Erwin High School in Asheville – before falling to Concord in the third round.

Now, how do I remember so much about a high school football game that happened 13 years ago?  Most people would say it’s because I have a penchant for remembering useless things, but I think it’s because school spirit was – and is – incredibly important to me.  A lot of people think high school sports aren’t that crucial, but I disagree with them because I remember how much more fun school was when our teams were winning, and how it unified everyone.  As the athletic director at RTHS, I would love nothing more than to see that happen with our students and school community.

2. February 12, 2004 – Upset in the U.S.A.  I feel sorry for Charlotte students nowadays – the Atlantic 10 opponents are in no way interesting, and the 49ers haven’t sniffed the NCAA Tournament in basketball since 2005, my senior year.  And while I’m not usually a fan of back in my day moments, Halton Arena was way more fun when I was in college and the Niners were in Conference USA.  I mean, which opponents would you rather play?  Marquette, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Memphis?  Or St. Bonaventure, La Salle, and Fordham?  I thought so.

Courtesy of my friend Dustin, all you need to know about Martin Iti.

In 2004 we were pretty good, but we thought we were still one year away from doing anything awesome – the team was young, and Australian five-star recruit Martin Iti wasn’t yet on campus.  Iti, of course, turned out to be the biggest bust in the history of sports in the city of Charlotte.  You haven’t seen sad until you’ve seen a center get blocked by the rim when trying to dunk, and then having fans of Davidson – the whitest basketball team ON THE PLANET – give him hell for the rest of the game even while their team was getting blown off the floor.  But I digress.

When Rick Pitino and 7th-ranked Louisville came to Halton that year, it was hard to believe that we had much of a chance.  The Cardinals had been killing people throughout the conference season, and 49ers point guard Demon Brown was suspended for a little legal issue involving some cosmetic equipment, meaning that backup point guard Mitchell Baldwin had to play all 40 minutes.  Despite the obstacles, All 9,105 fans in Halton screamed and cheered with abandon all night long, and in the pep band section a certain tuba player lost his voice.  When the dust settled, the Niners had upended Louisville 77-71, the court had been stormed, and we led off SportsCenter that night (the segment carrying the name that I chose to head this section).  Almost more fun than the game itself was going with all my friends to Picasso’s Sports Cafe near campus after the game and celebrating late into the night.  We had plenty of big wins that I got to see while I was in school, but this one definitely tops the list.

Two decades later, I still can’t believe I saw this in person.

1. October 5, 1991 – From worst to first.  I first started watching Braves on TBS in 1990, when the roster included such first-ballot Hall of Famers as Oddibe McDowell and Jim Presley.  But in 1991, bolstered by free agents like NL MVP Terry Pendleton and Sid Bream, the Braves were neck-and-neck all year with the Dodgers for the NL West lead.  I can’t remember how much I pestered my parents – I’m sure it was a lot – but my dad went out and bought us tickets to see the Braves play the Astros on the last Saturday of the regular season.  The game was nationally televised on CBS, and the night before the game my sister, dad, and I made a sign that would actually end up getting us on TV – Can’t Beat Smoltz.

I’ve now been to about a dozen Braves games, and I still haven’t experienced anything like the atmosphere that day at the old Fulton County Stadium.  According to the box score, the crowd that day was 44,994 strong; it felt and sounded twice as big.  From the first pitch, through a monster Ron Gant home run in the 5th, and the completion of John Smoltz’ complete game gem, the chopping never stopped as the Braves beat the Astros 5-2 to take a 1 1/2 game lead in the division.

For whatever reason, my most vivid memory of that day was what happened after the game ended.  No one left.  The Braves players stood on the field and watched on the big-screen along with the fans as the San Francisco Giants defeated the Dodgers 4-0, clinching the division title for the Braves with one day left in the season.  As if the atmosphere wasn’t amazing enough beforehand, the place completely lost its mind at that moment.  After stopping to buy me a division champions pennant that I still have on the wall in my house, we left the stadium to the sound of war chanting, car horns honking, and people screaming.  I was nine years old, and I was positive that I’d never be a part of something so unreal again.  I was a big Braves fan already, but I was sealed up as a lifelong Braves devotee from that point forward.

And that is why being a fan blows the doors off of being an employee.  On the emotional side of things, so much gets lost in translation.  Working a baseball game, you don’t pull for a team – you pull for outs.  Fans are allowed to lose themselves in it, and I missed that when I was working in athletics full-time.

So, it’s your turn.  What are your most vivid, exciting, or satisfying sporting events that you saw in person?

The trouble with mascots

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If all mascots were like Aubie, I wouldn’t be writing this.

Now that we’ve revealed our mascot as the Raptors to the Research Triangle High School student body and community, more than one person has asked me, “Hey, are you guys gonna have a Raptor mascot at your games?”

What comes out of my mouth: “I guess we can look into that.”  What I say in my head: “Jesus, I hope not.”

Why?  Well, for starters, those costumes aren’t cheap.  I also love the suggestion from Deb, our lead English teacher, to get a faculty member’s dog and do this.

Hugo the Hornet, in George Shinn-forced exile since 2002.

But mainly, I hate mascots.

Now, before you start sending me hate mail, there are exceptions to this.  I’m still very partial to Hugo the Hornet, the symbol of the first sports team I ever truly loved (and that will hopefully return to the Queen City one day).  And Auburn University’s Aubie, seven-time winner of the college mascot national championships (yes, that’s a thing), is very enjoyable to be around at games and university functions.   But more often than not, mascots just creep me out, and they should creep you out too.  Let’s explore the reasons why.

1. Mascots smell awful.  I didn’t actually know this until I started working in sports, but the smell of a mascot costume is pungent and disgusting enough to knock out a full-grown elephant.  Imagine the wettest, sweatiest stench you can imagine – locker room, high school semi-formal, whatever – and then imagine it combined with gallons and gallons of Febreze.  The problem is that Febreze never actually gets rid of the smell of sweat; it just smells like sweat and Febreze, which is even worse.  The happiest day of my life was when the Kannapolis Intimidators created a mascot dressing room, which meant that they weren’t storing that cesspool of a costume in the press box anymore.  Oh, and speaking of the Intimidators…

Dub, the blue-furred root of my mascot distrust.

2. Dub.  The Intimidators had several years of misery trying to find someone suitable to play Dub, the Phillie Phanatic-inspired creature that for some reason symbolized the team (was a Dale Earnhardt costume just too creepy?).  When I first started working for them, they had a strange guy who would actually yell on the field while in the costume – isn’t that against mascot code or something?  After he quit, they got a younger guy who seemed like he was going to be pretty good, until he was fired after the team got reports of him walking up to the wife or girlfriend of a current player, leaning down in her ear, and saying, “Hey baby, how would you like a little monster in you?”  After a later incarnation of Dub tripped over third base during a race against a kid – causing Dub’s head to fall off and roll away, doubtlessly traumatizing the children in attendance – the Intimidators decided to just cut their losses and retire Dub.  In 2010 he was replaced by Tim E. Gator the Intimidator.  Because when I think of legendary NASCAR drivers, I think of alligators.  Whatever.

3. Mascots are people in a freakin’ costume, man!  Think about it.  When you let a mascot take a picture with your kids, are they getting their picture taken with a real cute, cuddly anthropomorphic animal?  Hell no they’re not; they’re getting their picture taken with a grown-ass person who walks around in a costume for a living and probably horses around with children and chases after the attractive female patrons with something approaching a fervor all night.  Do you think every team does background checks on the people in those costumes?  I seriously doubt it; for all you know they could be a pedophile, or a plushie, or god-only-knows-what.  They might want to put a monster in you!

I basically view mascots the way I view clowns.  I’m not afraid of them, but I just don’t normally like them.  I feel like I’ve built up a pretty good rapport with Norm the Niner and Aubie, but any other mascots out there… if you’re reading this, just stay away from me and let me enjoy the game.

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