|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Winter 2008-9|
Speaking of basketball …
Cale Yarborough, Steve Hale, and Me
illo by Brad Foster
I was born and raised in Charlotte, on the north side of town. Our home wasn’t even in the city limits until I was in high school, though weconsidered my cousins from Huntersville the real hicks. Now Charlotte and Huntersville are almost grown together.
When I was a kid, NASCAR was everywhere. Though I don’t live inCharlotte anymore, I go back regularly to visit my parents, and I can still see NASCAR everywhere. I’m not sure how my siblings and I managed to avoid NASCAR fandom, but we did. Even so, I can tell you who Cale Yarborough1 is. I can name fourgenerations of the Petty racing dynasty2 and where they’re from3. I know which of the Waltrip brothersisolder4. I know about Junior Johnson and NASCAR’s roots in moonshiners outrunning the IRS. As with Hank Williams, I prefer Dale Earnhardt senior to junior, thankyouverymuch. I got that just from living in Charlotte, not from any actual desire to learn those things.
My parents have a place on Lake Norman, bought in the early days soon after Duke Power dammed the Catawba River. Come Memorial Day weekend most years, we would pile into the family land yacht, a 1968 Pontiac Catalina station wagon, with the boat trailer hitched behind, for a long weekend of camping at the lake. If we’d timed it just wrong, we’d get stuck in race traffic on Highway 29. This is the race that to me will always be the World 600, run at the Charlotte Motor Speedway; now it’s the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. I suppose I should change the first sentence of this paragraph to say that my parents have a place on Duke Power’s Lake Norman…
We didn’t have any TV at the lake, obviously, at least not as long as we were just camping. Even after we upgraded to a trailer, it was many years before a TV made it up there. We had a radio, though, and for some reason, my dad would listen to the race. On the radio. To me it doesn’t get much more boring than lots of cars driving in a circle—excuse me—oval, and with just the radio, he couldn’t even see the picture; it was just a lot of noise. I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t understand it now.
Oh, and we had the newspaper. Did you know that Charlotte has a symphony? No? Well maybe that’s because for one week of every year an entire section of the paper was never given over to what the string section ate for breakfast, interviews with fans who’ve camped out for weeks just to get good orchestra-level seats for the upcoming season, and several columns about the tense rivalry between brass and woodwinds, including the juicy details of a testy exchange after their recent performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, wherein the first trombonist threatened to “finish” the second-chair bassoon, and the tympani players trampled two piccolos and a flautist on their way to a smoke break.
No, you’d never notice the symphony. But NASCAR was inescapable. I don’t live there anymore, so I’m not currently up on who’s where in the standings, I’m only vaguely aware of the tension between DEI and Junior, and what’s this about Toyota? A little Japanese car running against the big dogs of Ford and Chevy? Huh. Will wonders never cease. Well, for whatever reason, despite nearly two decades of exposure, NASCAR didn’t stick.
On the other hand, what did get into my blood was college basketball. Charlotte is roughly 120 miles from Tobacco Road, that stretch of highway that ties together North Carolina’s basketball powerhouse schools of Duke, UNC, NC State, and Wake Forest. Oh, you won’t find Tobacco Road on any map, but it’s there all the same. And the rivalries ebb and flow through the years. UNC-Duke is a Johnny-Come-Lately as far as these things go.
People my age and younger will scratch their heads at this, but when my dad was in school in the 1950s, the big ACC sports rivalry was between UNC and Wake Forest. It was so intense that officials had to suspend games between the two schools for a year, and when things resumed the following year, at the UNC-Wake Forest basketball game in Chapel Hill, a fistfight broke out on the court near the end of the game, first emptying the benches of both teams, then emptying the bleachers of fans...
Then it was UNC-State. After all, the UNC fight song, at least the way I learned it, is:
I'm a Tar Heel born, I'm a Tar Heel bred.
And when I die, I'm a Tar Heel dead.
So it's rah-rah, Carolina-lina!
Rah-rah, Carolina—go to Hell, State!
With a father, uncle, and two older siblings who went to Chapel Hill, you might think it would be a natural thing for me to grow up cheering for Dean Smith and his boys in blue. You would be wrong. The neighbors across the way were NC State partisans, and my favorite color was red, and sometimes such monumental allegiances are decided by these small details. Yes, for almost 15 years I was a Wolfpack-red thorn in my family’s Carolina blue side.
It was one of the highlights of my young life when my parents let me stay up well past my normal bedtime to watch State play Houston for the NCAA championship.
Akeem Olajuwon and his Phi Slamma Jamma team looked like they belonged in that game. On the other hand, Dereck Whittenburg, Sidney Lowe (now State’s coach) Thurl Bailey, Cozell McQueen, and Lorenzo Charles were an unlikely group to make the playoffs. Jimmy Valvano’s team had 10 losses and only made it to the big dance by dint of winning the automatic berth that’s given to the winner of the ACC tournament—and to do that they had to get through not only Virginia’s legendary 7’4” Ralph Sampson, but some player at UNC named Michael something…. oh yeah, Jordan. You may have heard of him. I believe he went on to play in the NBA for a few years.
I was too nervous to watch most of the NCAA tournament games on TV, preferring instead to listen on the radio up in my room. Pepperdine fell in overtime, as I chewed my fingernails.
Then it was on to UNLV, another basketball powerhouse. State managed to eke out a 1-point victory before cruising past Utah, then on to another match-up against Virginia and Ralph Sampson in the regional final. Could they beat one of the best college basketball players of all time, again? Yes.
Then State managed to claw to a seven-point victory against Georgia, which set up the David versus Goliath NCAA final, which NC State won in the last few seconds. With the score tied at 52-52, Dereck Whittenburg tossed an air ball in the general vicinity of the basket. It looked like the game was heading for a teeth-grinding, chair-throwing overtime, when out of nowhere, Lorenzo Charles leaped up, snatched the ball out of the air, and jammed it into the basket. The last two seconds ticked away, and the crowd went mad. The Houston team looked stunned. Nine times out of ten, they would have won that game. But not that night. I was so proud and thrilled and excited, I almost couldn’t get to sleep.
I still have some old newspaper clippings from 1983, including a letter I wrote to the sports editor that they actually printed (I wonder if they could tell it was from a kid; I wrote it on my brother’s typewriter). One of the paper’s sports commentators had made some slightly negative comments about the State team; I don’t remember exactly what he wrote, but it was something about how State’s program didn’t stack up against a dynasty like UCLA. So I wrote something snippy about how in case he’d forgotten, it was NC State who, in 1974, had broken UCLA’s winning streak.
A few months later, my dad had a business meeting in Houston. He typically had two big conferences a year that he attended, and he was able to extend them by a few days and turn them into mini-vacations for us. I can’t remember what all we did after the Houston trip, but I do have very strong memories of wearing my NC State 1983 NCAA Championship t-shirt all over town. Obnoxious? Yeah. But who isn’t when they’re 15 years old?
Fast-forward two years and it’s time for sending out college applications. Everyone was convinced I was going to State. Imagine their shock when the only school I applied to, and applied early admission to at that, was … UNC. It was then that I finally admitted to everyone else what I’d known for a long time. That during all those trips up to visit my brother and sister, all those football games, all those walks around campus, Carolina had seeped into my blood.
Though the summer of 1985 might have been a clue—I begged my parents to let me participate in a Governor’s School-like program called Carolina Summer. It lasted for three weeks, took place on the UNC campus, featured a selection of mini-courses (I chose creative writing, and… a history one, I think), and I absolutely loved it. I felt so grown-up: attending classes, going to the college library, eating in the college cafeteria, walking through the student union and Oh. My. God. Seeing Tar Heel basketball player and hunk Steve Hale…
In early January of 1986, I got my acceptance letter and never looked back.
By this point, the UNC-State basketball rivalry had cooled a little and the UNC-Duke one was entering its heydey. At first, I was convinced I’d drawn the worst housing assignment on campus—Hinton James was the dorm furthest away from everything, and someone in a fit of humor had named it for the first student who’d arrived at UNC after walking all the way from Wilmington. The one thing it was close to, however, was the newly-completed and as-yet unnamed Student Activity Center, aka the SAC. Soon it was christened the Dean E. Smith Student Center, and shortly thereafter it was nicknamed the “Dean Dome.” He’s not the coach anymore, but it’s still Dean’s house.
I could fall out of bed on basketball ticket distribution days, and in 20 minutes have tickets in my hands. For Duke games it would take a bit longer, especially if I wanted good seats, but yeah, living in James was convenient for feeding my basketball passion. Never again in my life would getting UNC basketball tickets be so easy! Even when I went to work at the University, students and faculty had an easier time getting tickets than staff did.
And for the next 22 years basketball has been a constant. I’ve changed roommates, jobs, lived in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Durham, changed boyfriends, gotten married, acquired three cats, made friends, lost friends, gotten older, added some grey hair, started a sf club, co-founded a convention, gafiated, made my way back, gotten a job in the field.
I don’t know why basketball stuck with me and to me while NASCAR didn’t, when I had pretty much equal exposure to both, and both are indigenous to North Carolina. Someone else growing up in the same environment may have had the opposite experience—doesn’t care a thing about basketball and thinks NASCAR is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Or isn’t interested in either one. Or maybe likes both. All I can say is, the world would be a boring place if we were all alike, wouldn’t it?