Wednesday, April 29, 2009

David Poole, rest in peace

Walking into a NASCAR garage or a racing pressbox with the late David Poole was an education for whomever was with him. I sometimes was and counted myself lucky every time. Poole was like “Norm” on the old TV show “Cheers” in some respects -- everyone knew his name, and he had his favorite seat that no one ever messed with and he had a one-liner ready to go at all times.

But Poole wasn’t like “Norm” at all in another way. He wasn’t warm and cuddly. He could be prickly, especially when he felt like the NASCAR head honchos or The Observer's head honchos or the U.S. government’s head honchos had done something wrong and were a) covering it up or b) dismissing it as unimportant.

Poole was a man of the people, distrusting head honchos almost as a matter of course and making them prove to him that they should be trusted. He took his job seriously, taking it upon himself to ask the questions he thought NASCAR fans wanted answered and making sure not to mindlessly paint NASCAR in the glowing brushstrokes it would prefer.

Poole, 50, died Tuesday of a heart attack. In his final column for our newspaper, published the day he died, he was in fine form – ranting about the safety issues at Talladega following what could have been a horrific crash Sunday. In the best Poole columns, you could almost hear him reading the column directly to you in his voice – angry, sardonic, creative -- and this one was one of those.

I have long stood in awe of Poole, particularly his sheer production. You’ve heard of NASCAR colossus DEI? Poole was DPI – a one-man machine of NASCAR-related content. He wrote constantly for our newspaper and our independent racing website The Internet was a godsend for him because it allowed his famously long racing notebooks to finally be published in full. And he wrote racing-themed books -- good ones -- on the side.

He also did a four-hour NASCAR radio show for satellite radio. From 7-11 a.m. Five days a week. He basically did two full-time jobs and did both of them better than most folks do one.

Poole could play all the chords. Poole he has written some of the most eloquent and touching features in the past decade this newspaper has published (this one about Dale Earnhardt Sr., a girl named Wessa and a lucky penny was one of mine and a lot of people's favorites), as well as some of its finest on-deadline work, as well as some of its best and most bristling columns.

But Poole didn’t just work. He loved his family and spoke of them often on his radio show. He delighted in his grandbaby Eli. He and I shared a passion for the “Eagles” and both went to the most recent concert they played in Charlotte a few months ago. Poole could discuss the lyrics of “The Last Resort” or “Hotel California” with the same passion he had for NASCAR. I remember him telling me: “It doesn’t get any better than Don Henley on the piano singing and playing ‘Desperado’ – there’s just nowhere to go from there.” And Poole would happily argue that point with anyone who dared dislike the Eagles or like another band more.

He was a great teammate, too. When you asked Poole for help on a NASCAR story – and everyone at The Observer always asked, because Poole was a walking Wikipedia of NASCAR – he always helped. (Here's my friend and colleague's Tom Sorensen's take on Poole, which also makes a nice point about this).

Poole wanted to make not only his racing coverage better every year for our newspaper and website, but the entire paper’s coverage better. And he always did.

Honestly, I don’t know how we will go on around this place without him.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Panthers' draft grade is...

The 2009 NFL draft is now history. How did the Panthers do?

I'll give them a solid "B" for this one. Here's why:

1) They didn't have a No.1 pick in this draft, but that's because they traded it in 2008 so they could acquire Jeff Otah -- who looked as a rookie like an 8-10 year guy at RT.

2) I like the trade for FSU DE Everette Brown -- the first pick of this draft at No.43 overall. Again, the Panthers were aggressive here, much like they were in the Otah trade a year before. They can only hope Brown has the same sort of start to his career as Otah did. Giving up their 2010 No.1 pick was risky, but it looked like the move of a team that knew what it wanted. As I wrote in Sunday's column, I wish the Panthers played in the fall more like they draft in April -- with some verve and boldness.

3) Going defense with the first 3 picks of 2009 makes sense given the way the Panthers' D too often folded in the late stages of last season.

4) This isn't an "A" because I don't think the Panthers got enough help at offensive line and they picked 2 RBs on Day 2, which doesn't look like a real position of need to me.

Grading a draft right after it happens is a ridiculous exercise, of course -- it's like grading your students on the first day of a 14-week semester simply by how well-prepared they seemed on Day 1. But it's fun, so we do it. Given that, what's your first-impression grade for this Panther draft??

Spellcheck required for Panthers' new draft picks

The Panthers' 2009 draft will be notable for several reasons: the trading of their 2010 first-round draft choice and the attempted shoring-up of the defense by throwing the first 3 picks that way. (Here's my column today about whether trading the 2010 first-round pick to get FSU DE Everette Brown was worth the risk).

But this draft is notable in another way, too -- it's going to generate a whole lot of misspellings.

For instance:

1) It's Everette, with the "e" on the end, for the Panthers' first-round choice from eastern N.C. (It sounds like Brown will play a lot right away and have a chance at unseating Tyler Brayton and/or Charles Johnson for the starting LDE role).

2) It's "Corvey Irvin," not one of the many variations you could think of, for the third-round DT from Georgia. Note that tricky "v" in Corvey -- making this first name sound like a term of endearment for a Corvette.

3) It's "Sherrod" Martin for the second-round CB from Troy.

4) It's Tony "Fiammetta" for the fourth-round FB from Syracuse who may eventually replace Brad Hoover (although not this year, I'd bet) in that role.

Thank goodness for at least one name easy on the eyes and ears -- RB Mike Goodson from Texas A&M, who joined the Panthers in the fourth round.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Suddenly, Panthers' draft gets interesting

The Panthers made a major trade Saturday night that allowed them to take Florida State defensive end Everette Brown with pick No.43.

To do that, the Panthers gave up their first-round pick for 2010 to San Francisco -- a very big price. Carolina also got a fourth-round pick from the 49ers in this draft -- the No.111 pick overall -- and retained its No.59 pick deep in the second round. With that selection, the Panthers picked Troy cornerback Sherrod Martin, fulfilling a need for depth at the position after parting ways with Ken Lucas in the offseason. Martin has also played a lot of safety, but will most likely be used on special teams and as a nickel cornerback to start out here.

While Martin won't start, Brown certainly might do so opposite Peppers. Here's my column for Sunday's paper, where I talk about whether the trade was worth it.

So was Brown worth a 2010 first-round pick? That's the big question, but at least the Panthers have something worth debating again. Brown had 13.5 sacks at FSU in 2008 and was runnerup for ACC Player of the Year, but he's a bit undersized for a DE. Some analysts thought Brown would be better-suited to OLB in a 3-4 scheme.

Brown dropped dramatically in this draft -- almost every mock draft had him in the first round, some in the top 15. (He's also a North Carolina kid, growing up in eastern N.C., where he went to Beddingfield High and actually used to watch Peppers play high school basketball -- as his school and Peppers' high school were in the same conference).

Panther officials have obviously made this move because 1) the uncertainty about Julius Peppers' long-term future at Carolina -- although he certainly should be here for 2009, I think; 2) the fact that no one besides Peppers really could make a dent on the opposing QB in 2008 with any regularity and 3) the fact the Panthers think they are really close to making another deep playoff run and aren't afraid to mortgage some of the future -- i.e. that 2010 1st-rounder -- to get there.

If they're wrong? This one could look bad (and there have been some busts from FSU at DE in the past -- remember Andre Wadsworth?). The Panthers have an extremely difficult schedule, meaning that if they fall on their face in 2009, that 2010 1st-round pick might be a top-15 selection at the least.

But the Panthers aren't playing scared here, that's for sure.

"The best pass defense is a strong pass rush," Carolina coach John Fox is fond of saying, and he and Marty Hurney have made a bold move to help themselves on that pass rush with this trade.

It's the second year in a row Carolina has traded away a future No.1 pick for help now -- a trick the Washington Redskins once specialized in many years ago. Jeff Otah came to Carolina last season for the 2009 1st-rounder. "You only do it for players you think can help you right away," Hurney said Saturday night after the trade.

So Brown better do just that.

Carolina's b-o-o-o-ring draft (so far)

It's now past 7 p.m., and the Carolina Panthers are still a couple of hours away from making their first pick in this draft barring some sort of trade.

You can now almost completely erase the idea of Julius Peppers getting traded, too, in my opinion. The first-round 2009 draft picks are practically gone -- they're at the end of the first round as I write this. That means that the currency the Panthers most would have wanted for Peppers has already been spent.

(Incidentally, I don't expect Peppers to show up for this minicamp that comes up Friday through Sunday. That's just a guess, but I'm predicting that he'll put out a bit of a silent protest for that one by not showing up).

Even the word "Carolina" has barely been uttered by anyone from ESPN, as the talking heads captivate themselves by Cleveland's various trade-downs and other draft stuff. It did get said a few times when UNC wide receiver Hakeem Nicks got picked No.29 overall by the New York Giants. That's a good landing place for Nicks -- he goes to a team that really needs another WR after letting go of troubled WR Plaxico Burress.

The Panthers, meanwhile, are still not supposed to pick until No.59 -- deep in the second round.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Tiger moves the needle

It has looked for weeks like Tiger Woods would come back to play the Quail Hollow Championship, which he committed to do today -- here's Ron Green's story about that.

But it's never quite certain Tiger is coming until it happens. Now that it is official, Tiger's appearance is very good news for a tournament that needs to sell a few more tickets and can now be assured of having the world's 3 top players (Woods, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia by the current rankings).

When Woods comes to Charlotte, as he has 3 times in the previous 6 tournaments, everything feels different. It's like when you walk into the party, see all the people you want to see, and realize you're in the right place and are going to have a great time. Woods won the tournament in 2007, then missed last year due to injury.

Woods actually isn't as personable with fans as Mickelson, Garcia or practically anyone else you'd care to name in this field. He's about the golf. He's always been about the golf. Woods stares laser beams during every round, totally ignoring whatever else is in his way.

So if you're going out to Quail Hollow simply to try and get Woods' autograph, good luck. You'll need it. But if you're coming out to watch Tiger play and marvel at the tricks he can play with a golf ball, you're in luck. No one is better at that, and Quail Hollow is very fortunate to get him again.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Extending Jake the right move

Jake Delhomme got a new five-year contract today. And while that will rub a lot of Jake haters the wrong way -- particularly after that six-turnover playoff monstrosity that Delhomme must live with all this offseason -- it was the right move for the Panthers.

Delhomme not only was going to count $11 million against this season's salary cap (this will drop that figure by at least a couple of million), but he also was going into the last year of his current deal. He's 34, but a quarterback's longevity in the league is different than almost any other position besides kicker and long snapper. Many QBs are productive into their late 30s.

Despite Delhomme's "Bad Jake" persona and his occasional awful games, I've long been an admirer of his moxie. He's passionate, enthusiastic, accountable and has a better arm than he's given credit for having.

No.17 had the worst game of his life in that Arizona nastiness, yes, but he's also won five playoff games at Carolina and would have been the Super Bowl MVP against New England after the 2003 season if only the Panthers' defense had been a little stouter.

Will Delhomme actually play this five-year contract out to its completion? I would doubt it. But this gives Carolina stability at the game's most important position for at least a couple more years -- I could easily see Delhomme being the starter here through the 2010 or 2011 season. This extension will be a controversial move, but in my view, it's a smart one.

Curry goes pro on emotional day

Stephen Curry announced Thursday he would skip his senior year at Davidson and enter the 2009 NBA draft. He plans to hire an agent soon, guaranteeing there will be no turning back on this decision.

Curry said at an on-campus press conference that he had heard through the NBA grapevine he would be chosen anywhere from No.7 to No.20 in the NBA's June draft. Curry led the NCAA in scoring last season at 28.6 points per game and looks forward to the free-flowing NBA game -- he has always been at his best in the open court, doing things quickly.

If Curry does well in NBA pre-draft workouts, he could well be a lottery (top-14) pick. Curry could be available when the Charlotte Bobcats pick. Charlotte will likely have the No.12 selection, although the pre-draft lottery has not been held.

But I would guess the Bobcats wouldn't end up picking Curry at No.12. D.J. Augustin has a similar skill set to Curry's and just came off a solid rookie year as the Bobcats' sixth man, and the Bobcats also will likely have Raymond Felton back at the point. (Curry, ironically, consulted Augustin before making this decision since Augustin faced a similar stay-or-go decision a year ago at Texas).

Curry went to bed Wednesday night thinking he would probably leave for the NBA, but gave himself a night to sleep and pray on the decision before making it final. While eating an omelet on Davidson's campus Thursday morning with teammate Steve Rossiter, Curry decided for sure.

"I think I'm ready," he would say at his press conference. "I've got to take the opportunity while I have it in my hands."

Davidson coach Bob McKillop fought back tears in the press conference while describing what Curry meant to the school and how much the team and the fans would miss him. "But it's not a divorce," McKillop said later. "Stephen will always be a part of our program. He will always be here in spirit with us."

In the Curry family, father Dell had thought Stephen would go to the NBA and mother Sonya had thought he would ultimately come back to Davidson for his senior year. They weren't sure what their son was going to do, either, until an hour or so before the 11:30 a.m. press conference. They still will get to go to a number of college basketball games, though -- younger brother Seth Curry has transferred to Duke and will start playing games for the Blue Devils in 2010-11.

Curry said he will complete his coursework and be on Davidson's campus through early May. He still needs seven more courses to complete his degree and said he would try to get those done at some point. But since Davidson doesn't have summer school, that degree may not happen until his NBA career is over.

"This has been my dream for a long time," Curry said, "ever since I was a little kid going to my dad's games. I'm at peace with my decision."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Curry sets press conference -- without knowing decision?!

Davidson star Stephen Curry will announce Thursday at an 11:30 a.m. on-campus press conference whether he's staying in school for his senior year or going pro.

Here's the weird thing: Davidson coach Bob McKillop still doesn't know what Curry's decision is going to be. And neither do Curry's parents.

"He told us he just wants to sleep on it," Dell Curry, Stephen's father, told me Wednesday night. "But he honestly hasn't told us what he's going to do yet."

Said McKillop Wednesday night: "I don't think Steph knows what he's going to decide right now. His heart is feeling one way. His head is feeling another way. Somehow, he's got to get his heart and his head feeling the same way."

So why schedule a Thursday press conference? The NBA deadline to declare whether you're going pro or not is not until Sunday.

"None of the dynamics are going to change between now and this weekend for him," McKillop said. "Thursday is a convenient day -- I'm in town, he's out of class when we scheduled it, Dell is available and so on. So Steph has given himself a deadline to make this decision."

Dell Curry said he believes that his son actually has all but made the final call -- "Why would you have a press conference otherwise?" he said -- but that Stephen Curry simply doesn't want any more input from anyone.

"I think he's just confident in his decision," Curry said. "He doesn't want to talk to us or run it by us. And we're fine with that."

McKillop, Curry and his father Dell Curry will all participate in Thursday's press conference.

Stephen Curry led the NCAA in scoring with 28.6 points per game this past season and is projected to be an NBA first-round pick if he does go pro. If he returns to Davidson for his senior season, he could finish his college degree and conceivably lead the team back to the NCAA tournament for a run similar to the one it had when Curry was a sophomore.

Jimmy Buffett talks sports

Tropical troubadour Jimmy Buffett was in Charlotte Tuesday (and will be in Raleigh Thursday) on his latest tour. Here's my review of the show, which I liked enough to give 3 stars out of a possible 4.

Buffett is a big sports fan. The only time I ever met him came way back when I used to cover the Miami Heat for the Miami Herald. Buffett went to a lot of the games back then (this was in the early 1990s) and remains a fervent Heat supporter.

Buffett once actually got kicked out his front-row seat at a Heat game in 2001 for arguing too vociferously with referee Joe Forte (who didn't know who Buffett was and was clueless when then-coach Pat Riley asked Forte if he had ever been a "parrothead," the term for a Buffett fanatic).

Buffett spent some of last fall in the Outer Banks, N.C., surfing and working on some new songs. He mentioned Tyler Hansbrough and the UNC national championship team a couple of different times in Tuesday's concert -- that will go over well at the Raleigh show, too -- and also talked briefly about the Carolina Panthers and their popularity here.

Once in Charlotte at a Buffett previous concert I attended, Buffett brought wrestling star Ric Flair on-stage to play the bongos during a song to a huge roar. There was no sign of Flair this time, but Buffett's sand-between-your-toes escapism was flying high.

Like the best sports events, a Buffett concert can take you away from reality for awhile. Which is cool. Reality is always waiting for you when you get back, but it's fun to lose yourself for a couple of hours.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Curry NBA decision coming very soon

Davidson standout guard Stephen Curry will make a decision sometime this week as to whether to skip his senior year of college and turn pro – but that decision has not come yet, his father Dell Curry said Monday.

Dell Curry denied a report from the website, which claimed Curry had already made his decision and would go pro. “That’s just not true,” Dell Curry told The Observer Monday. “At some point, it’s going to be true or false, but they’re just guessing. I guess they do that to draw interest to the website – just put it out there and hope they’re right.”

Davidson coach Bob McKillop said he had a 30-minute, one-on-one meeting with Stephen Curry Thursday night and then had dinner with his star player Friday night.

“We went over all the pluses and minuses,” McKillop told me Monday. “I made it clear to him that although his decision will certainly impact our program in numerous ways, there’s no sense of urgency from our standpoint. I want him to make a decision that is well-thought out and that he’s comfortable with."

If Curry does go pro a year early, he’s thought to be a guaranteed first-round pick who could be selected anywhere from No.8 to No.20 overall. Curry will likely be a point guard in the NBA. He showed he could play the position in his junior season at Davidson, where he led the Southern Conference in scoring, assists and steals.

Dell Curry said he and the rest of the family were now “leaving Steph alone to make the decision.” Asked if his son – the NCAA’s leading scorer in 2008-09 with a 28.6-per-game average – was stressed about the impending decision, Dell said he didn’t believe so.

“Steph couldn’t hit the golf ball as well as he is doing right now if he was stressed,” Dell Curry said. Dell and Stephen played golf Saturday. Stephen, despite not playing since August, shot a 78 to his father’s 79.

“I can confirm that, at least,” Dell Curry said, “but that’s about all I can confirm right now. He just hasn't decided yet." The decision has to be made by Sunday. Curry is in class as usual at Davidson today.

Although Curry could put his name in the NBA draft and then pull it out if he doesn't hire an agent, Stephen Curry told me recently that he doubted that would be the road he would take. "I'll either do it or I won't," Curry said. Stephen Curry could not be reached for comment Monday.

Stephen Curry also played in an intramural softball game Sunday with some of his Davidson basketball teammates. McKillop went to watch. “Steph is a tremendous shortstop in the Derek Jeter mold,” McKillop said, laughing, “and he hit some screaming line drives. Maybe he’s thinking about going pro in the wrong sport.”

Davidson plans a press conference on campus once Curry decides to jump to the NBA or not. The school’s sports information office has been flooded with calls this morning due to the website report but –- after consulting with McKillop -- has not scheduled a press conference.

Sunday's "Declaration Day" deadline also looms for North Carolina's Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, who are generally expected to choose to join senior teammates Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green in the 2009 draft.

McKillop is on the road recruiting today but is scheduled to return late tonight. He will be on the Davidson campus most of the rest of the week. It’s very likely the coach would be involved in any press conference Stephen Curry had.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The good and bad of the schedule

My first impressions of the Panthers' 2009 schedule... (which can be found in full at the end of this blog)


** The schedule's here -- that always a good thing. I love looking at the NFL schedule in April in the same way I love reading departure signs in some big airport to remind me of the places I've been (I'm quoting Jimmy Buffett there, for you non-parrotheads). It gives you a tantalizing glimpse of what the fall will look like.

** Opening the season at home (Philly) and closing it at home (New Orleans) -- to me, those are both solid advantages for Carolina. Those bookends are key for establishing momentum and -- if the Panthers have the sort of season they want -- establishing a playoff seeding.

** There's a nice change-of-pace on the days this time. For the past several years, the Panthers played practically every game Sunday at 1 p.m. In recognition of their fine 2008 season, they're all over the place this time -- a road game on Monday night, a home game on a Thursday, maybe a Sunday night home game (the Dec.20 game against the Vikings could be moved to the afternoon).


** Man, that's a tough schedule! I've never seen one that looks worse on paper for the Panthers. It's the second-toughest schedule in the NFL based on last year's standings.

** The bye week is too early. Week 4? A definite disadvantage. No breaks for the final 12 weeks of the season -- you can count on a couple of key injuries in that 3-month stretch that would have benefited from a midseason bye.

** Show me a month it looks easy. You can't. That's what Carolina gets, of course, for going 12-4 last season (well, 12-5 when you include the monstrosity that was the Arizona game). What a challenge this will be. But, as always, it'll be fun.


Sep. 13 Philadelphia Eagles 1:00pm
Sep. 20 at Atlanta Falcons 1:00pm
Sep. 28 at Dallas Cowboys (Mon) 8:30pm
Oct. 4 BYE
Oct. 11 Washington Redskins 1:00pm
Oct. 18 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1:00pm
Oct. 25 Buffalo Bills 4:05pm
Nov. 1 at Arizona Cardinals 4:15pm
Nov. 8 at New Orleans Saints 4:05pm
Nov. 15 Atlanta Falcons 1:00pm
Nov. 19 Miami Dolphins (Thu) 8:20pm
Nov. 29 at N.Y. Jets 1:00pm
Dec. 6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1:00pm
Dec. 13 at New England Patriots 1:00pm
Dec. 20 Minnesota Vikings 8:20pm
Dec. 27 at N.Y. Giants 1:00pm
Jan. 3 New Orleans Saints 1:00pm

Thursday, April 9, 2009

On SoCon, Peterson and Panthers schedule

A couple of quick thoughts for a Thursday:

** It's cool to see that the Southern Conference basketball tournament will come to Charlotte in 2010. It was originally scheduled to go to Chattanooga, Tenn., next season, but instead will come to a bigger -- and for most of the schools, a closer -- venue.
I've gone to the last three Southern Conference tournaments, and I can tell you that they are an underrated gem. The drama is nearly always better than the ACC tournament, where the top 5-6 teams know they're already getting into the NCAA tournament.

Of course, the tournament would be a WHOLE lot better in 2010 if Davidson's Stephen Curry returned for his senior year -- that would give it the headliner it would otherwise lack. I expect Curry's "stay-or-go-to-the-NBA" decision to come soon.

** I was a bit surprised that Buzz Peterson won't be coaching at that 2010 SoCon tournament -- he turned down his old job as head coach of Appalachian State Thursday. I thought Peterson might miss being a coach in charge of his own team enough to return to that life, but he's got a good job as director of player personnel for the Charlotte Bobcats and I imagine former college roommate Michael Jordan turned the screws on Peterson a little. Michael is a hard man to refue.

** For Panther fans, next Tuesday, April 14 is a big day. That's when the NFL releases the full regular-season schedule at 7 p.m. via and the NFL Network. The league sticks more bells and whistles on the schedule release every year -- it's not very exciting, really, but you can't talk about the upcoming NFL draft for 24 hours a day.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Quite a week for MJ

Michael Jordan has had quite a week already, and it's only Tuesday.

On Monday, he was announced as a new member of basketball's hall of fame.

Also on Monday, Jordan watched from Ford Field as UNC thoroughly whipped up on Michigan State to win the Tar Heels' fifth national championship.

And now comes word that Jordan's son Marcus has committed to college -- he will attend the University of Central Florida. Apparently Davidson was also in the running for Marcus, according to this story.

Marcus is a 6-foot-3 guard who led his Whitney Young team to an Illinois state championship recently. He lives in Chicago.

Monday, April 6, 2009

When he was Mike Jordan...

On the day that Michael Jordan has been officially announced as a member of basketball's hall of fame, let me take you back to when Jordan was an 18-year-old freshman at North Carolina in 1981.

This was even before “The Shot” against Georgetown in 1982. The UNC media guide labeled the freshman from Wilmington as “Mike Jordan.” He wasn’t commonly called "Michael" yet.

When longtime UNC play-by-play announcer Woody Durham asked Coach Dean Smith before the 1981-82 season began how practice was going, Smith said: “Pretty good. I think the youngster from Wilmington is going to help us a little.”

Laughed Durham when he told me this story many years later: “That was one of the greatest understatements of all time.”

One of the first basketball guys to accurately predict the future for Jordan was Billy Cunningham – the first great player Smith coached at UNC back in the 1960s. Cunningham would later win NBA championships as both a player (1967) and a coach (1983) for the Philadelphia 76ers.

In the early fall, Cunningham liked to return to Chapel Hill to watch Smith conduct practice and get a read on the next batch of Tar Heels.

“So I went down to watch the Tar Heels practice before the 1981-82 season,” Cunningham told me once. “And I saw Jordan awhile. And then I said to Dean: ‘He’s going to be the greatest player who ever came out of here.’
“But Dean got mad at me,” Cunningham continued. “You know how he is. He doesn’t like to hear anything like that. To him, everybody is equal. And I said, ‘Coach, coach. Just look at Michael. This isn’t brain surgery. Look at the way he plays.’”

Lastly, here are a couple of responses from Jordan on a questionnaire he filled out for the UNC sports information department in 1981, at age 18.

Question: Who’s the athlete you most admire?
Answer: Walter Davis, Magic Johnson.

Question: What movies have you most enjoyed?
Answer: Weapons of Death, Superman, Superman II.

Question: What’s the best book you’ve read?
Answer: The Pearl (by John Steinbeck).

Question: What’s your post-school ambition?
Answer: Professional basketball.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The 5 best NCAA title games ever are....

In honor of the 2009 NCAA title game that will be played Monday night between Michigan State and North Carolina, here are two top-5 lists from me.

The first: a list of the five best NCAA men's basketball title games that involved teams from North Carolina. The second: a list of the five best title games NOT involving teams from N.C.

BEST TITLE GAMES EVER involving a team from North Carolina

5. N.C. State 76, Marquette 64 (1974). David Thompson, Tommy Burleson and Monte Towe beat UCLA in a taut semifinal, then rolled over Marquette in Greensboro.

4. Duke 72, Kansas 65 (1991). Of Duke’s three NCAA titles under Mike Krzyzewski, this one had the closest point margin, featured the huge semifinal upset of UNLV and earned the Blue Devils their first title.

3. UNC 54, Kansas 53 (triple OT, 1957). Not many people these days saw it or remember it firsthand, but the Tar Heels beat Wilt Chamberlain and the Jayhawks in a wondrous triple-OT final to finish 32-0.

2. UNC 63, Georgetown 62 (1982). “The Shot” launches a legend – turning a skinny, trash-talking freshman named Mike Jordan into “Michael Jordan.”

1. N.C. State 54, Houston 52 (1983). Lorenzo Charles stuffs home the game-winner and Jim Valvano gets hug-happy.


THE BEST TITLE GAMES EVER NOT involving a team from North Carolina

5. Michigan State 75, Indiana State 64 (1979). Really not a great game, but historically significant because of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird matchup.

4. Kansas 83, Oklahoma 79 (1988). Danny Manning and the Miracles pulled off a nice upset in a personal favorite – this was the first title game I ever saw and covered in person.

3. Indiana 74, Syracuse 73 (1987). Indiana’s Keith Smart drains a baseline jumper in the final seconds for the win.

2. Kansas 75, Memphis 68 (OT, 2008). “Mario’s Miracle” – a three-pointer by Kansas guard Mario Chalmers to send the game into overtime -- reversed a recent trend of title-game duds.

1. Villanova 66, Georgetown 64 (1985). The best David vs. Goliath final in tournament history, as Villanova shot a remarkable 22-for-28 from the floor to beat Patrick Ewing.

John Fox needs to loosen up

This is a theme I hammer upon every year during the season -- Panthers coach John Fox has the science of coaching mastered, but he is far from mastering the art of flexibility.

I'd like Fox to loosen up some in 2009, because the Panthers may well be good enough to win big again this season and they need a coach who's going to take a few risks to get them where they want to be. I explore this topic in depth in the following column -- click here to read.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

On Bobcats and Ty Lawson

2 quick thoughts on a sunny April Saturday:

1. I went to the Bobcats' home game last night against Miami. Once they blew that 16-point first-quarter lead, this one had a feel of inevitability to it. Charlotte just didn't seem ready to win this game (and the referees didn't help -- Miami shot 16 FTs in final quarter to Bobcats' zero). The Bobcats have made incremental (not exponential) improvement in Year Five, but they're not going to make the playoffs -- as I wrote today. If they do -- they technically won't be out of the race for another week or two -- I promise to embarrass myself publicly in the newspaper and you're welcome to help.

2. Ty Lawson's $250. A bit of news will rush in to fill a void, which is what has happened in UNC point guard Ty Lawson's admission that he (legally, and with Roy Williams' permission) went to a casino in Detroit and won $250 playing craps Wednesday night. With not much else happening prior to the Final Four, this somehow became a big deal. To me, it isn't.

A far bigger deal: Connecticut and the alleged major NCAA violations in its own basketball program. Appearances matter, certainly, but this is hardly the Michael Phelps photograph at the South Carolina party. Much ado about not much, I'd say.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Thompson's "reluctant" 73-point game

In today's Charlotte Observer and online, I try to sort out myths from facts about the legend of N.C. State great David Thompson. Click here to read the story.

One fact about Thompson that I didn't get into much in the story -- he once scored 73 points in an NBA game for a Denver Nuggets team coached by Larry Brown. LB, now the coach of the Charlotte Bobcats, told me the other day that it was "a reluctant 73."

Brown said that at halftime, when Thompson already had 52 points on 20-of-23 shooting, his teammates wanted him to shoot constantly in the second half and try to go for 100 (Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 in a 1962 game -- still the NBA record).

Thompson didn't want to, Brown said. "He just wanted to play the game," the coach said.

Thompson ended with 73, hitting 28 of 38 shots from the field. This was the final game of the 1978 season, and Thompson was engaged in a heated battle for the scoring title with George Gervin. The Nuggets' game was that afternoon. When Gervin heard what he had to do to win, he engaged in a scoring frenzy of his own, scoring 63 (while taking 49 shots) to edge Thompson for the title.

Brown also said he had some regrets about the way he handled Thompson at the time. Brown said he wasn't a "mature" enough coach at the time to understand or even recognize Thompson's drug and alcohol problems, which kept Thompson from totally fulfilling his promise in the pros. (Thompson's career ultimately ended after he fell down the stairs while struggling with a bouncer at New York's infamous Studio 54 disco, tearing up his knee).

Thompson has now been sober for 20 years and helps run a Christian sports ministry called 2xsalt (pronounced "To Exalt" and on the web at Among other things, it runs a series of summer camps in several sports, including basketball. To register or for more information, call 704-586-1555.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Cutler for Peppers? Sounds interesting

The deal has such a nice-sounding symmetry to it -- Jay Cutler for Julius Peppers. One disgruntled Pro Bowler for another, switching conferences and time zones so they would be more or less out of sight and out of mind from their previous teams. Plus, Carolina needs to find a QB to replace Jake Delhomme once he's finished and Denver needs defense desperately.

Will it happen? I'm 98 percent sure it won't. But would I be totally opposed to it happening? No, I wouldn't be. Cutler is going to be quite an asset for his next team, I believe. For any team, including Carolina, to close the door on a 25-year-old QB who has already made the Pro Bowl and has no injury problems -- that'd be silly.

Our fine beat writer Charles Chandler believes that Cutler wouldn't be a good fit in Carolina and he may well be right about that. But John Fox allows a lot of different guys in his tent if he thinks they can make a difference (Keyshawn Johnson, for one -- oops -- and Steve Smith for another). I think if Fox got hold of Cutler, he could straighten him up, as could Jake Delhomme in the QB meetings.

The problems for such a deal would be numerous, however, which is why it almost certainly will never happen:

1) A lot of teams have more pressing needs than Carolina at QB -- as in, they need a QB right now. So I expect a bidding war to commence here and for Cutler to at least command a first-round pick and maybe more. (Tampa Bay, the N.Y. Jets, San Francisco, Cleveland and Detroit would all be far more likely landing places).

2) According to Charles' post, Denver is NOT one of the teams that Peppers has said he would play for. This is very key. While Cutler remains under contract (and at a relatively cheap price, which adds to his allure), Peppers MUST sign a long-term deal with any team he gets traded to or that trade doesn't get made. So Peppers has all sorts of leverage -- he would have to agree to this and there's no sense that he suddenly would.

3) Cutler is considered more valuable league-wide than Peppers. He plays QB, after all. And he's only 25. And he's got that rocket on his right shoulder.

Yes, he seems petulant and very young after this tiff with his head coach in Denver, but I'll bet you he's on his best behavior wherever his next job is. Peppers is 29 and going into his eighth year -- even as freakishly athletic as he is, you have to wonder how many years he has left.

So I think Denver probably won't be interested, and I think Carolina (or at least Peppers) probably won't be interested. Nevertheless, it's interesting.