Friday, June 29, 2012

5 Olympians with NC ties have already made swim team -- more to come?

Cullen Jones had a superb race in the men's 100 freestyle Friday night, making his second straight Olympic team by finishing second. By doing that, he will get to swim the race both individually and in the relay.

That brought the total to five swim Olympians with N.C. ties -- Jones, Charlotte's Ricky Berens (who has made both the 100 and 200 relay teams), Raleigh's Charlie Houchin (200 men's relay), Charlotte's Nick Thoman (100 backstroke) and Greenville, N.C.'s Lauren Perdue (200 women's relay).

And that number could go higher, with three days of the U.S. Olympic Trials meet left and a handful of swimmers still with decent shots at the ultimate honor in the sport.

Last time, in 2008, there were three swimming Olympians with N.C. ties (Jones and Berens were joined by Mark Gangloff, who at the time trained in Charlotte).

The most unlikely of those five in 2012 so far is Perdue, who starred at Greenville Rose High and now at Virginia. I'll be focusing my Sunday column on her. She had back surgery less than three months ago and was only seeded No.18 in the 200 women's freestyle but had a lifetime-best swim to finish fourh.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

How many more swimming Olympians from NC? And my Bobcats pick

Wednesday night was a big one for swimmming in North Carolina, as three with ties to the state made the Olympic team -- Ricky Berens, Nick Thoman and Charlie Houchin. Here's my story on that.

Now the question is how many more will get in -- if any.

In 2008, there were three total who grew up and/or trained in N.C. -- Berens, Cullen Jones and Mark Gangloff. With five nights left in this meet, that number is likely to be surpassed.

But it's not a sure thing. It's so difficult to qualify for the Olympics -- as I've noted before, 97 percent of the swimmers at these Olympic Trials don't make it to the team.

Berens and Thoman may both make a second event this time around. But the other athletes with the best shot at earning a spot in London are Jones (who has had very on-and-off results since the 2008 Olympics, but is a gamer), sprint freestylers Josh Schneider, Nick Brunelli, Scot Robison, Kara Lynn Joyce and Madison Kennedy as well as Davis Tarwater, who is in the finals of the 200 butterfly tonight.

UPDATE: Robison had the fastest time of 165 swimmers in the 100 meter freestyle prelims Thursday morning. The top 16 advanced to Thursday night's semifinals and also included Berens (7th), Schneider (8th), Jones (10th) and Brunelli (12th). The top eight will advance tonight into Friday night's finals, and the top six from that final will make the Olympic team.

-- One more unrelated note: I hope the Bobcats end up with Thomas Robinson tonight -- ideally by trading down with Cleveland, acquiring an extra pick and still getting Robinson at No.4. The Bobcats were so inept in the paint last season, both offensively and defensively. They need Robinson to help start changing the culture.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Now that Cam Newton could have No.2, he no longer wants it

Interesting number games in the Carolina Panthers organization these days among the quarterbacks -- at least I sorta think it's interesting.

Jimmy Clausen has switched from No.2 to No.7 for this season. Cam Newton was offered to move from No.1 to No.2 -- Cam wore No.2 at Auburn, and he came into Carolina as a rookie hoping he could be No.2 as well.

But now Cam is used to No.1, so I hear he told the Panthers thanks but no thanks -- he'd stay with his number and not make the switch he wanted 12 months ago. With No.2 still vacant, new Panther punter Nick Harris jumped on it, so that's where we sit today -- Newton at 1, Harris at 2 and Clausen at 7.

That's good news, I suppose, for the thousands who have bought a Cam Newton jersey and don't want it to be obsolete all of a sudden.

Clausen's switch, though, is a bit unusual given he has already been in the league a couple of years now. He had the right to keep the number last year and did so. I thought at the time and wrote then that he shouldn't simply give it away -- that the best scenario would be for Clausen to "sell" the number to Newton, as has happened in a number of other organizations in the past, and then donate the money to charity. A win-win for everyone.

But Clausen kept it. So Newton became No.1. Before long, he had beaten out Clausen for the No.1 job, too. And now Clausen doesn't want it anymore (he wore No.7 in college at Notre Dame, and it was available when the Panthers released longtime punter Jason Baker).

The numbers are final for this season now -- there won't be any more switching, at least not among higher-profile players, as the Panthers have turned in their roster to the NFL.

As for Newton, I think he did the right thing here. He has already forged a heckuva new NFL pro identity with No.1, which also represents his draft choice from 2011.

Charlotte and Raleigh natives edge closer to Olympic swimming dream

Raleigh native Charlie Houchin and Charlotte native Matt Patton both took a step toward their first Olympic berth Monday afternoon – but they will need to take an even bigger one tonight. You can watch their efforts live on NBC (8-9 p.m. Eastern).

Houchin and Patton both qualified for the eight-man final in the 400 men’s freestyle tonight in Omaha, Neb. Houchin had the third-fastest time and Patton had the fourth-fastest. They would both have to improve that placement slightly to make it – only the top two finishers earn a trip to London.

(MONDAY NIGHT UPDATE: Neither Houchin nor Patton made the squad in the event, although they do have other events to go. Houchin finished fourth and Patton seventh. Houchin led at the 350-meter mark but was passed by three swimmers after the final turn).

Making the top eight of an 111-man field in the 400 free is no small feat, however. Houchin and Patton swam side by side in the fastest heat of the 12 contested in the preliminaries. All four of the top times came from that heat, with Connor Jaeger finishing first and Conor Dwyer second, Houchin third and Patton fourth.

Houchin, who won multiple individual state championships swimming for Raleigh Enloe, now trains in Jacksonville, Fla. Patton swam at Charlotte’s Butler High. Both men swam collegiately at Michigan. Matt has a twin, Sean, who swam collegiately at Texas but no longer swims competitively.

Catching up in Omaha

Hello, everyone.... Hope your summer has been going well. I've been neglecting my blog but for good reason -- I just finished my last vacation until after the Olympics. I'm in Omaha, Neb., now, about to cover the U.S. Olympic Swimming trials, and spent the flight from Charlotte to Omaha reading the nine straight sports sections I missed and some other stuff.

Anyway, a few thoughts about what's been happening:

-- I knew nothing of Mike Dunlap, the Bobcats' new coach, and was honestly stunned the team hired him. But after reading everything he said the first couple of days, I have to admit he sounds pretty impressive. Of course he inherits a terrible roster by NBA standards, and not much can be done until it is improved.

-- I hope the Bobcats take Kansas forward Thomas Robinson with the No.2 pick Thursday. Robinson is a MAN, and I think he will help both immediately and long-term.

-- The Olympic Swim Trials will be very interesting and several swimmers with Charlotte connections should make the team by the time it's all over. I have written about some of the local possibilities here. Wednesday night could be very big, with Charlotte-connected Ricky Berens, Nick Thoman and Micah Lawrence all with good chances to make it.

-- My most loyal readers probably know I have four kids by now, as they make an occasional appearance in a column. A column I wrote on fatherhood and something really stupid I did appeared on our front page on Father's Day. Here's the link if you missed it.

-- Omaha is quite the hopping place at the moment, as the Swim Trials and the College World Series are going on within a stone's throw of each other. It's a good time to own a downtown parking lot in Omaha.

-- I will be filing regular updates from Omaha about the N.C. swimmers and how they are doing at Trials both on this blog and on my Twitter account, so please follow me @Scott_Fowler if you don't already.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Another uniform tweak for Panthers?

A look at EA Sports Madden 13's version of the Panthers' alternate uniform -- with black pants instead of the usual silver.

Could a video game have broken a small bit of news about the Panthers' uniforms?

It seems quite possible. EA Sports Madden 13 -- which works diligently to be as lifelike as possible -- revealed a different-looking Panthers' "alternate" uniform in this video (check around the 20:00 mark). You'll remember that "Madden 13" was last news around these parts when Cam Newton was campaigning to be on the cover -- he ultimately lost out to Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson (thanks to the alert posters below who informed me of my earlier typo on Johnson's surname).

Now unless you are really into uniforms -- and apparently some of you are, judging from the hit counts on this blog every time I post uniform news -- this isn't a huge deal even if true. The Panthers generally wear their "alternate" blue jerseys only two times a year -- their main jersey colors being black and white. But when they do wear them it has always been with silver pants, not black. (Sometimes, they wear the alternate blue twice in the regular season and a third time in the preseason).

But the Panthers certainly aren't dismissing this notion of blue-and-black together. When I contacted them today for a comment, a spokesman simply said that nothing has been completely decided as of yet. (Remember that Panther owner Jerry Richardson has said the uniforms won't be changing in his lifetime, although this might not count in Richardson's mind as a significant change).

Remember, the Panthers were also "scooped" on their own tweaking of their new logo by Nike's Football Facebook page, which posted a picture of some receivers' gloves with the team's new logo a few months ago.

That led to the Panthers releasing the slightly tweaked logo more quickly than they had planned and to this blog post I wrote, which remains the No.1 blog post all-time on "Scott Says" in terms of hits by a wide margin (I really don't know why).

So given the history, I would say this blue-and-black color combo rumor certainly has a chance to be true, at least, whether it ultimately is true or not. At least on "Madden 13" -- which is scheduled for release in late August -- you'll always be able to see it.

And on another note, if you missed this last week due to vacation or something, the Panthers will have a free and open practice at Bank of America Stadium this Thursday, June 14th, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:20 p.m. More info here.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Davidson student makes Olympics as a kayaker

Congratulations to Caroline Queen, a Davidson student who qualified this weekend in Cardiff, Wales for the 2012 Olympics.

Queen, 20, is from Darnestown, Md., but moved to the Charlotte area a couple of years ago to go to Davidson and to be close to the U.S. National Whitewater Center, where she trains. She took the spring semester off from Davidson to pursue her Olympic dream, and it worked -- she will be the only American women's kayaker in London. She will then return for her junior year at Davidson in the fall semester.

To get the spot, Queen had to edge fellow American Ashley Nee in Wales. Nee would have had to finish in the top 20 and beat Queen to have gotten the spot, because Queen held a tiebreaker over Nee due to some earlier results.

Instead, Queen finished 35th and Nee 37th in the international competition -- far out from the leaders, but good enough for Queen to clinch her first Olympic spot.

"It's kind of hard to believe at this point," Queen said after the competition in Wales in a statement issued by USA Canoe/Kayak. "The selection process is so long. This morning I woke up and couldn't believe it was here. And now that it's done, I can't believe that that's all she wrote. But it is. It's pretty incredible and I'm really glad that I'm with my family to share the moment and my teammates and coaches and staff and everybody."

Queen will be joined by Scott Parsons and Casey Eichfeld on the whitewater side of the U.S. team. Both of those men have made the U.S. Olympic team before. Three two-man canoe teams are vying for the final spot in the Olympics, including Charlotte's Dave Hepp and Scott McCleskey (Sylva, N.C.)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Former UNC star Pete Brennan dies at 75

Pete Brennan (left) with his UNC coach Frank McGuire -- the two combined on a 32-0, national championship season in 1957.

Pete Brennan, the leading rebounder on North Carolina’s undefeated 1957 national championship team and the author of one of the most important shots in Tar Heel basketball history, died Friday in Chapel Hill after a battle with cancer. He was 75.

I did a couple of long interviews with Brennan a number of years ago about his career in preparation for a book I was writing. He was a joy to talk to. He told me in one of those interviews that he was one of 10 children and that ultimately he had five children of his own.

As Brennan cracked, "I’m only half the man my father was."

I'm excerpting part of a chapter I wrote about Brennan in that book below just to give those who didn't know Brennan -- or who want to remember him -- another way to do so....

Pete Brennan will go down in history as the player who pushed North Carolina to the famous final against Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas team in the first place.

In the 1957 national semifinal, the Tar Heels trailed Michigan State, 64-62, with 11 seconds remaining in the first overtime. Michigan State’s Johnny Green was at the free-throw line, shooting a one-and-one. Since there was no such thing as a three-pointer in those days, one free throw would essentially seal the game.

The Tar Heels sported a 30-0 record at the time. The Michigan State players were so confident that they would win that one of them sidled up to Tar Heel point guard Tommy Kearns before Green shot the free throw and said, somewhat cruelly: “Thirty and one!”

But Green clanked it.

The 6-6, 215-pound Brennan grabbed the rebound and, instead of firing the ball upcourt to one of the Tar Heel guards, he started dribbling upcourt on the dead run.

“It was basically a 1-on-2 fast break,” Brennan said. “I got to the foul line, and there were two Michigan State guys there. I always had great confidence in shooting a jumper from around the foul line, and I thought to myself, ‘I’ll take it, and I’ll follow my own shot if I miss.’”

Brennan rose, shot and scored. The game was tied at 64. Michigan State actually got off a last-second shot of its own, and it went in, but after the buzzer sounded.

So the two teams played a second overtime period and then a third, before North Carolina finally prevailed, 74-70.

That win got North Carolina into the final. Brennan had 11 points and a team-high 11 rebounds against Kansas in the 54-53 win, also accomplished in triple overtime.

.... When that ’57 squad returned to Chapel Hill from Kansas City, thousands of people greeted them at the airport. They were chauffeured to the governor’s mansion for a banquet and signed autographs for fellow students.

“It all sort of blew my mind a little bit,” Brennan said.

Why did all that happen? It wasn’t just the championship.

It was television.

Those two Final Four thrillers in 1957 permanently married basketball and television in North Carolina. Enthralled by the Tar Heels’ undefeated record entering the Final Four, TV pioneer C.D. Chesley had put together a five-station network in North Carolina to televise the games back home.

In a single week, Chesley paid a rights fee to the NCAA, found sponsors, hired broadcasters and bought equipment.

When the Tar Heels won both games in triple OT, the folks who had TVs in the 1950s were absolutely captivated. Those telecasts set the stage for the huge TV packages the ACC can boast of today.

Brennan was a part of all that. He was another of the New Yorkers in Frank McGuire’s pipeline, just as all the starters on the ’57 squad were.

Brennan truly was one of 10 kids – he had six brothers and three sisters. He grew up in Brooklyn. His father, John Brennan, was a motorman for the local subway and also drove a newspaper truck. His mother, Una, raised the children.

“For 32 of his 38 years at work, my father worked two full-time jobs,” Brennan said. “So school was a very important thing to him – he wanted his kids to have an education. When report card day came, he checked everybody’s very closely.”

The leading scorer in Brooklyn as a senior at St. Augustine’s High, Brennan had a number of scholarship offers and thought seriously about Notre Dame. “Joe Quigg was already down in Chapel Hill and told me how great it was, though,” Brennan said. “He really helped me make my decision.”

Before Brennan, Kearns and Quigg joined the Tar Heel varsity as sophomores (freshmen were ineligible), Rosenbluth and his teammates struggled. In the 1954-55 season, Rosenbluth scored 25.5 a game but the Tar Heels only went 10-11.

In 1955-56, the Brennan-Kearns-Rosenbluth-Quigg quartet first came together as the centerpiece class of Frank McGuire’s reverse underground railroad. The Tar Heels improved to 18-5. But they lost to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament and thus didn’t qualify for the NCAAs.

Then came 1956-57. McGuire knew he had something special, and he spent most of the Tar Heels’ practices letting the players hone their skills in competitive situations.

“In practice, he just told us to scrimmage, and our scrimmages were very physical,” Brennan said. “He’d stop it if he saw something he didn’t like. But we never had any plays to run on offense. I mean never. We had two out-of-bounds plays. That was it.”

.... In 1957-58, Brennan was a senior and thought the Tar Heels might be able to repeat as NCAA champions. But that team was undone by several severe injuries. It finished 19-7, but lost to Maryland in the final of the ACC tournament.

Brennan was 1958 ACC Player of the Year, however, averaging 21.3 points and 11.7 rebounds, and also a first-team All-America.

Drafted by the New York Knicks in the first round of the 1958 NBA draft, Brennan played in the pros for all of one season and part of another. The Knicks tried to turn him into a guard but the experiment didn’t take. Brennan barely played.

Then a different draft took hold of his life.

“The military draft was still in at the time,” Brennan said, “and I was told I had to honor my obligation. So right after the second season, I joined the Marines.”

After that, Brennan got into the clothing business. He had his own company for awhile and also headed up a sales force out of New York for a large clothing company, selling lines like Polo, Chaps and Halston to large specialty stores. He was once contacted to see if he’d have any interest in coaching the Belmont Abbey basketball team in N.C. (Al McGuire once coached there), but Brennan said “No.”

“That was really the last time I had anything to do with basketball,” Brennan said.

.... In April 2005, he traveled to St. Louis to watch the Tar Heels win the national championship. In the semifinal, he was happy to see a bit of symmetry. In another Final Four, 48 years after Brennan’s own, a new Tar Heel team led by Sean May and Raymond Felton defeated another Michigan State squad in the national semifinal.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Panthers to hold free and open practice in stadium June 14th

Breaking with tradition, the Carolina Panthers will hold a free and open practice on Thursday, June 14th, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:20 p.m. in Bank of America Stadium. Fans are welcome to come to the non-contact practice, although there will not be a chance to get auotographs.

The extra chance for fans to see the Panthers in their home stadium was head coach Ron Rivera's idea, and I believe it's an excellent one. He wants his players -- the new ones especially -- to get a feel for the B of A stadium atmosphere. The practice will be their final one of a mandatory three-day minicamp next week (players will then be off until reporting to Spartanburg and Wofford College for training camp on Friday, July 27th).

"We sure would love our fans to come out," Rivera said of the open practice next week in Charlotte. "... It will give our players a chance to get inside the stadium and kind of introduce them to the stadium and the fans of Charlotte."

The practice will be a no-frills affair, unlike FanFest (which is scheduled this year for Saturday, Aug.4th). The Panthers always bring out the bells and whistles for their annual FanFest -- cheerleaders, the Sir Purr mascot, games for the kids outside and so on.

This one will have no cheerleaders, no mascots, no games outside -- just a practice. And, again, no autographs, the team says. The team does plan to make limited concessions available.

The June 14th practice will give Panther fans a chance to see the new version of their team six weeks earlier than usual. The team has traditionally not opened any practices to fans until late July in Spartanburg, when all training-camp practices are free and open to the public at Wofford.

As for Thursday's workout, Rivera said: "Fans will see what they would see if they came up to Wofford, but there will be no contact.... We traditionally have never practiced in our stadium until we get to FanFest, and then we get our first preseason game. It’s an opportunity for our guys to get on the field… So the first time we do it so we’re not in awe.

"As for our fans," Rivera continued, "we know not everybody can get down to Wofford from Charlotte. So if our fans want to come out, great. We’d love to have 'em. But the biggest thing is to create the atmosphere of our stadium for our guys."

In other Panther news Thursday:

-- Linebacker Jon Beason looked strong in his limited work and told me afterward, jokingly, he feels "150 percent, maybe 149."

-- I will be writing about Haruki Nakamura, who is competing for a starting safety job against Sherrod Martin and others, for Friday's newspaper and online. Beason told me that Nakamura "kind of reminds me of [former Panther safety] Chris Harris but with a lot more ability."

Fun fact about Nakamura: he was a national judo champ in the junior division as a kid. (UPDATE: Here's the link to the Nakamura story).

Monday, June 4, 2012

LeBron, LeBron -- take that shot

LeBron James passed up a potential game-winning shot against Boston Sunday night in a Game 4 thriller in the final seconds of regulation. Then he fouled out of the game in overtime and the Celtics won, 93-91, to tie the Eastern Conference finals at two games apiece.

I don't blame James for fouling out -- his sixth foul was very questionable (I didn't think it was a foul at all), and he was trying to do something aggressive by posting up when it was called. It was the first time LeBron had fouled out as a member of the Heat.

But I do blame him for not taking the final shot in regulation. It continued James' trend of failing in the final seconds of games too often. He has two blemishes on an otherwise amazing career -- he's never won an NBA title, and he doesn't convert in the final seconds of games enough.

This time, the score was tied at 89-all. James had had a wonderful last minute, hitting a three-pointer to tie the game, then drawing an offensive foul on Kevin Garnett to get the ball back.

He took the ball on the last play, dribbled and drew three Celtic defenders. But none of them were absolutely all over him -- James was near the free-throw line and could have risen for a last shot over everyone.

Instead, LeBron tried an awkward bounce pass to Udonis Haslem, which didn't get there cleanly and left Haslem with no chance but to throw up a 20-foot airball. That forced OT. (Dwyane Wade then had a chance to win the game with LeBron fouled out in the final seconds and got off a good-looking three-pointer, but missed it).

If you're the three-time NBA MVP, as LeBron is, you take the last shot and you miss it, that's fine. Michael Jordan, the player all great ones are still compared to, missed more than two dozen potential game-winning shots in the same situation.

But not to take it at all? You better be passing the ball to a teammate for an open layup. Otherwise, it looks too much like you want the ball out of your hands in the critical moments.

Larry Bird said this year that James was the NBA's best player and that no one else was close. I'd agree with that -- for the first 47 minutes and 40 seconds of every game.

But in those final 20 seconds, LeBron still has his problems. And until he can fix those, that NBA championship he wants so badly is going to continue to elude him.