Phi Slama Jama, Jimmy V & a twist of fate

My wife and I watched the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary, ‘Phi Slama Jama’ Sunday night. Like most of the series, it’s terrific.

I was 10 years old in 1983 when Houston and N.C. State met for the national championship. My mom, my sister (nearly four years older) and I watched every game on N.C. State’s run to the championship. We weren’t Wolfpack fans but loved college basketball. The game got in my blood early. I was going to play point guard in the ACC, no question. State was the ultimate underdog with a lovable coach. They were easy to pull for.

A rare March snowstorm hit Eastern North Carolina during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The power went out and the three of us sat around the fireplace and listened to the games on the radio. The Cardiac Pack beat Virginia and 7-4 center Ralph Sampson twice in three weeks, which seemed impossible even to someone with my lack of experience.

N.C. State kept winning, each one more improbable than the next. Then it was time for the Final Four. Houston played Louisville. There was a ball and two baskets on a court. But the teams were playing a different sport from another planet. It was fast, amazing and most certainly above the rim. Dunks and dunks and blocks and dunks.

We didn’t have cable at that time, not that they were airing anything that resembled what happened in that national semifinal. My college basketball viewing consisted of whatever ACC game was on TV each week. Raycom, Bones, Packer and Thacker, manual scoreboard in Carmichael, Sail with the Pilot.

There wasn’t a shot clock. The ACC had great players and coaches but nobody played like the Cougars and the Cardinals. Virginia and North Carolina had played a snoozer in the ACC championship game the year before. (I searched the interwebs for video footage, but luckily, thankfully, none exists. As an aside, four future Division I head coaches and three future Naismith Hall of Fame members played in the game – and they only scored 92 points!).

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At some point during the second half of that one, as the Tar Heels held the ball for what, to a nine-year-old, seemed like 4,000 straight minutes, I walked outside and started shooting baskets on the goal in my backyard. Probably missed the end of the game. I didn’t miss one second of Houston – Louisville, just stared at the TV when it was over.

Two nights later, Whittenberg makes the heave, Charles dunks it and Jim Valvano runs around the court seeking someone to hug. But the part we always overlooked, over here on this side of the country, was just how close Benny Anders came to stealing the pass and rewriting the ending. As we were watching the sequence in ‘Phi Slama Jama’ my wife said something to this effect: just think if he steals that pass, his life turns out better, but because he didn’t Jimmy V won the national championship and there’s a foundation that helps so many people.

She was absolutely right. One play changed the fate of so many.

I’ve always been fortunate to be around smart ladies.

My sister, Ashley, died of breast cancer in June of 2012, four weeks after my first daughter, Kate, was born. She loved college basketball. As adults, whenever we talked on the phone this time of the year, the conversation generally turned to hoops and stayed there. Oh sure, I’d get the necessary updates on my nieces, how they were doing in school and such, but she lived in California and needed the latest scoop from Tobacco Road. I was glad to help. She’d tape games shown at 4 p.m. her time and watch them later without knowing the score. She knew basketball and loved to watch, was unafraid of good-spirited trash talk on social media. When I covered the NCAA tournament, she’d pay close attention to the televised press conferences, hoping to hear me ask a question.

This is Jimmy V Week, of course, on ESPN. There’s a doubleheader tonight in Madison Square Garden. Like so many college basketball fans, I’ve watched the famous “Don’t Give Up” speech a dozen times. It’s become a holiday tradition on the screen at our house, as familiar as The Grinch or Clark Griswold. Cancer is everywhere, and it sucks. We’ve all been affected by it. Valvano’s words will ring true forever, even to the generations that never saw him coach a game. He was authentic, charismatic, flawed but genuine. I’ve heard great stories about his early days at NC State, this Italian guy from New York traveling to small towns across the state on the booster club circuit. The fans hung on every word.

The foundation bearing his name has awarded more than $170 million in cancer research grants since 1993. A endowment handles expenses, directing every dollar donated to research. That’s not the case with other organizations.

“your family, your religion and the Green Bay Packers”

 

Just like we left off, wherever we were

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So, this blog was born a year ago. And I’ve used it much less than I’d hoped. Rats. It was supposed to trigger a great book idea, help me hone my craft and such. Somewhere along the road though, writing words for the people who write me checks interfered with all those plans. Fatherhood takes more time than they let on. Sleep is good, when it comes. There were bands to see, that won’t change. I could tell you I’ve been spending too much time playing golf, but it’s untrue and a flimsy excuse in the first place.

This space hasn’t been completely useless. It provided a good place to write about two heroes who passed. It served as a good venue to display a hunk of pork I cooked. It gave me a place to ramble on about a band that I love. It allowed me to critique a Masters meltdown and what it might mean for the young victim. But for the most part it just sat here, vacant and neglected, buried under interweb tumbleweeds.

Time to populate this place.

What triggered such an idea?

The other day, while falling down a college basketball rabbit hole, I stumbled across the website CAAHoops.com. Or, what’s become of it. The last post came at the end of last season, prior to UNC Wilmington’s game against Duke in the NCAA tournament. Perhaps the kids who were running it graduated and moved on to other (paying) adventures. Perhaps there was no one left to assume command of such a thankless position. Regardless, it was a bummer. Before he and VCU departed the conference, Michael Litos invested time, sweat and Stellas into building the site and attracted a strong following across the blogosphere. We became friends through our mutual interest in scribbling somewhat coherent thoughts and following mid-major basketball. As the kids say, what a time (it was) to be alive: Final Four x 2, epic coaching searches, conference shuffling – we rarely wanted for entertainment or amusement. Boy gossip, my wife calls it.

Glimpsing his abandoned old site, frozen in late spring, delivered the requisite kick in the pants to a) resurrect this one and b) use it as a place to write about CAA Hoops. My paying gigs are sweet, but I have opinions to spout that will not fit in a 140-character box. Sometimes I become aware of news and have no place to break it. Other times, I just want to have fun and chop out sentences covering the conference I know best. By the middle of the week, I will have seen 4/10 of the league play live. Other assignments should send me to exotic locales like Elon soon and back to Charleston later. To my northern friends, we’ll see your teams (and hopefully you) when your teams come south. Also, I enjoy annoying certain people in the conference office.

The goal is to post at least once a week. Maybe we’ll have a Colonial X revival once the conference season begins. Raise the tent, pass the biscuits, hallelujah! As a warning, it won’t be all basketball all the time. Was it ever? But there are handy tabs along the side so you can avoid midnight ramblings about six-minute dobro solos or an odd essay detailing how Jerry’s voice changed drastically from tour-to-tour in the early-to-mid 80s. That’s Garcia, not Beach.

As for the barbecue, there’s enough for everyone. Always.

 

Encounters with the King

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Arnold Palmer was everywhere around our golf shop in the late 1970s and early 80s. You could find his name and umbrella logo stamped on clubs, shirts, hats. When the tournament came on TV in the afternoon, there he was again, smiling as he rode up on a tractor or pitched a certain brand of rental car. As he walked the fairways, his days on the leaderboard had come and gone, but the fans still cheered.

Throughout our great state of North Carolina, his legend was greater still. People talked about walking beside him in Greensboro, having a beer with him in Pinehurst, watching him escape the trees one more time in Augusta. Golfers arrived from Charlotte driving a Cadillac they bought at Arnie’s dealership, which was number one in the nation in sales, of course. In business, his touch never wavered.

Wake Forest, a small Baptist college, has always been on the bottom rung in the “Big Four,” but Arnie alone turned it into a national golf power, paving the way for Wadkins, Strange, Haas, Simpson and the rest. Everyone, it seemed, had a story about the time they shook hands with Arnold Palmer.

Mine comes in the Southern California desert, 1998.  I was caddying for the veteran professional Larry Rinker in the Bob Hope Classic. We needed a spot to hit balls on the practice tee at PGA West’s Palmer Course, which was one of four courses in the tournament rotation. There was space open next to a white-haired man who had at least 10 drivers lined up, leaning against his golf bag. He’d pick one up, give it a waggle, make his familiar slashing swing, watch the ball, give the club another look, maybe hit another shot or two with it, then move on to the next one.

He was pushing 70 years old, virile not frail. Looked strong enough to wrestle a mountain lion to the ground if one was stupid enough to come down into the Coachella Valley and take him on.

I shook his hand. It was big and strong. Arnie started banging drivers again. Jay Haas sidled up to watch and started telling this story. Sometime in the mid-70s, when Haas was fresh out of college at Wake Forest, he and Palmer played in the same corporate outing or exhibition. The host hotel messed up Haas’ reservation and he didn’t have a room. When Arnie heard about his fellow Demon Deacon’s fate, he told Haas he could sleep in the extra bed in his room for the night.

So, Haas told the story from the perspective of a 23-year-old rookie pro rooming with a legend he adored. Palmer laughed at the memory of two grown men sharing a room on the road.

“Hey Arnold, do you still carry that wrench with you, so you can adjust the shower head?,” Haas asked.

“Damn right boy,” Palmer replied. “I’ve got to have some water when I shower.”

Other business travelers might face a weak, drizzly shower on occasion, but not Palmer, the pilot, the professional, the philanthropist, the friend to us all. He was prepared.

Sometime later we played with Peter Jacobsen, one of many pro golfers Palmer mentored. Jake recalled a function early in his career where he and Arnie had to sign hundreds of autographs to benefit a charity.

Arnie caught Jacobsen scribbling his way through a batch, stopped him and told him very clearly: “Take your time and sign your name where people can read it.”

Jake discussed the dozens of other pointers Arnie had shared – from thanking tournament hosts to leaving the courtesy car clean. There was one way to operate as it pertained to carrying yourself and treating people. Being a professional went well beyond busting 300-yard drives and collecting trophies.

About a decade ago, I was a staff writer at the Wilmington (NC) StarNews. The Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame sent an email announcing Palmer’s induction. The tone was embarrassment. How could such a hall exist and The King not be included? Regardless, Arnie was going to be in Pinehurst and there was media access. Because he had been a regular participant in Wilmington’s PGA Tour stop, the Azalea Open, winning in 1957, there was a local angle to pursue.

We gathered in a conference room in the Carolina Hotel, probably two dozen media types. Arnie, pushing 80, arrived on time, answered our questions and gave us more than we could’ve asked for, like always. After asking him a question about Wake Forest during the Q-and-A, I waited to discuss his longtime friendship with a Wilmington area family. He answered politely, although in hindsight my shaggy hair and scruffy beard might have cut our time short. A Coast Guard man from a Steel City believes in shorn and shaved.

Two years ago, I was in the Bay Area of northern California caddying for Albin Choi in a Web.com Tour event. We were paired with Arnie’s grandson Sam Saunders during the first two rounds. Our gallery consisted of a walking scorer, a standard bearer and a hippy who didn’t seem too concerned with the golf. The scene couldn’t have been further from what his grandfather experienced each time he played.

There wasn’t much small talk that day. But on one hole, there was a break as the third member of the group waited for a rules official to arrive. I asked Saunders how his grandfather was doing and told him I appreciated any chance I’d had to be around him.

Saunders said thanks and smiled. I knew he’d heard those words a million times before.

He was the coolest golfer ever. Nobody could possibly do more for golf than Palmer did during the last 70 years. He left us hundreds of courses to play, tournament highlights to watch, books and articles to read.

Legend?

If ever there was one.

 

So long, Guy

There’s not much I can say about Guy Clark that somebody hasn’t said already. I didn’t grow up listening to his songs necessarily, but once I started hearing them it was easy to want more.

The legendary Texas songwriter died yesterday at 74.

This profile will tell you what you need to know about Clark. It came across my Twitter feed one morning in early January 2014. I was preparing to board a plane for Hawaii and storing up reading material for the journey. Read that one twice. A perfectly constructed story about a fascinating subject. Any instructor who tries to teach folks how to write profiles would be wise to use this one as example number one.

Afterward, I downloaded two or three recent Clark albums and passed those hours over the Pacific enjoying his weathered voice, noticing how he always picked the precise word to help tell those stories, how he made you feel as if you were right there among those characters. The credit card bill got paid, eventually.

Whether it’s Emmylou Harris or Steve Earle or dozens of musicians in between, I’ve heard them all praise Clark as generous with his time. He showed artists how to turn a phrase and make their songs better. He was interested in the songs they were writing at that moment. It was always about the craft – and rarely easy. Helping others. If that’s a piece of your legacy, you’ve done alright.

Here’s another good read from someone who knew him well.

Still, here’s my favorite Guy Clark song. Heard it 15 years ago or so, introduced to Guy’s songs through his old late-night buddy, Townes Van Zandt. Captures the desire of a man eager to get the hell out of town and make a new start. If you’ve ever been in that spot, you know what he means. Besides, it’s not a simple trick, singing about vanilla wafers and hanging on to your dignity. He pulled that off, too.

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Friday

Can’t get enough of this band right now … I know there is bluegrass in their name (my soon-to-be-four-year-old grasped the play on words by herself immediately because she’s already smarter than me, which I understand is a low fence to climb but still considering my advanced age it won’t be long before she’s able to use her intelligence against me if she so chooses. So keep us in your thoughts. And I know every parent thinks their kid is smart and maybe everybody is right).

And yes, these fellas play the requisite bluegrass instruments – banjo, mandolin, big stand up bass, dobro-ish thingy – but the music crosses many genres, especially their selection of cover songs (When Doves Cry, Money for Nothing, Time, Could You be Loved, Wind Cries Mary, China Cat Sunflower, Atlantic City, etc). Paul Hoffman (the mandolin player) is a helluva songwriter with a fine voice and outstanding beard.

Also, the band hails from Michigan which is a beautiful place to hang out in the summer and ride a jet ski across their Great Lake with a tall, cold beverage in hand and a soft, warm body on your back.

The spirit is real.

 

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Smoked pork shoulder is good. A man can write all the fancy pants sentences he wants. He can opine about basketball games and golf tournaments until he’s hoarse. He can walk a golf course in the hot sun with a bag of instruments on his back til his feet ache. He might make a putt on occasion. But those activities are silly distractions compared to a honest day’s work stoking fire and cooking meat to feed his family, small people some of them may be.

What a time to be alive, watch this cat pitch and Vin call it, sleep be damned.

Will write more soon.

Coming ’round Amen Corner

The great Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post used the Tweets from her legendary father to write this excellent column about Jordan Spieth, 22, whose Green Jacket dreams drowned Sunday afternoon amid the confounding winds of No. 12 at Augusta National. Despite fighting his swing and swinging a new driver, Spieth played 71 damn fine holes. Though most of us will remember only one.

He’s not the first golfer to abandon his game plan when the sledding became rough. Not the first champion to falter either, as Jenkins ably points out. There are others, of course, Norman, Hogan, Watson. Examine an elite pro from any era and you’ll find major championship wreckage nearby.

It’s easy to critique from the couch. Over the years, I caddied roughly 500 rounds on the PGA Tour, including a half-dozen majors. From the comforts of a hotel room at night, with hindsight as a guide, it was clear to see how decisions went awry. Still, on No. 12 Spieth left himself a challenging third shot after dunking his first. A 68-yard pitch off a tight lie to a pin tucked behind water is frightening in any situation. As a caddie, it’s a shot you try to avoid, when say, helping your player lay up on his second shot on a par 5. Even a pro with the sharpest short game can struggle to make clean contact. Spieth admitted it was hardly an ideal yardage. He chunked it, and as many have said in the last day or two, everyone who plays golf can relate. In that situation, re-teeing might have been a better option.

Spieth will replay the shot a hundred more times and make his own analysis. He’s played in three Masters and Bubba Watson and Danny Willett are the only golfers to beat him. It’s a remarkable record by any measure and the painful exit from Magnolia Lane is a road he’s been down before.

He’ll learn from it – and improve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Innocent Bystander

Cars stopped. People looked away. Cars crashed.

Hundreds stacked up on some interstate highway, if you believe what you see on the interwebs.

Been down those roads, late and recently, through the sweet heart of North Carolina. It’s tough out there sometimes, wondering what the cat beside you might have rattling around in his head. Boss trouble. Wife trouble. Money trouble. Maybe somebody forgot to mow the lawn. One eye on an iPhone and another in the ether, far beyond any simple help Siri might give. Over here cruising 75 miles-an-hour, real smooth, holding hard and fast to a fat jug of gas station coffee. Out there gambling on the highway, trying to use some sense.

So, this is how it begins.