southernbeau

Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

Confessions of a Panthers Fan: Coping With Success One Day at a Time

There is this something, perhaps its intuitive, about being a fan of a small-market team that produces the unshakable feeling that the odds are stacked against you. Somehow, someway, the playing field is not level, our chances are uneven.  Obviously, we tell ourselves, the mega-markets of New York, Chicago, LA, Miami, and a handful of others, possess an infinitely greater probability of success year after year simply by virtue of their size, resources and mystique.  The media, we surmise, only want to see the teams from these sparkling cities in the Super Bowl, the World Series and the NBA Finals.  Podunk, backwoods, neanderthal Charlotte, North Carolina?  Never!

Particularly as it relates to the NFL, with its hard salary cap, this inherent feeling of institutional injustice is not only unfounded, it is irrational. Nonetheless, I, as an otherwise rational human being (if I must say so myself), am powerless to its firm grip on my soul – indeed, it is wedged deep within my sports psyche.  What’s worse, this way of thinking flies in the face of an abundance of evidence to the contrary, which I conveniently neglect to consider.  Things like facts and evidence are not allowed within shouting distance of the protective sports bubble I’ve so masterfully crafted.  In this way, I am very much like the Republican primary.

If I did consider empirical data, which I don’t, I would not have to look terribly far to find copious examples of small market teams reaching the pinnacle of their respective sports. The reigning “world” champions of Major League Baseball hail from none other than tintsy-wintsy Kansas City, Missouri.  Kansas City is so small that people often mistake it for being in the “great” state of Kansas, which must be quite a blow to one’s ego.  You literally have to show people on a map that Kansas City is in the Show Me State.  Kansas City should be called the Believe Me City.

With a population of roughly 470,000 people, it ranks as the 37th largest city by population in the United States.  Charlotte, by contrast, is the 17th largest city with a population of roughly 810,000 hard-working, good-looking and sweet-talking folks.  Charlotte throttles Kansas City in the population rankings, but lags far behind in World Series rings.  Of course, Charlotte does not have a baseball team, which is not helpful in this fight.  The point, though, is that Kansas City, with all her faults (and she has many), provides a prime example of a really small-market team sitting at the apex of a major sport.

Easily my favorite team not based in the Carolinas is the San Antonio Spurs. With their 5 NBA titles, all since 1999, the Spurs have achieved a level of excellence and consistency that is virtually unparalleled in recent NBA history.  Like Tim Duncan from the elbow, bank it: death, taxes, and the Popovich-led Spurs being in the playoffs.  While San Antonio is larger than Charlotte, it is not exactly a sexy landing spot for free agents.  In fact, it most likely ranks 3rd in its own state, behind Dallas and Houston.  Apparently, the Riverwalk and top notch Tex-Mex are not enough to attract the modern, sophisticated NBA player.  And, most damningly, of course, San Antonio is located in Texas, a hard sell by any standard.  Moreover, San Antonio only has one professional sports team to its credit.  Despite these many obstacles, the Spurs are one of the most successful franchises in American sports history.

And then there are the Green Bay Packers.  That storied NFL franchise that has 4 Lombardi trophies (the damn thing is named after a Packers coach), including the first two, and 9 other league championships in the pre-Super Bowl era.  This is the same Green Bay, Wisconsin that is not only small (just north of 100K cheeseheads), but is cold…really cold.  Lambeau Field did not earn the “frozen tundra” moniker for nothing.  Far worse than these two obvious blights on its record, Green Bay is mind-numbingly dull and boring.  It is about as lively as a Ben Carson rally.  Yet, despite these now three major strikes, Green Bay has far from struck out.  After all, the Packers have been a fixture in recent playoffs history, remarkably having made them the last seven consecutive seasons.

Up until now, my “red-headed stepchild” outlook on the sports world – and with respect to my own teams in particular – has been especially useful. Growing up in Charlotte and being an avid – ok, borderline insane – fan of our teams, I was able to rationalize, and to effectively explain away, the consistent losing as being a function of our small-market status.  The little brother syndrome with which I was imbued provided a convenient mechanism to cope with unending defeat.  Interestingly, it was almost as if the losing became a badge of honor – somehow making me a better, tougher, more resilient person as a result of my being able to roll with the proverbial punches.  I have spoken with friends from Philadelphia who confirm that this is a real thing.

Let me be clear, however: there have been intermittent periods of success by my teams that I not only appreciated but also celebrated (with the best of ‘em). After all, Super Bowl 50 will not be the first rodeo (thanks, Peyton) in which the Carolina Panthers have danced.  No, the Panthers lost the 2004 Super Bowl to New England in dramatic (read: agonizing) fashion after John Kasay shanked a kick-off out of bounds handing the ball to Tom Brady at the 40 yard line, which led to the inevitable game-winning field goal.  But, the truth is, I did not genuinely believe that we had a shot against that juggernaut of a Patriots squad.  The Jake Delhomme-led 2003 Panthers were good, not great, catching fire at the right time to finish 11-5, and then embarking on an incredible run to the Super Bowl.  It was more lightning in a bottle than anything else.

The Charlotte Hornets have, for the most part, been a study in mediocrity. Typically, they just miss the playoffs or just sneak in – either way, providing a quick and clean resolution to their season.  They currently sit in 9th position in the Eastern Conference playoff race, the first team on the outside looking in.  A fairly apt metaphor for their schizophrenic existence in Charlotte (and New Orleans, but that’s a different story for a different day).  As previously mentioned, Charlotte is not yet in the big leagues with the respect to baseball.

So, on the eve of Super Bowl 50, what do I make of the essentially flawless 2015 version of these Carolina Panthers? Being a fan of the Carolina Panthers this year has been the easiest job in the world.  Now I know what it feels like to be Steve Kerr.  The anxiety and “bundle of nerves” approach to game day has been replaced by supreme confidence and, according to my friends, a somewhat obnoxious swagger.  The Panthers are 17-1 and many of the wins were recorded in blowout fashion.  When there has been a close game, the “here we go again” sigh of resignation has been discarded in favor of actual positive thinking; in fact, I am all but certain that these Panthers will make the key play at the right time to secure the win.  All but once, they have.

Setting aside the perfectly imperfect 17-1 record, this year has made being a Panthers fan way cool. Famous, but previously on the down low, Panthers fans such as Steph Curry and John Isner are flying their Panthers flags high and proud – from Twitter to the Australian Open to the shoes of Tripoli.  And new Panthers fans have flocked in droves to a bandwagon that has already exceeded capacity and is now bursting at the seams.  Turn on the TV and one cannot escape the dazzling smile of Cam Newton, who by now must have overtaken Peyton Manning as the king of commercials.  A victory no one could candidly say they saw coming.  We are the cool kids on the playground; we are Marco Rubio following the Iowa Caucuses.  And we are favored to win Super Bowl 50!

I always thought that if one of my teams reached the Promised Land, life would be instantly more gratifying and infinitely easier. I would know exactly how to act; I would have all the answers.  Boy, was I wrong?  To the contrary, I do not know what to do with myself, and have absolutely no answers…none.  I am quickly coming to the realization that I am not comfortable playing the role of Goliath.  I keep looking around for my slingshot.  Absent a slingshot, I need a comfortable couch and a good shrink to help me cope with the sudden and overwhelming success.

Of course, my favored Panthers could be upset by Methuselah Manning and the daunting Denver defense on Sunday night. Ironically, if that were to happen, all might be right in my world again.  But, if we do win, as goes the predictions, I will be left to pick up the pieces, learn to cope with the unexpected success, and take it all one day at a time.

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February 6, 2016 Posted by | Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, Charlotte, Charlotte Hornets, NBA, NFL, Super Bowl 50, Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Those Things for Which I Am Thankful: The Sports Edition

For me, like most others, Thanksgiving is a time of reflection on the many things for which I am grateful.  Typically, my list does not include any sports-related items.  I guess it struck me as trivial, even superficial, to include them.  This Thanksgiving, however, I was struck, like a ton of bricks, by a competing revelation.  In addition to time spent with family and friends, the gluttonous indulgence of grandma’s classics and, of course, Black Friday, I realized just how far sports have come in forming an important pillar in the foundation of the modern Thanksgiving holiday.

NFL games have long been a staple of the Thanksgiving Day diet, providing a much needed reprieve from the uncomfortable political ramblings emanating from your slightly over-served uncle.  Now, joining the NFL, college football’s “rivalry week” provides some of the best games of the year boasting huge playoff/bowl implications.  Not to be outdone, college basketball kicks off its season in grand fashion with holiday tournaments stretching from Maui to New York City.   The NBA and NHL march on.

Even during holidays, for better or worse, right or wrong, sports play an outsized role in our society.  Sports provide levity to an otherwise heavy world; they are an escape from the chaos with which we are surrounded.  This reality is not trivial.  Indeed, it is profound.  Mired in an election cycle that has seen political correctness thrown out the window, I, too, will throw caution to the wind.  With this as the backdrop, and the afterglow of Thanksgiving still intact, I began to think of those things in sports for which I am thankful.  What follows is but a few.

Underdogs.  Like all unexpected gifts in life, they are the best ones.  Upsets are the lynchpin of sports.  The bigger the better.  Without them, why play the games?

Golf.  After playing on my high school golf team and throughout college, I see the links far too infrequently these days.  But when I do, I am still mesmerized by the oneness with nature.  If you listen closely, the gentle gurgling of a brook, a blue jay’s vibrant song or the whistling wind through the tall Carolina pines all have a story to tell.  Serenity at its finest.  This feeling is only surpassed by that felt as a 15 foot putt loses steam just in time to fall unhurriedly over the lip of the cup.  No better feeling in sports.

The Masters.  That annual reminder that spring has sprung, evidenced by the sprawling dogwoods and the brilliance of the bright pink and purple azaleas.  The physical beauty is only matched by the greatness of those men, past and present, who stroll the fairways.  It is that magnificent tournament where the past whispers in your ear while, at the same time, new history is being made around every corner.  Amen, that is.

Basketball.  There is nothing quite like the jarring sound of a basketball echoing loudly in an otherwise empty gym each time it smashes against the unforgiving hardwood.  It is that sound, and the memory it produces, that is most reachable from my childhood, leaving an indelible imprint on my very soul, and is, for me, as reassuring as mom’s Sunday dinner.  Growing up in North Carolina, ACC Country, the crescendo of fall meant the genesis of yet another season of college basketball.  This time of year, the anticipation and hope is palpable along Tobacco Road, begging the all-encompassing question: what will the cold winter nights ahead have in store for our beloved schools along this route?  Like a cherished blanket, we can always count on ACC hoops to warm the way.

Dean Smith.  This year, especially, I am grateful for Dean Smith, and for having had the chance to see so many of his teams up close.  Watching Coach Smith lead his team in a game was like watching a great conductor direct his orchestra.  Precision.  Composure.  Incredible power, yet supreme control.  Coach Smith’s teams seemed to be just that – a team – moving together as if on a string, of which Smith was the master puppeteer.  But above all this, there was a grace, humility and poignancy to his leadership that seemed to command the utmost respect from his players.  Gentleman, through and through.  Rest in peace, coach.

Charlotte Hornets.  I grew up going to Hornets games when the main attractions ranged from Muggsy, Grandmama (Larry Johnson) and Zo to Baron, Glen Rice and Vlade.  Hopping in the truck and heading to The Hive, stopping at Wendy’s for burgers along the way, were always special nights for dad and me.  Little known secret: when I was young, I used to lock myself in my room and pretend to coach during Hornets games.  I guess I was at different times Gene Littles, Allen Bristow or Dave Cowens.  Glad I grew out of that phase.  After a brief, and awkward, stint as the Bobcats, Charlotte is the Hornets again, as it should be.  Thank you, New Orleans.  This version provides excitement of its own – Kemba’s slick handles, Big Al’s throwback post moves, Nic Batum’s versatility (I call him the rich man’s Boris Diaw), Jeremy Lin’s hair, to name a few.  Head coach Steve Clifford is a true gem, if a largely unknown one.  I am thankful that Michael Jordan dusted off his wallet to keep Cliff off the free agent market this summer.  Good move.

Steph Curry.  I remember Steph as a wee little lad running around the sidelines at Hornets games when his dad, Dell, was our lethal sharpshooter.  Of course, Steph has taken that term to a different level – ok, a new stratosphere.  Watching Steph grow up in Charlotte and star at Davidson, I never dreamt he would climb to the astronomical heights to which he has already ascended.  For us East Coasters, he makes staying up late to catch Warriors games worth the lost shut eye.  He is on lease to Golden State for now, but he will always be ours.

Serena.  Like Bono, Shaq and Oprah, one name suffices.  Even though she was unable to turn the Serena Slam into a Grand One, she remains the most intriguing tennis player of our time, man or woman.  Sorry, Novak.

Tennis.  The one sport I have left.  If we’re talking doubles, I play it as well as I ever have.  On the tennis court, I am Benjamin Button – getting younger with age.  I intend to enjoy it until someone rudely wakes me from this improbable dream.

College Football.  The pageantry, pomp and circumstance which capture our collective imaginations on crisp Saturday afternoons.  The dueling bands, flying cheerleaders, and a stadium filled with people who have come to see something wonderful – standing, waiting, yearning for kickoff.  Tailgating with friends, a football and your favorite brew must be proof that God exists.

NFL.  The NFL is as good as its ratings suggest; Sunday afternoons without it seem somehow lacking.

Carolina Panthers.  I have been thankful every year, since 1996, good times and bad, that the Carolinas have a team for whom to root.  I imagine I can count on one hand the games I have missed in these 20 years.  This year, of course, is different – not only due to their being a perfect 12-0, but because they play the right way.  Not surprisingly, they are led by good men, a group highlighted by Ron Rivera, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Greg Olsen.  Hard to go wrong.

Cam Newton.  No, I am not forgetting our dancing leader.  His good work this year merits its own bullet point.  He is that colorful personality that you love if he is on your team, but despise if he is not.  I am thankful he is on my team.  Putting aside his obvious talent, I most admire the child-like enthusiasm with which he plays, his ritual of giving touchdown balls to Carolina-clad kids, and the ease with which he plays the game.  As he would say, simple and plain.

Little League.  I am not a huge baseball fan, but Little League represents the game at its purest.  What’s best, each one of the bright-eyed kids with a mouth full of braces fervently believes that he (or she) will be the next Bryce Harper.  The fun part is they might be right.

4Pack.  Over a decade removed from college, three of my closest college buddies and myself have a group text (or channel, as we call it) which we label the “4Pack.”  When one of us sends a text on that thread, those words are prominently displayed on our iPhone screens.  I would surmise that 95% of the chatter on this channel is sports-related, and approximately 50% is related particularly to the North Carolina State Wolfpack, our alma mater.  To me, this represents the power of sports.  At its best, it can be the glue that holds together four friends – who live in four different states and lead completely different lives – over ten years after graduation.  In the grand scheme of things, it does not matter whether we win a particular game.  What matters is the camaraderie, that we experienced it together.  For this, I am truly thankful.

With Thanksgiving safely in the rear view mirror, and now standing at the advent of yet another holiday season, enjoy this wonderful time of year, and give thanks for the blessing of sports which make it even better.  Peace.

December 8, 2015 Posted by | Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, Dean Smith, Golf, NBA, NFL, Serena, Sports, The Masters, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment