Tuesday, March 7, 2017

He Made ACC Basketball A Weekly Appointment

Note: This story was originally published on March 8, 2003, in the Greensboro News and Record as a kickoff to the 50th Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball championship. If you grew up in the 1970s, you knew the name C.D. Chesley and you could hum the Jefferson Pilot's "Sail with the Pilot" jingle. You probably also had Holly Farms chicken for dinner. You can thank Chesley's pioneering vision for producing live syndicated programming for the Mid-Atlantic region's love of basketball. And schools can thank him for the millions of dollars they receive each year in television rights.

When Chesley stopped producing games in 1979, the ACC received about $1 million for television rights to broadcast basketball games. When this story was written, it received about $28 million for basketball only.

Last summer, the ACC signed a 20-year deal with ESPN that includes the launch of the ACC Network in 2019. There's no real way to predict what the monetary worth of that contract is, but last year each of the ACC's 15 schools received approximately $20 million in television rights fees.


 
BY TIM PEELER
Landmark Communications, © 2003

In a peaceful spot near the foot of Grandfather Mountain sits a small cemetery where a former college football player rests, with hardly a clue that his life's work did as much as anyone to feed the passion of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball.

Castleman DeTolley ``C.D.' Chesley never played the game. His only association with an ACC school was the one year he spent playing freshman football at North Carolina, before he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he became the football team's captain and a showman in the school's traveling comedy troupe.

But no one exposed ACC basketball to more people than Chesley, thanks to his pioneering efforts as an executive producer in mostly regional broadcasts to an insatiable audience.

Castleman D. Chesley
(Photo by Hugh Morton)
Until his contract with the league ended, somewhat bitterly, in 1981, Chesley spent 24 years helping viewers ``Sail with the Pilot' as the league and Jefferson Pilot insurance established a foothold with millions of devoted followers.

Perhaps more importantly, Chesley's broadcasts reached scores of the nation's best basketball recruits, who were excited about the notion of playing their games on television, long before the 24-hour cable networks made college basketball as ubiquitous as Carolina pines.

"There is no doubt that the reason the ACC kept getting the best talent, year after year, was because of all those games on television,' said former ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan. ``If you think kids like being on television now, you can imagine what it was like back then, when there was only one or two games on a week?"

Chesley began his television career producing regional football games, and he kept his hand in that for years with Sunday morning replays of Notre Dame games with Lindsay Nelson and Paul Hornung as the announcers. But in 1956, when the NCAA took over the broadcasting rights for all games, Cheley had to find something other than live football broadcasts to put on the air.

He happened to have many contacts in the South, thanks to his previous job as an assistant athletics director at Penn, influential administrators such as Duke's Eddie Cameron and North Carolina's Chuck Erickson.

In 1957, Chesley was enthralled by Frank McGuire's unbeaten UNC basketball team, and when the Tar Heels made it to the Final Four in Kansas City, Missouri, he hastily put together a five-station network in North Carolina to air the games. That was a huge stroke of fortune for Chesley and the ACC: Both Tar Heels games went into triple overtime and a captivated audience discovered that the excitement that they rarely saw in person translated perfectly onto their 8-inch Magnavox screens.

Some say the religion of ACC basketball was born on the night North Carolina beat Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain for the league's first NCAA Championship in basketball.

In 1958, Chesley began producing a weekly Saturday telecast of games between ACC teams, and the entire region had a new weekly appointment on their mental PDAs.

Initially, coaches were against televising games, figuring it would cut into attendance. What they didn't count on was the fact that watching the games at home made many more fans yearn to attend.

Chesley also produced other televised events, besides Notre Dame replays and ACC basketball. He helped organize the first Liberty Bowl, when it was played in Philadelphia. Local fans might remember that he broadcast regional coverage of the Greater Greensboro Open and the Miss North Carolina Pageant, when it was held in Greensboro.

But it was Chesley's broadcast of ACC basketball games that had a lasting impact. He started small, but in 1973 he went national with a patchwork network that broadcast the N.C. State-Maryland game on Super Bowl Sunday, the game that made David Thompson a national star.

"His place in the history of ACC basketball is phenomenal," said UNC broadcaster Woody Durham, who worked for Chesley as a student in the early 1960s, when games were produced out of an old, converted Trailways bus. "Getting the sport out there in front of the public... We all knew how exciting ACC basketball was, but here was a guy who came along and let the public see it."

Unwittingly, Chesley also helped lure some of the nation's best talent to the ACC stage.

"His idea of taking the league and exposing it, in the quality way that he did, it really put the ACC in a special category," said broadcaster Billy Packer, who got his first job in television from Chesley by accident because Dan Daniels didn't show up for a game. "He had a great deal to do with that, because of his exposure, the ability of the league to recruit beyond its natural territories, way beyond any other conference."

Chesley's broadcasts weren't flashy, but they were well-done. He had a corps of knowledgeable analysts, from Daniels to Charlie Harville to Jim Simpson to the incomparable pairing of Packer and Jim Thacker.

By the 1970s, Chesley was doing two league games per week and ACC officials were ready to expand that schedule. Chesley didn't really want to, figuring more games would dilute his product.

By the early '80s, several other production companies were clamoring to buy the rights to televise ACC basketball, and willing to pay more than the $1 million a year the league got from Chesley.

Chesley's final year of producing games was 1981, when Lenny Klompus' MetroSports of Rockville, Md., spent $3 million for the television rights for one season. The next season, RayCom Sports of Charlotte paid $15 million for the rights for three years and began syndicating multiple games per week, a forerunner to the deals the league has since had with the major networks, ESPN and Fox Sports Net.

Chesley died in April 1983, from the effects of Alzheimer's disease, just weeks after N.C. State won the ACC's second consecutive national championship. He would likely find it hard to imagine that the league is now paid more than $28 million per year in TV rights fees and he would likely be distressed that nearly every game played by the league's nine schools is on television somewhere.

But such is his creation.

"He put ACC basketball on the map, about 10 years ahead of everyone else," said Hugh Morton, Chesley's longtime friend. "And they are still trying to catch up."

Saturday, February 25, 2017

When NC State Canceled its Senior Day Game

College students were throwing rocks at an elected official, shouting him down when he tried to talk, cursing as a heavily armed police escort whisked him away into the cold, dark night.

In their eyes, the arrogant official had overstepped his bounds and unjustly broke up their mostly peaceful assembly.

Another modern protest of campus snowflakes? Nope. It was the birth of ACC basketball passion.

The ironic thing, of course, was this was a Southern Conference game, scheduled between two old rivals, NC State and North Carolina, in a regular-season finale 70 years ago today.

The two teams were uncommonly good. The season before North Carolina played for the NCAA championship. NC State had already assured itself of its first ever Southern Conference regular-season title, but the Red Terrors were eager to bury the White Phantoms (the nicknames of choice for the two schools at the time) in preparation for the following week's Southern Conference tournament in Durham.

So early that evening, 4,000 students, most of them World War II veterans attending school on the GI Bill, began to assemble at Thompson Gym, just as they had a few weeks earlier when Duke came to town. For the earlier game, nearly 5,000 spectators crammed into the 3,200-seat gym, filing in through the doors, climbing a ladder and entering through second-floor windows and sneaking in through the downstairs basement where the university pool was located.

If anything, there were fewer students at this game than that.

“At 7:30 p.m. every inch of space was occupied with students and ‘visitors’ standing in the aisles, hanging from the rafters, railings and anything else that might lend a reasonable amount of support for the next two hours,” reported NC State’s student newspaper.

The difference, however, was the arrival of Raleigh city fire chief W.R. Butts, who was determined to take hold of the overcrowding at State College’s final home basketball game of the season. He arrived with 10 firemen and 10 policemen.

At game time, public address announcer C.A. Dillon, a senior in mechanical engineering, attempted to announce the winner of the team player of the year award and honor the team’s only senior, Leo Katkaveck. The crowd was too rowdy for him to talk and he eventually gave up on the trophy presentation.

Butts stepped onto the gym floor and announced that if the aisles and entryways were not cleared within 15 minutes, the game would be forfeited to Carolina, citing a state law of the time that stated all spectators at a public event must occupy a regulation seat. Students and fans squeezed together, sitting two to a seat, until all the aisles were cleared and there was no one—except for the 10 firemen—on the baselines of the basketball court.

However, if those firemen had been posted by the front doors, they may have prevented students from removing the pins and taking those doors off the hinges, allowing hundreds of other spectators to stream in, unhindered.

He made another announcement, and dimmed the four lights that shone on the court to get the crowd’s attention. Eventually, he ordered the entire gymnasium cleared and the game canceled.

Butts actually had reason to be concerned. The night before in West Lafayette, Indiana, in an overcrowded game between Purdue and Wisconsin ended in tragedy when wooden bleachers collapsed during halftime, killing three students and sending hundreds more to local hospitals. It was only three months after the Winecoff Hotel disaster, the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history, in which 119 people died when the “fireproof” 15-story building burned in downtown Atlanta. It was less than a year after hotel fires in Chicago and Iowa killed a combined 80 guests.

The problem was that the fire chief took his stand at the final game, not earlier games that drew bigger crowds of the predominantly married student population. Earlier games against New York University and Duke were packed with fans, who were all used to watching games in cramped quarters.

There were three reasons so many fans showed up for the game. First, no students attended the Red Terrors’ previous home game against Davidson because they gave up their seats to the local Raleigh community, with all receipts (a total of more than $3,150) given to the effort to complete NC State’s Memorial Tower in honor of the students and alumni who died in World War I.

Secondly, a large contingent of North Carolina fans came over to see its team avenge and earlier loss in Woollen Gym, in which the Terrors took a 48-46 overtime victory on a one-handed jumper by Jack McComas to end an eight-game losing streak against their biggest rival.

Finally, there was a large number of fans from the Raleigh community, generally unable to get tickets for State games because of the newly enlarged student population, which swelled from about 900 in 1945 to more than 5,000 just two years later, showed up outside the doors to see the game.

After the post-nongame riots subsided, blame was rampant in all sectors, with the student newspaper sports editor from NC State saying it was the “Carpetbaggers from Chapel Hill” putting partial blame on the event, while the Daily Tar Heel sports editor—my friend and former Greensboro News & Record colleague Irwin Smallwood—wrote “Carolina was not at fault in the remotest.” He blamed the State athletics department for giving out more tickets than the gym’s capacity, something that was not then or now proven.

Still, the game was canceled and not rescheduled since the start of the Southern Conference Tournament was less than a week away. The tournament had already been switched from Raleigh’s downtown auditorium, its home since 1933, to the larger Duke Indoor Stadium, to accommodate ticket requests. There was no time to reschedule the game.

However, the two teams did meet again. In Durham. In the conference championship game. First-year NC State coach Everett Case’s team held on for another close victory over the first-year coach Tom Scott’s White Phantoms. Afterwards, the Wolfpack became the first college team to cut down the nets after winning a championship, a tradition Case brought with him from the Indiana high school tournament, which he won a record four times.

So here’s my long-held belief: The cagey Case planned the whole thing. Thompson Gym was ill-suited for big-time college basketball and Case was hired with the promise that a new on-campus coliseum was “nearly complete.” In fact, when he arrived in the summer of 1946, all that was standing on State's campus was a rusted skeleton of steel girders, erected before the start of World War II, on a bare concrete pad.

He wanted it finished.

And in the aftermath of the canceled Senior Day, these were the words written by the editorial board of Technician.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back” was the large number of Carolina fans, Raleigh school students, State College alumni and Raleigh businessmen who crashed the gate by hook or by crook (some even used a ladder to get into an upper window). Had it not been for them, the gym may have held the number of the number of State students who wanted to see the game. As it was, the ticket books of those who were not attending the game were given to outsiders. The mob spirit prevailed all around the gym and it was impossible for the gatekeepers or the cops to keep control of the crowd without a fight which would have caused someone to get hurt.

“One definite conclusion of the abominable incident is that that coliseum must be completed at once. It is hoped that the many legislators who tried in vain to see the ball game last Tuesday night will return to the Capitol building with determination to approve the requested appropriations at an early date. Since there is no doubt that the money asked for will be approved, we feel that work should be started immediately on the coliseum so that there can be no duplication of the impossible situation of Tuesday night.”

A little more than 18 months later, after the fire chief condemned Thompson Gym and Case and his team had to play an entire season in Raleigh’s auditorium, the newly renamed Wolfpack played its first game in Reynolds Coliseum.

Read Technician’s coverage of the canceled game.

Reach Tim Peeler at timothy.peeler@gmail.com.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Greatest Collection of Basketball Pioneers Ever Assembled?

 In honor of today’s 125th anniversary of the birth of basketball, I dug out some stuff that has been loitering in the notebook for a while about what may be one of the greatest gatherings of basketball pioneers in the history of the game. It was a two-day basketball orgy played in a cow barn at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in March 1925.

The 14th-annual Indiana High School Basketball Tournament began only two days after the greatest tornado tragedy in U.S. history, though that really does not figure into the story, other than to set a contrasting scene for the weekend of basketball that followed. An air of sadness and revival hovered over the festivities as three states tried to figure out what caused a weather event that killed more than 800 people. While schoolboys played games, a total of 83 children died in nine leveled school houses across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.


From the March 22, 1925, edition of the Indianapolis News.
BY TIM PEELER

The mustachioed man followed the path of the Great Tri-State Tornado of 1925, sitting on a clattering train for 520 Midwestern miles to reach his final destination.

He left Lawrence, Kansas, on a trip to Indianapolis to see what Hell he had wrought. At least it's assumed he went on a train, because commercial air travel was still in its infancy, thanks to the Kelly Act, and there was no coherent interstate highway system for driving such a distance for a four-day trip.

In some ways, the man was beaten down by life, having peaked at the age of 30 with his greatest innovation. An ordained Presbyterian minister, a licensed physician and a former college administrator, he had been relieved of many of his duties at the University of Kansas, from chapel director and professor to basketball coach to university physician to athletics director to chairman of the department of physical education.

Of the eight coaches in the long and successful history of Jayhawk basketball, he is the only one with a losing record (55-60).

His name was James Naismith, and 125 years ago today (12/21/1891), the native of Almonte, Ontario, Canada, created basketball.

More specifically, he posted the game’s first 13 rules—a total of 474 words—on a bulletin board at the Springfield, Massachusetts, YMCA. [Hear the only known recording of Naismith talking about his invention of the game from a 1939 radio interview, weeks before his death.] If it wasn’t already such a busy time of the year, with so many other things to do, Dec. 21 should be a joint Canadian/U.S. national holiday.

In March of 1925, at the age of 64, Naismith was still a celebrated speaker, giving well-attended presentations about the benefits of physical education. But in Lawrence, he was relegated to teaching a a health and hygiene course at Kansas, using graphic U.S. Army slides from World War I to teach 60 freshmen about the dangers of venereal disease.

On this weekend, however, he was invited by Arthur L. Trester, commissioner of the Indiana State High School Athletics Association, to be the guest of honor at the 14th edition of what would become the most famous high school basketball tournament in the country, the inspiration of hoops heroes for more than a century.

Dr. Naismith agreed to attend but, as was his habit throughout his unassuming life, there was little pretense about his appearance. Frankly, he just wanted to see if his simple winter diversion had been corrupted by the IHSAA officials, who turned his “basket ball” into “Hoosier Hysteria.” When he arrived at the fairgrounds' 15,000-seat exposition hall, he had no kind of pass to get him in.  Security guards were loathe to admit an unticketed guest into the overflowing arena.

The police were called, and one of the officers eventually asked for identification. When he told them who he was, they said, “Good lord, man, why didn’t you say so long ago?”

He came to see happiness in a devastated region, in an event that had moved for the first time into a such a large arena, on a court that first the first time employed glass backboards. They were shipped in and installed a week before by the Nurre Mirror Plate Company of Bloomington, Indiana.

Naismith invented basketball—a derivation of something called “duck on a rock” that he played as a boy in Canada—but it was quickly imported into Indiana a few months later at the Crawfordsville YMCA.

"Basketball really had its origin in Indiana, which remains the center of the sport," Naismith once wrote.

Naismith was stunned that his indoor activity had turned into a multiday tournament sport that needed to turn thousands of spectators away. He never understood why people would pay to see the game. In reality, he never saw the need for coaching, even though he had been the head coach of the Jayhawks for eight seasons. He thought boys should just go out and play, without regard to strategy.

His trip to Indiana changed his beliefs. He was particularly surprised that adults, even if they were not parents of participants, would pay $1 a day or 50 cents per session to watch games.

"As a guest of the IHSAA, I had the opportunity to watch the effects of their state tourney,” Naismith wrote about his experience. “The possibilities of basketball as seen there were a revelation to me. The striking features were the grade of basketball, the splendid spirit of the players and the unbound enthusiasm of the 15,000 spectators who crowded the Exposition Building. …The work of Arthur Trester cannot be too highly commended, as it is showing results throughout the state."

Trester—the father of the Indiana high school tournament and an inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the shrine to basketball that anchors the town of Springfield, Massachusetts—was one of the many pioneers there that day who would end up with a plaque in Springfield.

Also sitting with Naismith was Wisconsin coach Walter Meanwell, the Big 10’s father of fast-break basketball; Iowa coach Sam Barry, the father of Pac-10 basketball while at Southern Cal; and Purdue coach Ward “Piggy” Lambert, one of the game’s great innovators with short passes and zone defenses. Future Tulane coach Clifford Wells, the rival and nemesis of one of the 16 coaches in the finals field, was in the building recruiting high school players for his summer camp. Later, he was the first executive director of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Surely first-year Indiana coach Everett Dean was there scouting the tournament’s talent. In 1942, he coached Stanford’s only national championship team.

There were legends in every corner. William Fox, editor and columnist for the The Indiana News and author of the newspaper’s influential high school basketball feature called “Shootin’ ‘Em and Stoppin’ ‘Em,” covered every game. He was called “the man who has done more than any other for high school basketball in Indiana.”

No doubt that basketball ambassador Chuck Taylor talked his way into the tournament, eager to sell his Converse All-Stars to teams across the state. Later that summer, he traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, to give the first of his thousands of basketball clinics and launched his Hall of Fame career as basketball's global ambassador.

Future Big 10 legend Charles “Stretch” Murphy, a three-time All-American at Purdue, was a junior on Marion’s defending state championship team. When his playing career eventually ended, he was inducted into the Indiana, Helms Foundation and Naismith basketball halls of fame.

The tournament began on Friday at 9 a.m. when former Indiana State coach and tournament referee Birch Bayh Sr. tossed the opening tip-off in the first of nine games that day. The next day, when the finalists had to play three games to get to the championship, the first official ever inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, Dale Miller, called the title game—and three others on the tournament’s final day.

Somewhere in the stands with 15,000 other fans was a young Martinsville high school freshman, there to see his older brother play in Friday’s late first-round game against Muncie. But John Wooden might not have stuck around after watching Maurice “Cat” Wooden and his Martinsville teammates lose that opening-round game, 26-22. Two years later, the younger Wooden led Martinsville to the state title.

Not all of them knew at the time they were watching the future of the game Naismith had invented, but they were. The game was different then, of course—much more akin to Naismith’s 13 rules than the game now seen every night on multiple cable channels. There was a jump ball after every basket. There was no line at center court and no 10-second backcourt violation. A controversial strategy used by one of the state’s more successful and disliked coaches—everyone called the guy “Slick” because he was always looking for some kind of edge—was a full-court stalling tactic that put a player in each corner of the court and a ball-handling guard a midcourt, lobbing passes to kill time.

Still, it was the best show on earth to these basketball pioneers.

“It was the greatest exhibition of athletics in the United States that I have ever seen,” said Meanwell, Wisconsin’s head coach. “I don’t understand how we have ever beaten any Indiana basketball team. Those boys shoot better than any man on our varsity team, and they begin to play basketball where we leave off.”


Everett Case in 1925
So what did Naismith see? A 25-year-old coaching phenom named Everett Case, leader of the Frankfort Hot Dogs, a team that had traveled the 45 miles south to Indianapolis for the state finals in each of the last five seasons but had not yet brought home the coveted shield that went to the winning team. It went all the way to the finals in 1924, but lost to Murphy's Marion High.

When the regular season ended, Case and his Hot Dogs were all but written off because the team’s star player, Robert Spradling, had been exposed to small pox and needed an emergency injection of cow pox vaccine that caused his arm to swell to twice its size.

It turned out that Frankfort didn’t need him. In the sectionals, the Hot Dogs won three easy victories by scores of 40-4, 46-23 and 58-10. In the regionals the next weekend, it had wins of 49-11 and 38-12. Spradling returned for Frankfort’s only real test of the entire tournament, against Gary’s integrated Froebel High School in the first round of the 16-team finals. African-American center Andy Smith scored Froebel’s last six points, but Frankfort held on for a 25-23 victory.

The next day, March 21, 1925, Frankfort won all three of its games, beating Muncie, Washington and, in the 10 p.m. title game, fan-favorite Kokomo for the first of Case’s record four Indiana high school championships.

Case’s team was lauded for its “power, durability, wisdom, grace and grim determination, a quintet of qualities that made Frankfort a tournament team in every way, shape and form.”

When the final game was over, late on a cold Saturday night, Naismith came out of the stands with Trester to present the championship shield to Case, to shake the coach’s hand and to hang the championship medals around the necks of the players. It's the only time Naismith ever attended the Indiana high school tournament.

The Frankfort Hot Dogs, coached by Everett Case (top row, far left).
The Hot Dogs were declared the best of the state’s 673 teams.

It was the only time Naismith ever attended the Indiana high school tournament, which Case won again in 1929, ‘36 and ’39 before enlisting in the Navy for World War II and then coming to NC State as head basketball coach.

Case never really spoke of the day he met the inventor of the game. His closest confidante, Indiana native Vic Bubas, said “In the years I knew him, he never talked about it.”

Case came to Raleigh in 1946, won 10 Southern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference championships and introduced the passion of college basketball to the southeast by insisting that conference champions be decided by a postseason tournament, which was not the norm at the time. He finished off his own show place, Reynolds Coliseum, in 1949 and is honored to this day every time the ACC Tournament’s Most Valuable Player is handed the Everett Case Award.

He also joined Naismith, Meanwell, Barry, Murphy, Trester, Taylor, Wells and dozens of other Indiana basketball pioneers in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame when he was posthumously inducted in 1982.

Everett “Slick” Case—known around the ACC as “The Old Gray Fox”—kept good company.

Epilogue: You can see the hand-written notes Case took while learning under Meanwell during a summer stay in Wisconsin on the second floor of the newly renovated Reynolds Coliseum Walk of Fame and History. This notebook was given to NC State by alumnus and donor Jimbo Robbins, who acquired it by trading some landscape shrubbery years ago. He donated the black-and-white notebook to NC State’s athletics department for display.

And you can see the original copy of Naismith’s original rules of basketball in Lawrence, Kansas. They were purchased at auction by billionaire investment banker David Booth and his wife Suzanne in 2010 for $4,338,500 and gifted to the University of Kansas, where it now resides.

Reach Tim Peeler at tmpeeler@ncsu.edu.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Turkey Day with Chicken Pox


 
Thanksgiving, 1974. I had been looking forward to it for weeks. NC State was defending national champions in basketball and David Thompson was back for his senior year. Dave and Don Buckey were still playing for the Wolfpack, along with Stan Fritts and Ron Banther, for third-year coach Lou Holtz and my favorite NFL team, the Washington Redskins, were playing the Dallas Cowboys for the first time ever on Thanksgiving Day.

I woke up that morning with a fever and red spots covering me, a Turkey Day infected with chicken pox. I couldn't eat any of the big spread with all my favorites: canned cranberry sauce and sweet potato casserole and pie (in NC, you can't have too many dishes made with yams). We probably also had a turkey. I couldn't hold my head up enough to even fight with my sisters for a corner piece of dressing, an annual familial battle that was finally solved after I left for college when my mom found an eight-sided pan and we had enough corners to go around.

My one solace that day was that the Redskins were going to beat the hated Cowboys. In between fevers, I watched Mark Moseley kick three field goals and Billy Kilmer throw a touchdown pass to Duane Thomas to build an insurmountable 16-3 lead in the third quarter. Then, Mr. Perfect, Roger Staubach, suffered a concussion and all the Cowboys had was an unused rookie quarterback. The game was in the bag, and I could comfortably go back to throwing up in the trash can. I fell asleep about that point.

When I awoke, I found out that the Cowboys had taken the lead on a pair of touchdown drives by the unused quarterback, the guy who had to be reminded that his team was in white. Thomas scored again against his former team to give the Redskins the lead, then surefooted kicker Moseley kicked the ball right into Too Tall Jones' arms on a field goal attempt that would have given the Redskins a more comfortable lead.

I woke up at the two-minute warning and the Cowboys were deep in their own territory. All of a sudden the cold sweat I had wasn't just from the fever. The game was tight, with the Redskins holding on to a 23-17 lead. It seemed unlikely that the rookie quarterback could do anything in such a pressure situation.

My head was killing me and I could barely hold my eyes open, but I saw Drew Pearson work his way through the prevent defense and catch a 50-yard Hail Mary that won the game. (Your can read the Washington Post account here.) Until he hit Staubach in the lockerroom the two years later with a sucker punch, it was the only decent thing the guy ever threw in his life.

Clint Longley. Long before Bucky Dent took "effing" as his middle name, there was Clint "Effing" Longley. And at 9 years old, I didn't know what the eff that meant.

Happy Effing Thanksgiving everyone

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Lessons From a Slingshot Marine

A sunrise from Mill and Lucy's front yard.
When we were kids, my cousin Scott and I often were volunteered to be unpaid labor for our grandparents, Mill and Lucy Peeler. It was rarely easy work, especially when our Wprld War II Marine grandfather had a project he wanted completed. (Our grandmother compensated by giving us shotgun biscuits, apple pies and Sunday school.)

Many of the things my grandfather taught us came flooding back today when I was with the kids of our church on a youth mission trip in Costa Rica. We were building a retaining wall out of tires. We had to move a lot of dirt with broken shovels, a couple of pickaxes, three wheelbarrows and some plastic five-gallon buckets—down a hill, by the river and fire-lined buckets full of dirt up the hill. It was unending, back-straining work, and they were about as willing to listen to my "suggestions" and words of wisdom as Scott and I were willing to do the things our grandfather told us.

Here are some of the things he used to say to us all the time that I heard myself saying today (except for No. 5—obviously).
The tree where Herkimer lives to this day.

  1.  Follow the line of least resistance.
  2. Filling a bucket half full takes twice the effort.
  3. Point the wheelbarrow the direction you want to go when it's full, not the direction it's pointing when you bring it back empty.
  4. Never leave your tools unattended and always clean them thoroughly at the end of the day.
  5. Goddammit, not that way.
We got a lot out of those times with our grandparents at the wooden house where my dad, his two brothers and two sisters grew up, which featured an outhouse, an apple orchard and a 12-foot mythical guard snake named Herkimer.

My grandfather could name every species of tree in the woods and could perfectly mimic the whistle of the all-but-now-gone bobwhite. He always pointed out the poison ivy and poison oak—after we walked through it.

"That'll teach you little shitasses," he said.

The Peelers of Vale, N.C.
(That's Scott and me in the white ties. Lucy and Mill have babies on their laps.)

He gave us dozens of handmade slingshots from the Y-shaped branches he cut from trees with his pocketknife. My grandfather could hit a rabbit with a rock from 30 yards--and he always pulled from the hip.

He taught Scott and me to play poker—blackjack, five-card stud, seven-card stud and Baseball, where 3s and 9s were wild, 4s got you an extra card face-down and winning hands were often when seven aces beat six kings. Sometimes we stayed up all Saturday night playing cards with him and a jar full of pennies.

We always assumed we would go to Hell for skipping church to gamble the night away with a salty old Marine. Today, I was reminded that time with Mill and Lucy was God's gift to us and all our cousins.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

When UNC-CH and UNC-R meet...

Sunday's pregame scoreboard at Carmichael Arena (Photo from PackPride.com)
In 1962, when NC State College expanded its graduate school offerings, it wanted to change its name to NC State University. The UNC Consolidated System, which governs all state-supported schools in the state, not only said "no," but told the school that it had to change its name to UNC-Raleigh.

1964 game program from Reynolds Coliseum.
It's what Governor Terry Sanford and system president William Friday wanted.

State College's campus was outraged and students, administration and alumni began to protest with the system offices in Chapel Hill and the general assembly in Raleigh. The battle raged on for almost three years, as both parties grudgingly accepted an awkward compromise, calling the state's second oldest institution North Carolina State of the University of North Carolina at Raleigh. That was the official name of the school from 1963-65, though old-timers stuck with "State College" and students of the time just said "NC State."

Eventually, thanks to student- and alumni-led protests to the state legislature, the name was changed to North Carolina State University at Raleigh in April, 1965. That's still the official name of the school today, though the "at Raleigh" is rarely used except in the school's wikipedia entry.

For years, NC State athletics has referred to North Carolina as UNC-CH at home events, on posters, on schedule cards and other places, because, well frankly, that is the abbreviation for the school's official name, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That was a staple anytime the Tar Heels visited Reynolds Coliseum, or any other NC State home venue.

It's always bugged Carolina. Just a few years ago, a UNC-CH athletics administrator got fist-poundingly angry about it during a men's basketball game at PNC Arena, demanding that the scoreboard be changed. It was, as a gracious gesture to the visiting team.

Sunday, the longstanding chaffed feelings popped up again when the NC State women's basketball traveled to Chapel Hill to play the Tar Heels at Carmichael Arena. They were greeted by a scoreboard that read on the visitors side: UNC-R.

My Facebook and Twitter lines lit up like closing time at Disney World. It was eventually changed, as a gracious gesture to the visiting team, at some point during the Wolfpack's 80-66 victory that completed the first regular-season sweep by women's basketball of UNC-CH since 1999-2000.

The whole thing is kind of humorous. Others are pretty up in arms, which is not surprising in our outrage society. Some State fans even said, "We have never been called UNC-R." That's not at all true. Thankfully, though, that name didn't stick for long thanks to the student and alumni revolt of the 1960s.

Some rivalries die hard. Some never go away. And some rise again from the dead 60 years later.

Though one does wonder: what will be on the scoreboard Wednesday when the North Carolina men's team visits PNC Arena to play the Wolfpack.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Characters from Sportswriting Past


No. 10 tee, Augusta National, April 11, 1994.


Secretly, I always hoped one day my name would be a minor character in a Ken Burger book like my friends Scott Michaux, Bob Gillespie and the late Furman Bisher. In my heart, though, I always knew that I was far down on the list of people he might eventually include in his fiction.

Burger, even after all his years of writing newspaper columns and novels, has so much more material to use. I hope he gets to.

From friends in South Carolina and Georgia, though, I hear that Ken’s future is darkly clouded by his longtime fight with prostate cancer. He’s battled and battered it gallantly since 2007. (You can read about it, and hear Kenny’s pleas for regular screenings for men, at his blog, Unexpected Journey.)

Like Lowcountry tides and deadlines for 9 p.m. basketball games, cancer has a way of wearing down even the boulders in our business.

Or, I should say, our former business. Newspapering isn’t it used to be, and it hasn’t been close to the same since 2011, when Burger retired as the columnist and executive sports editor for the Charleston Post and Courier, so he could turn his attention to writing books, all of which are available online.

If you ever worked for a South Carolina newspaper, as I did from 1990-94, you knew Burger. He wouldn’t let you not know him.

He’s always been the cool guy in pressed khakis and a popped collar, someone you wanted to sit with at the same table, like at junior high lunch. Make him laugh and it made your day. And Ken is the kind of guy who laughs at someone else’s joke, even though he had probably made it, and told it funnier, years before.

In the press box, Ken always suffers fools…frequently.

Other writers who are closer to Ken and far more capable have written of their recent visits with him, as he goes back and forth between his home near Charleston and the hospital where he receives treatment. They say his time is limited. Ken has asked folks who are so inclined to write their memories of him now, so he has a chance to read them.

Yes, that’s a little self-absorbed, crass and beautiful. Like sportswriting itself.

Hats off to Gene Sapakoff and Joe Posnanski for their fine living memories of someone they consider a friend and a mentor. (Both wrote their pieces before this week’s flooding overwhelmed South Carolina. Ken and his wife Bonnie Grossman had to be rescued from their home by boat, and Ken returned to Roper St. Francis Cancer Center in Charleston. When it rains…)

Certainly, I can’t claim the same kind of closeness as they have with Kenny. We saw each other infrequently, except those few years when we covered the ACC Tournament, the Final Four and the Masters all in the span of six weeks. We spent a lot of time together at the Centennial Olympics in 1996, having dinner with other writers at the empty restaurants in downtown Atlanta. He’s a friend who would always say yes to dinner but cleverly decline an invitation to meet up for drinks. (That’s the kind of stupid friend I am—always forgetting that among the many evils Ken beat over the years was alcoholism.)

He was always willing to suggest things I could do with my kids when we visited Charleston on family outings. Fort Sumter. City Market. A carriage ride. A ghost walk. And, he once told me, “Don't forget the ever-popular ‘Places Where Ken Burger Got Married Tour!’”

Yes, Ken has been married five times, the source of infinite pressroom hilarity. (Ken joined me and Steve Elling as the only people I knew with our own shirt sizes: a 2X was a “Peeler” because of general girth. A 3X was an “Elling” because that’s the average number of holes he had no recorded score in any given round. And 4 Exes was a “Burger” because, well, that seemed pretty damned funny at the time.) He laughed louder than anyone at the jokes.

Ken’s the kind of friend that would meet you and your wife with his wife-at-the-time at The Peninsula Grill to show off one of the world’s best restaurants—and pick up the tab.

Few people have enjoyed Charleston, or his profession, more than Burger. A native of tiny Allendale, South Carolina, he grew up wanting to be a journalist and ended up having the kind of big-time jobs all of us wanted, first as a political reporter in Washington and then as a sports columnist. He’s always been so much better at it than most, as he proved in 1989 while writing about Hurricane Hugo.

In newspapers, you end up being friends with reporters from other papers far more than your co-workers. That’s because you work in the office and bond on the road. Those friendships evolve gradually. I never told Ken how much I admired his work and enjoyed his company; never had to.

What I should have done a long time ago is properly apologize to Kenny for what had to be the worst good day of his life. On April 11, 1994, we played Augusta National Golf Club together. It’s a tradition at the Masters—isn’t everything?—to allow 20 writers and 20 broadcast reporters to play the course the day after the final round. Players were chosen by lottery on Saturday morning. Those picked were worthless to their media outlets the rest of the tournament.

When I saw that Kenny and Al Muskewitz of the Anderson (South Carolina) Independent-Mail also won the lottery, we worked up a group to play that day, along with another writer I did not know. With all apologies to my wife and kids, despite the number on the scorecard, it was the greatest day of my life.

Kenny was in the cart playing his steady game, not unnerved by the stupidity of my interaction with golf’s most solemn masterpiece. It was the same golf he played at some of the best courses in the country whenever he had a chance and at his regular offseason game at Patriot’s Point.

He was silent through my overzealous joy of being on the same greens as the best players in the world. He was calm on the tee box at No. 12, as we attempted the hardest shot in golf. He endured every muffed tee shot, every raked iron, every scalded wedge, every freaking four-putt on the elephant burial mounds. He helped me line up the putt for the only par I made all day—a saved 5 from a sandbar in the middle of Rae’s Creek on No. 13. And he kept quiet when I made an 11 after hitting the scoreboard on No. 15, ruining the best drive any of us had all day. Occasionally, he said something like “Maybe you shouldn’t swing so hard”—but that was about his only critique.

I’m sure, between Muskie and me, we ruined a perfectly spectacular day.

Sorry about that, Kenny. I wouldn’t trade the memory for anything.