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.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Skipping Father's Day

There was a good reason I was rolling around on the ground in a suit and tie, in so much pain on that Father’s Day afternoon 10 years ago.

We had come from church and were waiting for my wife’s parents to join us for brunch. Both my kids are impatient, so we went looking for something to kill time. There is a big lake at the country club where were meeting, with lots of rocks on the shoreline.

I figured it would be a good time to teach the boys how to skip stones on the water.

My father taught me how to do it down at the creek behind his parents’ house in Lincoln County. It was most likely the same place his father taught him. Both my dad and grandfather could get 30 or 40 skips every time they tried, which is not exactly easy on a meandering stream with only a few wide pools suitable for skipping.

They both taught me over the years how to find a perfect rock. It should be round. It should be flat. It should fit comfortably in the crook of your index finger. When we were kids, out in the country where there was little to do, my friends and I could spend hours skipping rocks on the creek before we started throwing them at each other.

Now that the boys were getting older, I couldn’t wait to teach them this important life skill that had been passed down for generations.

My oldest son was maybe three years old at the time and the youngest was one. The oldest has never liked sports, but I believed teaching him to throw was a paternal obligation. If nothing else, I figured, it might give him something to do on camping trips.

So there we were, standing on the shore of the lake, a father teaching his sons something on a perfect June afternoon. Such a wonderfully simple time in our lives. This, I imagined, was exactly how Andy taught Opie. You could practically hear someone whistling in the background.

“Daddy, can I try?” the oldest asked.

I found the perfect rock. It was a little heavy for his tiny hand, but he was eager to learn.  I showed him a side-arm throwing motion, kind of like Al Hrabosky going for a save. I gave him all the verbal instructions he needed to skip the rock at least three or four times.  Stepping behind him, I waited to enjoy the beauty of my teaching skills, the perfection of the moment, the wonder of God’s gift of allowing a father to impart wisdom to his son.

My son, the non-athlete, had pretty good form. He wedged the rock in his forefinger just right. He swung his arm on a good flat plane, putting a good spin on the rock that should have landed perfectly flat on the lake surface. He held on to the rock a bit too long. He didn’t let go until his hand came around his body. Even though I was standing behind him, there was no safe harbor.

Little bugger hit me right in the nads.

At that exact moment, my in-laws drove up to see my wife and sons standing over my body, writhing with Old Testament pain. It looked like they were boot-kicking me into submission.

“What now?” they wondered.

It’s a question we get a lot at our house.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

A Five-Day Odyssey of NC Oddities

Headed to the mountains, near Asheville, N.C.

(near) SH*T BRITCHES CREEK, North Carolina—Ever since reading William S. Powell’s book, The North Carolina Gazetteer, I’ve wanted to write this dateline, named for a clear stream where early settlers saw a local Indian clean himself after an accident. It can be found in deeds from the 1800s, though blushing locals often called it Dirty Britches Creek.

Never mind that I didn’t, in every technical sense, find the exact location of this legacy tributary located somewhere in Buncombe County.

Oh, I know right where it is—near Cane Creek as it starts running north on Burney Mountain—but I couldn’t find those two places either. I generally stop going anywhere in the North Carolina hills when the directions include the words “turn off the paved road.”

For the last week, I’ve been on just about every paved road in the state, from the Appalachians to the Atlantic, promoting the release of Legends of NC State Basketball. I went to all 10 stops on the NC State coaches Wolfpack Club Caravan with football coach Dave Doeren, men’s basketball coach Mark Gottfried and women’s basketball coach Wes Moore.

Sounds fun, right?

The coaches' tour bus.
For the most part, it was, except that those guys either flew on a private plane or had someone drive them in a luxury RV, with a shower, a bathroom, a refrigerator and three cable-connected flat-screen televisions. I spent the whole time in my 11-year-old Honda Pilot, listening to three 35-year-old bootleg CDs of Bruce Springsteen’s legendary New Year’s Eve concert at the Nassau County Coliseum in Uniondale, New York.

Over the course of five days, by taking a few backroads and detours, I drove 1,609 miles, through 67 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, while making two stops a day on the Caravan. That’s roughly equal to driving from Murphy to Manteo three times here in the widest state east of the Mississippi.

The distance was inflated by a few miles, just because there was a little spare time between stops that allowed me to sneak over to the largest county by land (Robeson), the smallest (Clay), the most populous (Mecklenburg) and the least populous (Tyrrell), the southernmost (Brunswick) and three of the 15 northernmost counties (they are all equally north on the Virginia border).

I wasn’t able to get to the westernmost (Cherokee), though I did hit all of the Tennessee/Georgia-adjacent counties over spring break with my kids. We damned near hit an elk at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so I wasn’t eager to go back. I’m saving the easternmost (Dare) for a week when I can kick my feet up on the beach.

Anybody have a rental house on Ocracoke I can borrow?

From the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The statewide tour began Monday morning, when I drove from Raleigh to Asheville. I made it to the Country Club of Asheville in three hours and forty seven minutes without stopping. We did a two-and-a-half hour luncheon presentation, then hoofed it to Carmel Country Club in Charlotte, which was a little over two hours away. After that was over, I drove back up to Blowing Rock, where the next morning we did a breakfast and golf outing at the Blowing Rock Country Club.

Tuesday night, I went to Greensboro, where the ACC Hall of Champions hosted more than 200 Wolfpack Club members for the Caravan stop, then headed home to sleep in my bed for the only time all week. In the span of 40 hours, I drove 540 miles, without (a) needing to stop for the bathroom or (b) having to make use of an empty water bottle. (Though, after sneaking over to my favorite barbecue joint, Alston Bridges in Shelby for sliced pork, red slaw and an extra-large sweet tea, I cut it pretty close heading into Charlotte.)

Three days later, we covered the entire eastern part of the state from Goldsboro to New Bern to Williamston to Lumberton to Pinehurst to Wilmington, in that circuitous order. We ate Wilber’s barbecue, Calabash shrimp and banana pudding, among many other North Carolina favorites. I haven’t stepped on the scales since returning home.

In Jones and Onslow Counties.
I went, semi-directly, from the mountains to the sea, from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the historic Albemarle Highway, from the Pisgah National Forest to the Croatan. And I visited two NC State-owned outposts on either side of the Eastern Continental Divide: the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville and Hofmann Forest in Maysville.

So I can now say this with all the love I can muster for the home state of eight generations of Peelers: North Carolina is one weird place, cartographically speaking.

From the names of crossroads communities—I have family in Dirty Ankle and I grew up in Cat Square—to the cross-pollinated town and county names, it’s no wonder all the out-of-state transplants settled mostly in the Triangle, Charlotte, Pinehurst and the mountains. They can’t find their way around anywhere else.
I better appreciate their confusion, though I still won’t forgive the way-backers in the mountains for driving around with their left turn signal on most of the time.

Neither Asheville nor Asheboro are in Ashe County. Davidson is not in Davidson County. The town of Stanley has nothing to do with Stanly County. Rockingham is well south of Rockingham County, and only one of them has a race track.

Wrightsville Beach, just before Tropical Storm Ana arrives.
Henderson, in Vance County, is on the other side of the state from Henderson County. Vanceboro, of course, in not in Vance County. Why would it be?

Hertford is not in Hertford County. The city of Greenville is in the county adjacent to, but not in, Greene County, and Greensboro would have been a three-day march for Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Greene’s army.

The Caldwell County town of Lenoir is 252 miles away from Lenoir County. And, as you might have assumed, neither is pronounced in the French fashion.

Little Washington isn’t in Washington County, but both are named for the first president.  Polk County isn’t named for James K. Polk, one of the three presidents born in North Carolina. And Lincoln County, where I was born, isn’t named after Abraham Lincoln, who may have actually been born here, not Kentucky.

Jackson County was named for Andrew Jackson, one of the other presidents kind of born in North Carolina (the obstinate folks in South Carolina also claim him), but Jacksonville isn’t located there.

Gaston County, another place where I spent a good portion of my youth, is where Gastonia is located, but if you are expecting to swim in Lake Gaston, you will be sorely disappointed.

The latest edition.
The trip was fun. I went by my second favorite North Carolina institution of higher learning, Isothermal Community College. It’s my favorite because of its name and it’s home to WNCW-FM, the best radio station in the state. I nearly drove off the road on the Gaston-Mecklenburg county line when I saw the billboard advertising an $825 discount for breast augmentation (I can’t figure out why they didn’t go with the simple motto “pay less for more”).

I drove by and smelled quite a few dead deer, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, possums, squirrels, skunks, but no bears. I guess I have to go to NC State’s Brickyard for that.

I managed to sell a few books—the proceeds for which will go to the Reynolds Coliseum Walk of Fame and History project—and visited with two of the legends included in the book, Tommy Burleson in Blowing Rock and Eddie Biedenbach in Wilmington. I talked to a lot of great people from around the state, though I wish NC State linguistics professor Walt Wolfram had been with me to help translate some of them.

NC State graduate Johna Edmonds.
I hung out with Mr. Wuf, Ms. Wuf and a former Miss North Carolina. I saw some old friends and told stories about NC State’s athletics history. Overall, it wasn’t a bad way to spend a week of vacation.

Friday night, as I headed up Interstate-40, I passed by the coaches’ RV one last time, somewhere in the middle of Duplin County. I’m sure they were watching SportsCenter. With a few more tanks of gas, I could’ve kept going, all the way to Barstow, California, where I-40 ends. I had already traveled two-thirds of the distance of the 2,555-mile interstate, and I would have passed right through Greensboro and Albuquerque, New Mexico, the two cities where NC State basketball won national championships.

Exit 295 called my name, however, and I needed to do some laundry, just like that Indian up in Buncombe County centuries ago.

Thanks for reading “One Brick Back.” You can find all three of my books and other merchandise here. If you enjoy this blog and are so moved, make a donation to help offset travel and research expenses. It will go to helping restore Reynolds Coliseum, one of my favorite places in the state.

Home again, with a souvenir from the road.