It’s tournament time: 2016 edition

GREENVILLE, S.C. — A media room in the bowels of a college basketball arena is an odd place to be reminded of how small the modern world is.

I’m covering the South Atlantic Conference basketball tournament for the Charlotte Observer this weekend, an assignment I always enjoy — not just for the basketball, but for the under-the-radar stories you encounter.

Saturday’s women’s semifinal game between Wingate and Newberry at Furman University’s Timmons Arena was entertaining enough, with the No. 3-seeded Bulldogs making up for some regular-season frustration against the No. 2-seeded Wolves with a 61-54 victory to advance to Sunday’s championship.

Wingate won its 20th game of the season in part thanks to a work woman like (that’s the best I can do as autocorrect — mired in the 19th century — keeps wanting to change it to “workmanlike”) performance from 6-foot-4 sophomore forward Marta Miscenko, a transfer from Texas-El Paso by way of high school ball in Fayetteville, N.C., and her native Riga, Latvia.

She scored 14 of Wingate’s 19 points in the fourth quarter, finishing the game with 24 points and five rebounds.

“I told myself and my teammates that I wasn’t going home today and neither were they,” Miscenko said in the post-game presser. “I  wanted to make every shot I took.”

I liked the confidence in that, and it was as quotable as anything any American athlete who’s grown up watching ESPN could come up with.

But as great as that win was for the Bulldogs, as I often tell my students, I often find the losers more interesting, as the emotions can be more “real.”

But what caught my ears in the Newberry portion of the post-game was the accents — the kind you don’t expect from folks from a tiny Lutheran school in the middle of South Carolina. Eight of the Wolves’ players and their coach, Sean Page, are Australian.

Page seemed to bristle at the request by SAC sports information people to make an opening comment: “What do you want me to say? They won. We lost. They outplayed us.”

But turns out that the coach’s sense of humor is a little quirky and he quickly warmed to the task of praising his team for its 12th straight winning season — which Page says is a record for women’s college basketball in the Palmetto State.

“I want to make sure we get some credit for that,” he said.

He also talked about the team’s four seniors, including forward Samantha Creed, who scored 15 points.

She’s from a suburb of Melbourne and her journey has included a pair of knee surgeries which limited her college career to three seasons. She still finishes as the No. 3 all-time women’s scorer for the Wolves.

I asked her what she planned to do next, which appeared to be a question that she didn’t expect.

“I’m probably going to go home and spend some time with my family after graduation, because I ended up spending five years here rather than the four I had planned on,” Creed said. “Then I hope I’ll have some opportunities to keep playing basketball.”

I started to ask her if she had ever tried the hash and rice at Wise’s, an iconic BBQ joint near Newberry that’s a must-stop if you like that sort of thing. But I figured that would be pushing the meeting of cultures thing too far.

It is indeed a small world, after all.

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Help a blogger out….

Two writers in the family, two blogs….

Here’s some blatant cross-promotion for my wonderful wife’s blog, located at She writes with wit and verve about food, travel and culture.

Check out her latest post about North Carolina-made Texas Pete hot sauce. What do you put your hot sauce on?

And thank you for your support.

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It’s tournament time 2015: hoops, Zen and old friends

Over a lot of years as a working sportswriter, I’ve occasionally been asked, “What’s your favorite sport to cover?

 It’s basketball, baby. And this is my favorite month to be a sports journalist — I’m usually at one or more NCAA Division II conference tournament games, but it hasn’t been that way the last couple of years. I sat out the 2013 postseason while recovering from a broken hip and last year no teams that I cover advanced past the first round.

So it was fun to make a quick trip to Greenville, S.C., this past weekend to cover the South Atlantic Conference semifinals. Some random observations:

It matters what list you’re on: Every now and then things slip through the cracks, and I’m left at the entrance to a sports event having to explain who I am and what I’m doing here because there’s no media pass waiting for me. I had that experience Saturday as I arrived for the SAC tournament men’s semifinal game between Lincoln Memorial and Queens at Furman University’s Timmons Arena.

I wasn’t on their pass list, so I must have presented a convincing argument as I explained — again, who I am and what I’m doing there, without the benefit of a full-time press ID. The nice young man wrote down “Charlotte Observer” under another name and said I could come on in.

The other name was that of Nield Gordon, who has connections both to Furman and the SAC. Gordon, a star player for the Paladins back in the early Fifties, coached some great teams at conference member Newberry in the Seventies, when the school was an NAIA District 6 powerhouse. Gordon was the first men’s basketball coach at Winthrop when that school started a program in the early Eighties.

So I’ve joined a South Carolina college basketball legend on a list of people who can walk into the South Atlantic Conference on their own recognizance? I’ll take it.


The press vantage point was as close as I’ve been to the on-court action this year, which has its advantages but also requires extra vigilance to protect the laptop, the major tool of the trade.

Potent quotes: In the game I covered, No. 4-seeded Queens gave top-seed Lincoln Memorial a battle before falling 67-64 to the Railsplitters — for my money one of the best nicknames in college sports and a great one for headline writers, with all those thin letters.

A tournament game gives me an opportunity that I don’t often get during the regular season — an opportunity to talk to the opposing coach and one of his/her players. And in the case of Lincoln Memorial, it’s a great thing.

The Railsplitters are coached by Josh Schertz, a former Queens assistant who is building a perennial powerhouse in Harrogate, Tenn., just north of Knoxville and south of the Kentucky state line.

I try not to make generalizations about coaches or athletes, but I find that a lot of the people in sports I enjoy talking to the most are in basketball. Not everyone in the sport is an intellectual — not everyone in journalism is an intellectual — but you find a lot of evidence that players and coaches have thought about the game.

Schertz is quite quotable. He was ask about the old “it’s tough to beat a team three times” cliche — it’s a standby question in conference tournaments where teams often meet after playing each other twice in the regular season.

“It’s all a mosaic,” he said. “Each game is its own event.” Then he launched a brief meditation on how the past doesn’t predict the future. Zen-like stuff from Division II’s answer to Phil Jackson.

If you think that sounds too complicated for basketball, the results say otherwise. Lincoln Memorial’s seniors improved their four-year record to 108-16 with Saturday’s win. They improved to 29-1 with the win, their ninth straight.

“There aren’t many situations we haven’t been in,” said guard Gerel Simmons, who hit a three-pointer with nine seconds left to seal the win against Queens. “We’ve got a lot of confidence.”

Wait till next year: The Royals, who lose only two seniors, want to be where the Railsplitters are right now. 

“We ended the season one step shy of where we wanted to be,” Queens coach Bart Lundy said. “But we’re hungry and we know what we need to do to improve.”

Queens finished its season 17-13 after a 2-5 start and had come into the Lincoln Memorial game on a three-game winning streak. They got to the semifinals with a convincing 84-66 quarterfinal win over Wingate. The Bulldogs had won both regular season meetings —- giving credence to Schertz’ point above.

“At the end of the day, it’s just doing what we like to do, playing basketball,” said Queens junior guard Marquis Rankin, a former Vance standout and Virginia Tech transfer. He scored 15 points to lead the Royals. “We came together.”

The rest of the story: Lincoln Memorial’s narrow escape Saturday was followed by a 63-48 loss to Carson-Newman in Sunday’s championship game. But the Railsplitters still earned the right to host a regional tournament this weekend.  I wasn’t around to see the final as there were no teams remaining from the Observer’s coverage area — the women’s final between Newberry and Anderson didn’t make the cut either.  

(I have little success convincing newspapers that at the Division II level, there’s nearly as much interest in women’s basketball as there is in the men’s game. But that’s another post for another time.)

I enjoyed an opportunity to catch up over the weekend with a long-time friend and former college roommate, Robin Smith. He’s recently retired from Met Life after a long career for them in IT — I joke with him that he’s so old that when he started his job had a different name, data processing. OK, not so hilarious.


Here we are at lunch. Nice finish to a great weekend.

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Mentors and friends

If you’re my age, you’re possibly having the following experience from time to time these days.

You haven’t thought about someone in a while, they’re not on social media, and you wonder whatever happened to them. You do a Google search. And you find they’ve passed on.

I’ve started the past two years that way. My former doctoral dissertation adviser Dr. Philip T. West of Texas A&M University passed away on Jan. 2  last year. I met him at a school public relations conference in Phoenix in the summer of 1981 and three years later I became his student.

He was a scholar, but no ivory tower academic — a U.S. Navy veteran and a former insurance executive and PR man, he had a good working knowledge of the “real world.” He loved electronic gadgets, Blue Bell coffee ice cream and American literature. And he was a heck of a dissertation adviser, equally adept at telling his advisees what they were doing wrong and protecting you from difficult members of your own committee. (Anybody who’s ever worked on a doctorate will appreciate what that means.)

His advice and counsel was valuable to me long after I finished my degree and started a career in academics. We were in touch less often over the last decade  — a little ironic since in that same time period so many people have reconnected with one another via social media. But Dr. West wasn’t much on the “look at me” kind of thing, so I suspect I wouldn’t have found him there anyway.

  He was a great role model and many of the teaching methods and strategies that I use are a result of his influence.

Fast forward to a couple of days ago, when I got to thinking about another person who was an influence on me in an even earlier and formative time.

A search revealed that my former colleague Janos Shoemyen had died back in December in Gainesville, Fla., at age 93.

The term “colleague” is probably a little presumptuous of me, as I was a lowly graduate assistant in the mid-1970s in the editorial department of University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) when I got to know Janos, who was one of the top editors in this statewide organization.

Janos, a native Hungarian who fled to the United States as a young man after World War II, was a wizard at — as he put it — “correcting the natives’ English.” And he was a great help to me in my job, which was working with professors to turn their sometimes arcane research and incomprehensible writing into feature stories for newspapers.

Away from the office, Janos wrote fiction under the nom de plume Lawrence Dorr.  He lived on a working ranch, raising horses and cattle in nearby Alachua with his wife Clare, an elegant English woman whose family tree had roots in colonial South Carolina. They invited me out there for a memorable summer day’s outing.

It’s been a long time, but I remember talking with him about writing on a number of occasions — we both loved Flannery O’Connor’s stories and novels. A reviewer once called him “a Christian Hemingway,” and it’s a pretty good description. His writing was spare and muscular, but suffused with what the Catholic novelist J.F. Powers termed “the presence of grace.”

A brief example from the beginning of a short story, “Once You Were No People,” from his 1973 collection “A Slow, Soft River”: (see photo):

photo (3)

“The land rose only a few feet, but in Central Florida this was enough to turn the scrub palmettos into the threatening crest of an ocean wave. The man leading the way carried his son’s .22 presumably against snakes — it was closed season — though he knew there was little chance of meeting anything. It was too hot even for snakes, but he would have felt foolish trampling the fields without a firearm in his hand. This feeling, like the heirloom cufflinks packed in his immigrant’s suitcase, had survived the 4,000-mile journey.”

He encouraged me to write fiction, something I never caught the bug for, but I have held on to his advice. “You have something to say,” he exhorted. “Say it! Write it down!”

As I think about Janos and Dr. West, I’m reminded of a line from the wonderful sportswriter Robert Lipsyte’s recent memoir, “An Accidental Sportswriter.” In recounting a list of people who have been influential in his career, he mentions several who “are dead, but not to me.”

I thought that was a very felicitous phrase and it pretty much sums up the way I’m feeling right now.

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Remembering Dean Smith

I’m sad to say that I don’t have a Dean Smith story — unlike many that I’ve been reading in the papers and listening to on sports talk radio since the University of North Carolina basketball coaching icon died on Saturday evening,

I  came close back in the summer of 1978 when I was covering a basketball coaches’ clinic at Myrtle Beach for The Sun News. Smith was scheduled for what we would now call a “media availability” after one of the sessions but for some reason that escapes me now, it fell through. And we had to settle for Hubie Brown. Funny, but no legend.

So my memories of Dean Smith are from a basketball fan’s perspective. More specifically from the perspective of a fan who graduated from an Atlantic Coast Conference school not located in North Carolina. So let’s just say that over the years, I’ve evolved.

At first, I didn’t care much for the man. His teams always beat your team, and it didn’t just happen to Clemson. It happened in 77.6 percent of the games in which he was a head coach.  In my era, there was that dreaded and dreadful “Four Corners” stall offense. It was a sign that the Tar Heels were in command and your chances to win were essentially over — and that was even before Phil Ford came along in the late Seventies to make it an art form. If you like the fact that there’s a shot clock in college basketball, you can in part thank Dean Smith.

And then there was the way he worked the officials, even when UNC had the game well in hand. I remember being at one particularly one-sided game at Clemson when he complained about a call that didn’t go his way in the last minutes. A disgusted Tiger fan in my section stood up and yelled, “That’s right, Dean! Fifty more calls like that and we’re back in the game.”

But that was what made him great. He prodded the game and tested its limits, looking for anything in the rules that he could turn to his team’s advantage.

It has been interesting to hear the tributes to him in sports media these last couple of days. On the way to a family funeral yesterday in South Carolina, I tuned in a couple of satellite radio sports talk shows and people could talk about nothing else. And it was the same today.

Many of the accolades that have come his way focused on his sense of social justice and fairness for all, especially in the area of race relations in the turbulent Sixties. He signed New York City standout Charlie Scott to the first athletic scholarship given to an African American at UNC.

Scott, who played on Final Four teams in 1968 and 1969 and went on to a long NBA career, said on a talk radio show today that Smith “recruited me not as a black athlete, but as an athlete. He treated me the same way he treated any other player on the team.” In the South in the mid-Sixties, people like that weren’t always easy to find.

Smith belonged to an integrated church and the story has been recounted several times this weekend of how he took a black member of his church out to dinner, forcing a local restaurant either to serve them both, have them arrested or ask them to leave. This was, as someone said, before he had become a nationally-known figure, But the restaurant served both men. 

The sportswriter and author John Feinstein was interviewed on another show. He had tried unsuccessfully to convince Smith, never one to court publicity and attention, to cooperate with him on a biography. When the coach talked about this story Feinstein asked him if it felt good to do the right thing.

His answer? “You shouldn’t do the right thing because it makes you feel good to do it. You should do it because it’s the right thing.”

And that’s Smith’s legacy. You can look up a lot of the rest — the national championships in 1982 and 1993, and 11 total Final Four appearances. Thirteen ACC championships. Retiring in 1997 as the winningest Division I coach at the time with 879 victories.

And one more accomplishment that I think has been underrated among his many great achievements, coaching the U.S. team to the 1976 Olympic gold medal in men’s basketball.

Unless you were around and paying attention to basketball in 1972, you don’t realize what a big deal the Americans’ controversial loss to the Russians in Munich in the Olympic  gold medal game was.

You can read more about it here, but the infamous  “double do-over” loss was a blow to the American sporting psyche. The U.S, players have literally never accepted their silver medals. (And at Clemson it led to a couple of hallmates of ours trashing their own room after the game was over.)

Long-time U.S. coach Hank Iba got much criticism for his antiquated slowdown approach to the game and for his inability to relate to that current generation of players – especially African American ones.

Dean righted the ship four years later in America’s bicentennial year, so it was more than appropriate that his country recognized him in 2013 for service to the U.S. with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as he bravely dealt with the disease that claimed his life.

A great coach, a great American and a great man. May he rest in peace.

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Ice skating with Henry the Eighth

I’m starting the New Year in a pretty familiar place, even though it’s far away from home.

I’m with a group of 26 Wingate University students in London for the next nine days, leading them in the conclusion to our course in  British news media and communication that they’ve been studying all semester.

I’m writing this at the end of our second day, actually, as the first is always spent in the arduous task of getting from one continent to another. They passed that test with flying colors — landing the same number of people you met at the airport is always a plus.

From Heathrow Airport we took a coach (British for bus, y’all) to Hampton Court Palace on the outskirts of London. First, because it’s interesting, one of King Henry the Eighth’s places built in the 1560s. Also,  it’s one of the few attractions open on New Year’s Day and it’s an educational way to fill a couple of hours before hotel check-in.

On the way over, we passed through Runnymede, the site of King John’s 1215 signing of the Magna Carta, which established many of the rights enjoyed by citizens in the English-speaking world. There’s not much there to look at except a big meadow, actually, but it was neat to know we were here to start the 800th anniversary year of this important historical event.

I have made more than a half-dozen trips to London now, and I hope I never get so jaded that I’m “been there and done that” about one of my favorite cities in the world. But on this day, after stopping in at a hotel restaurant near the palace I remembered from a 2012 trip here — and introducing a small group of my students to baked beans, mild sausage and blood pudding for breakfast — I spent just a short time wandering around the  grounds before heading back to the bus.

There seemed to be more people in line for the ice skating rink just inside the palace gate than there were on the spacious grounds, which include some beautiful gardens  and what’s billed  the world’s biggest vine.

But I had an educational chat with our driver who has driven around folks from the “X Factor” reality  television show and a couple of English Premier League football teams. Found out he’s from Bletchley, which is notable in British history for being the center for encoding and decoding military messages during World War II. So not a wasted morning by any means,

After leaving the palace we wound our way around New Year’s Day Parade traffic in central London to get to our hotel. Our guide for the week took the students for a walk around the neighborhood to help them get their London legs.

After check-in, i indulged in a two-hour nap before unpacking and freshening up — with a bracing cold shower and shave I had to call hotel maintenance about — to go out, While doing so, I enjoyed the randomness of BBC2 Radio, which had Barry Manilow hosting a program of the best concert recordings by Frank Sinatra:

“She loves the wacky, wonderful, coo-coo wind in her hair…” Nobody like him….

The evening’s entertainment was a West End show. “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: The Musical” was nearing the end of a run at the Dominion Theatre, about a five-minute walk from the hotel.

I got a bargain-priced ticket at the box office, had a nice dinner of cottage pie (minced beef and gravy topped by mashed potatoes) at a nearby restaurant, and returned for the show.

It’s a high-energy re-imagination of the 1954 movie starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen.

The singing and dancing were top-notch, as was the conclusion. The cast asked the audience to sing along in the closing rendition of “White Christmas” and we were sprinkled by some fake snow that would have done Hollywood proud.

Free wi-fi and a pot of tea back at the restaurant and then back to the hotel. A good day and looking forward to more.

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Lending an ear

(Note: This appeared in the print edition of The Charlotte Observer on Thursday, Aug. 21)

Charlotte Eagles midfielder Wells Thompson said he was having a little trouble hearing the interviewer’s questions after his team’s 2-0 victory over Orlando City Soccer Club on Wednesday at the Queens University Athletic Complex. 

No surprise, given the left ear full of gauze that he was sporting after rupturing an eardrum in a collision with an Orlando player. But that didn’t stop the former Wake Forest star from scoring a pair of late goals to give Charlotte (9-13-3, 30 points) another push in its scramble for a USL Pro League playoff spot. 

“Maybe I should do the other ear for the next game,” Thompson said. “Crazy things happen. But a game like this shows what a team can do when they believe in each other.” 

The win was the first ever for the Eagles against league-leading Orlando (16-3-4, 52 points). And barring a playoff rematch it might be the last, given the the Florida club’s departure for Major League Soccer at the end of this season. 

Regardless, it’s a major stride in Charlotte’s late-season playoff drive. If the playoffs started today, the Eagles would be in the eighth and last spot by a point — matched up against Orlando. Three regular season games remain. 

“We have to be careful not to think that we have it made,” Charlotte coach Mark Steffens said. “We’re still in a hole, but this is really good for our confidence.” 

The Eagles played the visitors to a standoff for much of the match. Neither team generated many scoring chances in a scoreless first half in which Orlando outshot Charlotte, 6-4. 

“We decided to press them for certain periods in the game,” Steffens said. “Our best shot was to disrupt their rhythm and I think we did that pretty well. The guys stepped up to the challenge.” 

Steffens praised the defensive effort of Thompson on Orlando’s standout defender Luke Boden. And Thompson became the offensive star as well starting in the 72nd minute. 

He took a pass from Zak Boggs and launched a low, hard shot from the top of the 18-yard box for the game’s first goal. 

The second goal came in stoppage time at the end of the match, when forward Tyrone Hall collected a loose ball and left a back pass for Thompson. His shot from about 10 feet out found the back of the net. 

“Those were two great finishes,” Steffens said. “We came close to taking him out (after the ear injury), but the doctor said he could still play. He’s a special player.” 

NOTES: The Eagles’ next game is Aug. 29 at home against Pittsburgh at the Queens Athletic Complex..Former Charlotte 49ers standout Giuseppe Gentile, who started the season with the Eagles, was signed by Orlando last month. 


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