Just in case you still can’t get to it 49er, here’s the text:
49ers Going To The Big Dance
UNC-Charlotte preps for the big time
BY TIMOTHY C. DAVIS
“Rivers ran upstream. Sphinxes keeled over. Pyramids turned to dust. Hell froze over, the great 49er in the sky struck gold and his UNCC basketball team rose up and slew a giant.” — Glenn Rollins, The Charlotte Observer, March 20, 1977
“I told you (in the media) that Charlotte may have the most talented starting five in the league.” — Cincinnati Bearcats coach Bobby Huggins, January 30, 2004
It’s homecoming weekend at UNC-Charlotte. Tailgaters fill parking lots with pickups, Jeeps, and SUVs. Barbecues curl smoke into the blue winter sky. Baseball and softball games are taking place, dinners and dances, and all the mugging and mingling you’d expect from such an alcohol-soaked affair.
Soon, the de facto centerpiece of the weekend — a Conference USA men’s basketball clash between the Southern Miss Golden Eagles and the Charlotte 49ers — is set to begin.
Inside the school’s Halton Arena, every second person is wearing green and gold. The student section is rowdy yet straightforward in their taunting, sort of a Mad TV to the Saturday Night Live of Duke University’s famed “Cameron Crazies.” Coeds wear shirts emblazoned with legends like “Niner Nation,” “Got Lutz? We Do!”, and the ever-popular “Get Drunk Go Niners.” Fans sitting behind the backboards have been handed large polka-dot-affixed signs with which to hound opposing free throw shooters.
It’s also Senior Day, so before the game Niners Brendan Plavich, Chris Sager, Eddie Basden and Marcus Bennett are escorted to center court with their families. Sager and Bennett are lauded for their hard work in helping the team in practice, and commended for their great attitudes. Plavich receives huzzahs for his uncanny three-point marksmanship (at press time, Plavich was leading the country with four three pointers per game). Eddie Basden’s introduction — he’s the Conference USA Player of the Year, was called the best defensive player in the country by ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated — seems to go on forever. Basden accepts the applause coolly, walking stone-faced to the center of the court to pose with head coach Bobby Lutz before walking hand-in-hand with his mother back to the sidelines.
As the lights go down and an NBA-style 49er logo spins upon the hardwood, Basden and Co. stare at the floor until their names are called, after which the ritual hand slaps and nervous bouncing ensue. They’re happy to be where they are, for sure — the team has progressed to the point where people like Detroit Pistons GM and former NBA All-Star Joe Dumars take in 49ers games in person — but you can tell they’d rather be playing basketball, throwing down tomahawk dunks in traffic and lofting three pointers from the baseline. Basketball’s just too fun right now, you see.
As of this writing, Basden and the 49ers were ranked 24th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll and 25th in the AP poll, rankings the team hasn’t consistently enjoyed since the days of Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell and the 1977 squad that made it to the Final Four. Sure, there have been NCAA tournament appearances (most notably under Jeff Mullins, with three, and Lutz, who now has four), as well as a number of area fan favorites like Byron Dinkins, Henry Williams, Jarvis Lang and DeMarco Johnson, mid-level players mostly spurned by the bigger schools but who went on to fine college and overseas basketball careers.
“Any of our (former players) are welcome anytime they want to come back,” says Lutz, who was named to his post in 1998 after Melvin Watkins left to coach Texas A&M. “Henry Williams lives around here, and he spent some time with (point guard) Mitchell Baldwin over the summer, helping him work on his game. Byron Dinkins. DeMarco Johnson works out here when he’s home from overseas. Galen Young, Diego Guevara, all of them! We try and promote that, that sense of family. Tremaine Gardner comes to every game, and a lot of guys still live here and come as much as they can. It helps build a tradition.”
Yes, there’s something different about this team. Something has changed, even with the team’s 0-for-3 performance stretching over the last two games of the season and the first round of conference tournament play. Some weird alchemy of physical ability and mental tenacity has morphed into the same sort of “can do” squad the team boasted during the '77 championship run. Old players like those mentioned above have returned to take in games, giving a helpful word of advice or pat on the back to the new kids. There’s an excitement inside the arena. Taking in a game at Halton feels like family again. In other words, a homecoming.
“One thing to say really quick. The Observer sucks. I think the 49ers get more coverage up here in the Washington Post than down there in that kiss-ass paper. The Observer has its head so far up UNC/Duke’s ass that they could tell me what Coach K and Coach ‘I have never won anything in my life’ Williams had for dinner.” — “MD49er,” on NinerNation.com
The standard complaint from 49er fans is the lack of support from Charlotte media and fans. Growing up the new kid on the block always has its drawbacks. In UNC-Charlotte’s case, it has many of the same problems its home city does — awkward growth spurts, bureaucratic wrang ling, and a desire to leapfrog its way into national prominence without necessarily doing the work needed to invite such attention. In the case of the men’s basketball team, another shadowy figure comes into play: that of Tobacco Road, the holy nexus of NC State, North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest.
Basketball may not be a religion on Tobacco Road, but after listening to a local sports talk show, you’d be forgiven for making that assumption. Witness the heart-stopping games a couple of weeks ago, wherein UNC beat Duke and Wake topped State, both on last-second buzzer beaters. Fans lit up the lines all week, either proclaiming coaching miracles or referee curses, depending on their allegiances. As with religion, it seems it’s all about the translation.
“Charlotte has been on a great run since the ECU game in late January, and the undefeated month in February has spurred momentum heading into post-season play,” says WFNZ’s Prime Time with the Packman host Mark Packer. “When you have a legitimate Top-20 basketball team, Niner fans shouldn’t worry about what is going on on Tobacco Road. If you want to participate on the radio show with the ACC fans, then you’ve got to get involved and talk some smack.”
Fellow radio host Sandy Penner (The Penner and Mac Show) feels UNC-C’s real battle is in fighting tradition, not its upstate “rivals.”
“We’ve always had a strong core group of Niner fans who listen and call the program,” says Penner. “The fans that follow the program faithfully are great and have been there for Bobby’s entire tenure. The 49er faithful aren’t afraid of the ACC fans; it’s simply that any person who’s lived their whole life in Charlotte but didn’t go to the school is likely an ACC fan. It’s unfortunate but that probably won’t be changing anytime soon.”
Also key in the program’s perceived lack of exposure and respect? That other cog in the “religious” machine: cold, hard cash.
“Winning is the greatest promotion,” says Packer. “And if everything falls into place, the Niners will continue that trend in a big way next year in the A-10. I know Charlotte has a limited marketing budget, and that is certainly a challenge in a city like this. It’s tough for them to compete, marketing-wise, against the NFL, the NBA, and even NASCAR, for that matter. But they need to sell the Halton Experience. It is a great place to watch a game: terrific product and great atmosphere. That’s a good combination to sell to the general public, regardless of your marketing budget.”
“The city of Charlotte is so overrun by University of North Carolina grads, the town probably feels like it would be wasting time and money trying to support the program,” continues Penner. “I think a lot of the responsibility falls on the school itself. Many of the games aren’t on TV, which is a must if you want to gain exposure in your own town. Having the NBA back won’t help, because there’s only so much entertainment dollar to go around. The citizens of Charlotte have to understand that there’s a great team right here in town, representing the city. The public just needs to be exposed to it. You know the old saying, ‘if a tree fell in the forest, and no one was around to hear it, did it really happen’? Well, if the Niners play and the game’s not on TV, did the game really happen?”
With most of the team’s games on Bobcats owner Robert Johnson’s struggling C-SET television network — the same viewer-deprived forest the Bobcats currently prowl — Penner’s question is certainly worth considering.
But what of a program like Spokane, WA’s Gonzaga, a smallish Jesuit school whose only real claim to fame until recently was being the alma mater of John Stockton — the NBA’s all-time assist leader — back in the early 80s? Since the late 90s, the Bulldogs always ranked among the top 10 or 15 teams in the country, and annually make deep forays into the NCAA Tournament. How, you might ask? Well, they started winning — regularly — under head coach Mark Few. With winning came more TV exposure. With winning and TV exposure came better recruits, like current stars and NBA prospects Ronny Turiaf and Adam Morrison. With better recruits came even more wins, a regional TV package with Fox, and the opening of the new 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center. And all for a team that the majority of college basketball fans can’t even agree how to pronounce. So why couldn’t the Niners do the same?
“We’re definitely getting a lot more media attention. (However) we realize all the love will be gone almost immediately if we’re not winning. If we win, it’ll only help us and our school…and the guys to come.” — senior guard Brendan Plavich
Niner head coach Bobby Lutz, like any coach, is a man apt to speak in cliche and platitude on occasion, but he’s nonetheless rather frank about where UNC-C’s basketball program is today: on the cusp. On the outside looking in and on the inside looking out, all at the same time. They’re making invitations to The Dance an annual event, but once the team arrives they’re spending much of their time by the punch bowl, watching others twirl about before they make their early exit.
Lutz says the biggest key with this year’s squad is that the players, perhaps more so than in years past, are willing to play whatever role is called for in order to help the team succeed. Expectations for the 49ers in this year’s NCAA tournament are high — at press time, most people predicted a six- or seven-seed for the team — but Lutz feels his team has the makeup necessary to meet or even exceed them.
“We’re not concerned with (popular acclaim) so much,” says Lutz. “But our success has definitely opened doors for us, no doubt. I think (the players) also appreciate and understand that because our team is successful, they’re being given all these individual accolades. It all comes from playing together as a team. It’s nice to see that you can have a squad where nobody averages 20 points a game and that people can still appreciate what it is we do to win games.”
Good teams — teams that consistently end up in the Sweet Sixteen, The Elite Eight, The Final Four — play together too, of course. However, teams like Illinois, Duke, and North Carolina can put up with a certain amount of freelancing from their star athletes. After all, when all things are equal, a close-knit, unselfish team with superior athletes is going to beat a close-knit, unselfish team with mediocre-to-good athletes every time. But how to get these superior athletes?
Getting there early counts for a lot. The Niners have — inexplicably — received an oral commitment from Maryland forward Michael Beasley, the number-two-ranked player in the 2007 high school graduating class. Beasley is consistently ranked second behind guard O.J. Mayo, a player so well thought of that he has LeBron James on speed dial and has been announcing his intentions to go pro ever since he entered high school. No doubt Beasley would be a boon to the program, but assuming he enrolls and doesn’t go pro himself — and that’s a pretty big assumption — would he end up doing more to harm the 49er team than help it, considering that he’d probably leave after another year or so? A Carolina, Duke, or Wake Forest can swallow the loss of a star player or two to the NBA much better than a program like Charlotte can, at least at this point. The sudden signing of star freshman forward Rodney White to the Detroit Pistons as a 2002 lottery pick set the team back for at least a year or two, even as the program managed to sign Basden and point guard Mitchell Baldwin — and Brendan Plavich as a transfer a year or two later — to help replace him.
Junior-college players like junior guard E. J. Drayton and transfers like Plavich are good for the bottom line, and — as long as they’re not simply trying to use the school as a springboard for their post-college basketball careers — a solid way to bolster a school’s recruiting class. Along with a strong grouping of high school athletes, they allow a team to create a long-term, on-court familiarity that some of the bigger-name schools with all their blink-and-you-miss-'em NBA prospects have a harder time creating.
“Coach got in contact with me pretty quick,” says guard Brendan Plavich, a regular on ESPN’s Sportscenter due to his penchant for shooting three pointers from what seems a few steps inside halfcourt. "I arrived in Charlotte real late, like 12 o’clock at night, and he was already at the hotel waiting for me. I knew then that he was a player’s coach. He was just easy to talk to. And the style of play was a big draw. I knew shooters did well in the program — Diego Guevara and Jobey Thomas and guys like that — and I knew the style was ‘up and down,’ which I like to play.
“After all these years of playing, (this team) always hangs out together. We joke together in the bus, the hotel rooms, whenever we get together. It’s a loose group, and we’re all in it together. I think a lot of it carries over to the court. You can’t build that. It just has to happen.”
“The Atlantic 10 provides our institution with a strong home for our athletics program and for our basketball teams, in particular. We are committed to growing our athletic department, and recent developments changed the landscape in which we compete. The Atlantic 10 presents an incredible opportunity — not just an opportunity to move to an established basketball league, but to be a part of a league that is as committed to basketball as we are.” — Judy Rose, Charlotte Athletic Director
The biggest question currently facing the 49ers is their move next year to the Atlantic-10, a smaller but basketball-rich conference mostly comprised of other teams that, like UNC-Charlotte, lack a football program.
“A lot of fans I talk to say this school needs a Division-1 Football program to get basketball the respect it deserves,” says Sandy Penner. "That’s not entirely true. St John’s, no D-1 football. Georgetown, no. St Joseph’s, which was the #1 team in the country for a lot of last season, has no D-1 football. The New York, Washington and Philadelphia areas all have strong college basketball backgrounds, but then again, so does Charlotte. It’ll take a while — and the Niner program will probably have to work harder for love than most schools in the same situation would — but this a solid program in a basketball-mad area. It’ll work and the program will be a rousing success.
“The move to the A-10 will hurt in some ways, but there will also be some hidden benefits. Obviously, the conference does not have the name teams Conference USA had. Nobody’s going to rearrange their schedule because Dayton is coming to town. But, if you look on the flipside, the A-10 has a lot of history, and an excellent TV deal that should get most of the Niner games televised. A hidden benefit of the move to the A-10 is the recruiting foothold this can give Lutz in the talent-rich Northeast. Kids in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Ohio will now get a chance to be exposed to Lutz and the Niners. It’s an area that needs to be cultivated if Charlotte wants to be a factor nationally.”
“The Niners are at a crossroads with the move into the Atlantic 10 next season,” says Packer. "They will lose the rivalries with Cincinnati, Louisville and Memphis that have been created because of their consistent play in Conference USA, but they have a chance to be one of the dominating teams in the A-10. Assuming the Niners can make a deep run into the NCAA tourney, Bobby Lutz will be on the short list of many teams around the country.
“The A-10 is a step back from a basketball standpoint compared to Conference USA, but the Niners will have to use that as a positive in selling the fact that they can become the dominant team in the new conference.”
Their coach, as is his wont, prefers to see the situation in black and white: the Niners didn’t really have much say in the whole affair in the first place.
“I’m sad Conference USA is breaking up, because the league’s been really good for us,” says Lutz. “And we’ve been really good for the league. But…the league broke up. It wasn’t our choice. The fact that Louisville and Cincinnati and Marquette and South Florida were leaving didn’t give us much of a choice. (Conference USA) was going with a lot of Texas schools, so when the Atlantic-10 called we had to listen because it was a natural fit. We don’t have football, and the A-10 is a basketball league. I can’t say it’s going to be better than what Conference USA has been. But at the same time, we have no reservations. We just have to keep winning.”
For Lutz, the challenge is still the same: win games, regardless of Top-10 recruits, school funding, or conference affiliation. Win games, and good things will happen. Win games, or else. Which brings us right back to where we started: build the program, and they will come — fans, the local and national press corp, better recruits.
There’s a famous aphorism which, if you do a Google search, brings up thousands of different variations: “____ begins at home.” Whether you fill in that blank with words like “charity” or “literacy,” the meaning is the same. Everything begins with the person, and with the family you surround yourself with, creating a base that everything else — respect, recognition, NCAA Tournament victories — can grow out of.
If that adage is true, Niner fans can expect “homecoming” at UNC-Charlotte to be an occasion they’ll soon be able to celebrate year-round. Perhaps even in late March.