Bobcats, Tar Heels and corndogs
On Twitter: @Castrovince
NOTE: The following has absolutely nothing to do with baseball. Sorry.
Somewhere along Interstate 77 — the main artery connecting Athens, Ohio, to Chapel Hill, N.C. — there is a Flying J gas and diesel station. It’s the kind of place where truckers bathe and weary passengers re-energize themselves with 64-ounce fountain drinks.
And at this particular Flying J on a particular afternoon in February 2002, the great American dream that is the 99-cent footlong corndog was indeed a reality.
There were five of us crammed into a Chevy Cavalier (a vehicle that, as any owner of a Chevy Cavalier can attest, comfortably holds about 2 3/8 people) when we happened upon this Flying J and this amazing luncheon availability, and my buddy Brad was inspired enough to call the emergency assistance phone number listed on the side of the highway to report neither an accident nor a disturbance but rather the corndog discovery.
So began, in earnest, one of the more remarkable road trips of both my journalistic and my college career. In that car were four aspiring sports reporters and one corndog-crazed poly sci major from Ohio University, traveling to Tobacco Road, bound for the Dean Dome come hell or flat tire. Our Bobcats were facing the North Carolina Tar Heels on national TV, but, for us, mere ESPN2 would not be sufficient enough for a matchup of this magnitude.
I was, at the time, an OU junior and Athens Messenger beat reporter. Also shoved in that car were three fellow J-schoolers named Dana, Bryce and Matt, all of whom worked for the campus TV station. And then there was Brad, a good friend for whom I had rather unethically finagled a Messenger press pass, so that he could see his beloved Bobcats on the big stage.
The seven-hour trek to the UNC campus was marked by the cramped quarters, the bad jokes, the fast-food stops and an untimely empty gas tank at Fancy Gap. But we made it. And to a group all-too-accustomed to half-empty Mid-American Conference gyms, there was something mystical about stepping into that arena, packed with patrons in poofy blue.
Brad and I took our spots on press row behind one of the baskets. I instructed him that we must refrain from showing any emotion. “No cheering in the press box” and all that. But who was I kidding? For one, Brad was that rare Ohio student who was actually a fan of the school’s teams (he invented the greatest fan tradition that never became a tradition — “The Claw,” which was some kind of hand motion vaguely resembling an attacking cat but that really just wound up looking like a lame show choir routine). And though I’d like to think I did a fine job of maintaining some semblance of impartiality during my four years as a student reporter, this was about as close to the national stage as any OU team had come in my tenure there, and I wanted them to shine.
Really, that entire 2001-02 season was supposed to be special. This was an OU team that entered the season as the purported class of the MAC. They had a CC Sabathia-sized power forward named Brandon Hunter, who could often be found driving his oversized Hummer down the tiny brick streets of Athens. They had a lanky beanpole of a center named Patrick Flomo, a true man about town who my friend and fellow writer Jon Greenberg once described as “an ebony exclamation point on a campus of white dots.” They had a couple sharp-shooters named Steve Esterkamp and Jon Sanderson and a sixth-man sparkplug named Sonny Johnson, who averaged about 16 points per game.
It was a good team, one I was certain would go deep into the MAC tournament and maybe, just maybe, reach the NCAAs. OU had dumped its longtime leader Larry Hunter after a 19-win season the year before and hired a rookie head coach named Tim O’Shea, who had this awesome habit of name-dropping Boston College (where he had served as an assistant) and Troy Bell (whom he had recruited) in every single press conference he ever conducted. He was quirky and cocky and quotable and therefore was a dream to cover.
O’Shea had scheduled this UNC game as the Bobcats’ national coming-out party, and he had good timing. The Tar Heels were terrible. They were in the thick of the utterly abominable Matt Doherty era, en route to an 8-20 finish.
Still, it was North Carolina, and these were the former stomping grounds of Smith, of Worthy, of Jordan. This was a distinct change of pace from the Toledo Rockets and Akron Zips.
The game remains one of my favorite sporting events I’ve covered to date. OU took a 33-29 lead into the half. Then they went up 69-53 late in the second half on a two-handed dunk by the Ebony Exclamation Point. It was all Brad and I could do not to stand up and start deliriously high-fiving and hugging each other.
Then came the run. It all happened so quickly that the details don’t even register anymore. All I know is that from about the six-minute mark to the two-minute mark, UNC went on one of those NBA Jam-type outbursts where the basket goes aflame. I’ve been to countless (OK, actually 34) Springsteen concerts, I was there when Nelson Cruz couldn’t catch David Freese’s line drive in Game 6, I’ve sat next to crying babies on airplanes. But perhaps because I was emotionally invested in this titanic tilt, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything louder than the eruption when UNC cut the OU lead to 73-70 that night.
Suddenly, the whole experience was in jeopardy. If OU blew this lead, the corndogs wouldn’t be the only things causing indigestion.
He played the point.
A 6-foot-7, 270-pound beast of a man took the ball, waved his teammates down the court as if to say, “Get out of my way,” dribbled behind his back, drove through the paint and dished it to Flomo, who put down another thunder dunk.
The Tar Heels never threatened again.
And the Bobcats, frankly, were never all that fun to watch again. Not only did they not win the MAC tourney that year, as so many had predicted, they didn’t even advance out of the opening round, despite playing the tournament’s 13 seed at home. They were similarly disappointing my senior year.
In the time since, the entire culture of OU athletics has changed. The football team, which went 1-10 my junior year, now goes to bowl games (even, ahem, when it blows 20-0 halftime leads in the MAC title game). The basketball team has been to the NCAAs not once not twice but thrice in the last seven years, beating Georgetown in 2010.
And now, for the first time since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams, the Bobcats are in the Sweet 16.
And they’re facing North Carolina.
I am, needless to say, utterly envious of the student reporters traveling to St. Louis this weekend, and I hope they soak in every element of the experience not just for their own clips and broadcasts but for the stories they’ll one day be passing down. And I am, of course, a very, very proud Ohio fan and alum.
I don’t know what’s going to happen Friday night. I suppose the odds are pretty decent that the Bobcats will get drilled by a UNC team vastly superior in size and standing.
But then again, in a world in which you can buy 99-cent footlong corndogs by the side of the road, anything seems possible.
UPDATE: Found a YouTube video of that evening… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLfX1G6TLF4