Saturday, September 1, 2012

DNC reminds me of first Panther playoff game

For much of Charlotte's recent history, our biggest moments have had something to do with sports.

The ascendance of Charlotte as a banking town has drawn enormous attention. But when it comes to standing in the white-hot glare of a spotlight for a short period of time, the Democratic National Convention has a lot in common with the NFL, the NBA and the Final Four games that Charlotte has hosted.

Charlotte has long been NASCAR's hub. By the 1980s, it had grown used to the crowds in excess of 100,000 at Charlotte Motor Speedway to watch legendary drivers like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. But racing was considered only a Southern sport back then, so the city didn't really feel like it was big league until it got its first big-league team -- the Charlotte Hornets, in 1988.

That team spawned the sort of endearing enthusiasm that is hard to imagine now. The first Hornets team lost 76 percent of its games, but still led the NBA in attendance and was celebrated after the season with an uptown parade. About 30,000 people showed up, and they dropped 4,000 pounds of confetti on the pleasantly surprised players.

I joined The Charlotte Observer as a reporter in 1994, the week before the men's Final Four tipped off in Charlotte.

Charlotte's center city was basically an office park then, with nightlife nearly non-existent. So organizers concocted the "Street of Champions" -- a four-block facade of temporary bars and restaurants that were shoehorned into empty storefronts.

Although it barely lasted longer than a soap bubble, the "Street of Champions" didn't seem ridiculous at the time. It seemed necessary, because fans needed something to do between games.

Richard Vinroot was Charlotte's mayor during that Final Four. "Now we've got a lot of real stuff in uptown," Vinroot said in an interview, "and not a lot of made-up stuff."
Vinroot now serves on Charlotte's host and steering committee for the DNC -- "a token Republican," as he said. A former basketball player at North Carolina, he is well-versed in both politics and sports.

"As a one-time event, the DNC certainly doesn't compare with having the NFL here every Sunday," Vinroot said. "But on a national and international stage, I can't think of anything bigger than this, other than the Super Bowl or the Olympics."

While the convention's first two days will take place at the arena where the Bobcats recently strung together the worst season in NBA history, it shifts Thursday for President Barack Obama'speech to Bank of America Stadium -- home of the Panthers, quarterback Cam Newton and a resounding sense of optimism about this year's squad.

That 70,000-seat stadium opened for the Panthers' 1996 season and has hosted a number of major gatherings since, including a Rolling Stones concert, a Billy Graham crusade and two playoff wins versus the Dallas Cowboys.

Of all those events, I've never seen Charlotte as giddy as it was before the first playoff game in the stadium on Jan.5, 1997. The Cowboys were America's team and the defending Super Bowl champions, with a Fab Four of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders. The Panthers were hard-hitting no-names. But Carolina won.

What's going on now in Charlotte has the feel of that first NFL playoff game of 15 years ago. There's a giddiness to this, and an unpredictability, too.

We are worried and happy. Ecstatic and irritable. Despite all the prep work, we're not totally sure we're ready.

And while this time there are no footballs or basketballs in sight, the same feelings of trepidation and exhilaration remain.

This is new enough to us that we still wonder: What will others think of us? What sort of job will we do? Is everyone going to have a good time?

Unlike a sports event, the ultimate outcome of the DNC is pre-ordained. Obama -- who on Saturday was already on his "Road to Charlotte" tour -- will accept the Democratic Party's presidential nomination once again on Thursday night.

So there is no mystery about the ending.

But getting to the end? That's what will make DNC week in Charlotte so provocative.


Anonymous said...

Hey Scott

This whole thing reminds me of the Cardinal playoff game...leaving feeling disgusted and wanting to get rid of our coach and most of the choking players