Monday, February 28, 2011

Have photo, need story: The Mounted Bear

I found this at Caribou Coffee in Matthews. Why is this bear mounted? Isn't being mounted AND stuffed sort of unfair? What's the story here? You tell me. Come up with a story (cap it at a couple hundred words) and leave it in the comments. Life is such a mystery sometimes.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Gerald Wallace and the Bobcats' special need

I'm not an expert on the NBA. You probably know by now that I'm not an expert on ANYTHING -- the old line goes, journalists don't know anything, they just know how to find out.

If you want expertise on the Gerald Wallace trade you should to go to Rick Bonnell or Tom Sorensen or Scott Fowler, or pretty much anybody else. I'm just a casual Bobcats fan -- I watch on TV every once in a while and go to one or two games a year. So understand that going in.

Here are a few things about the Bobcats that seem obvious to me.

1. They weren't going anywhere this year. Even with Wallace they were 25-32, a game and a half out of the playoffs. Even if they did make the playoffs they'd get killed by Boston or Miami or Orlando.

2. Not many people were coming to the games anyway. Against Toronto the other night, scads of seats in the lower bowl were empty. People who want to come see the Lakers or Celtics are going to come regardless of the Bobcats' roster. I'm not sure how many people bought tickets because Gerald Wallace played here.

(I should stop here and say that Wallace was my favorite Bobcat -- he was good at a dozen different little things and always hustled. I'm just talking about him as a ticket draw.)

3. The Bobcats need stars -- not just to draw fans, but to win titles. My buddy Joe talked about this the other day in the context of Carmelo Anthony going to the Knicks. It's been more than 30 years since a team won an NBA title without one or two of the top players in the league. Wallace was one of our two best players. Stephen Jackson is the other. I'm not sure either one would start for any of the six or seven best teams in the league. It's not 100% clear that Wallace is even going to start for Portland, which is 32-25 and seventh in the West.

4. No top free agents are going to come here. This might be the hardest to swallow for the diehard Bobcats fan, who dreams of seeing Dwight Howard or Chris Paul in the home team's uniform. But the Bobcats play in one of the smallest markets in the NBA, with one of the quietest home crowds, and no history of winning. Even a maximum contract wouldn't lure a truly great player here.

Those four points naturally lead to a fifth: The only chance the Bobcats have is to build through the draft. That's why the Wallace deal makes sense -- it brings two first-round picks in return. No question the Bobcats will be worse in the short term. But the absolute ceiling of the current team -- even with Wallace -- was winning a game or two in the first round of the playoffs.
That team wasn't worth saving.

But I think there's more to it than just taking the best players in the draft. The Bobcats have to be looking for a certain kind of player -- someone with the talent to be a star, but the personality to be happy in Charlotte.

Their role model should be the Utah Jazz. The Jazz have been a relevant NBA team for the last 25 years because of two draft picks: John Stockton and Karl Malone. Neither was a high pick -- Stockton went 16th in 1984, Malone went 13th in '85. But together they created one of the greatest two-man combos in NBA history.

They became stars who commanded huge salaries and could have played anywhere they wanted. But at the core, both were small-town guys -- Malone played college ball at Louisiana Tech, Stockton at Gonzaga. They knew they had a good thing in Salt Lake City. The Jazz kept their core, and filled in around them with role players. That Jazz team never won a title -- thank the Bobcats' owner for that -- but they went to the Finals twice, and Utah has kept winning even after Stockton and Malone retired.

San Antonio took Tim Duncan -- from Wake Forest, via the Virgin Islands -- with the first pick in 1997. He was immediately a star and could have gone anywhere. He stayed and the Spurs have won four titles.

That's why the worst moment in Bobcats history was taking Adam Morrison with the third pick in 2006. He was the right kind of guy, I think -- a quiet kid from Gonzaga (Stockton's old school). Only problem was, he couldn't play. A team like the Bobcats can't afford for any first-round pick to flame out.

The team has drafted better recently -- D.J. Augustin is a solid NBA starter, and with Wallace gone, we're about to find out if Gerald Henderson is, too. Michael Jordan, as owner of the Bobcats, has so far been all about saving money -- the Nazr Mohammed deal shows that. But it makes sense for now. Who's he going to spend it on? A couple more players who will get the Bobcats from average to decent? The big free agents who don't stay home are going to Miami or Boston or L.A. -- places with warm weather or free-spending owners or lots of history.

But you can still win in the NBA from the bottom up. The Bobcats' only chance is to keep adding picks, and keep drafting the right kind of guys, and hope. It seems like a mess right now. But there's a pony in there somewhere. And the Bobcats have to find it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Time running out for Queens workshop

So I'm teaching this workshop at Queens University on how to be a professional writer, and it turns out the seats are filling up fast. The workshop is March 5 and 12 (that's all one workshop -- we do half the first Saturday and the other half the next Saturday). If you're interested, go sign up now.

I've been doing workshops at Queens for a while now, and they're designed to be low-pressure -- I'm not grading papers or giving exams or anything. (Although there might be some homework.) I'm still learning this teaching stuff, but I think you'll come out of it having learned something too.

Here's a video clip from an earlier class, about submitting your work for publication. We'll be talking about this in a lot more detail in the upcoming workshop.

Come hang out with us. It'll be fun.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Tonight -- storytelling WITHOUT A NET

You can't possibly come up with a better deal than this... tonight from 7 to 9, at Central Coffee (corner of 10th and Louise), I'll be joining several other folks for a storytelling event called The Cankerworm.

Did I mention it's free?

And did I mention you get a free coffee or tea just for showing up?

That's a winner before you ever hear a story, and I'm guessing there will be some good stories. The theme for the night is Trust, and each person who comes to the mike will be telling a 5-minute story based on that theme. This is not a reading -- we're going up there with no notes. Which, frankly, scares the crap out of me.

My story will touch on Ric Flair, TV antennas, the Fu Manchu mustache, family dynamics and maybe one or two other things. That's assuming I don't just go blank onstage and collapse in a puddle of flop sweat.

The Cankerworm name is a nod to The Moth, the storytelling series that started in New York and has spread around the country. Here's a Moth performance from Philly to give you a little idea of what it's like.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Byline of the century

The great Chris Jones of Esquire magazine wrote the other day about some of his favorite bylines -- not so much for the writing (although they're all fine writers), but just for the sound of the names.

Being a Tommy (it's Tommy on my birth certificate) has caused the occasional problem in print. At my first paper in Augusta, Ga., I wrote a story a reader didn't like, so she wrote a letter to the editor saying it was obvious you couldn't trust a story from a reporter with a "childish euphemism" for a name.

My nickname was Childish Euphemism around the newsroom for a while.

When I applied to the Observer back in 1989, they sent me some papers to critique, and the first thing I noticed was all the tremendous bylines. I fell in love with three right away: John Wildman, Lolo Pendergrast, and the best of them all, Tex O'Neill.

After I got hired I found out that John Wildman was a mellow guy -- he left the paper to become a mailman (I imagined a series of adventure novels: "John Wildman, Mailman.") Lolo Pendergrast turned out to be even wilder than her name. And Tex O'Neill in the flesh didn't look like a Tex or an O'Neill, but he was a brave reporter who kept a huge aquarium and collected arrowheads.

All of which leads me to this.

Last night a bunch of us from the paper went to the North Carolina Press Association awards, where we brought home some bling. As part of the ceremony, they read off the names of everyone who won an award. The contest is split into six divisions, from the smallest papers to the largest, so it adds up to hundreds of names.

Well, there's a little paper up in the mountains called the Cherokee One Feather -- I believe it covers the members of the Cherokee tribe up there. One of its staffers won an award. His name:

Scott M. Brings Plenty.

I submit that as the Greatest Byline of All Time. And I don't even want to know what the M. stands for.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

From the vault: At the National Spelling Bee

A little ping of memory rang in my head this morning when I saw the results of the Observer's Regional Spelling Bee.

The third-place finisher was Tanner Winchester, a home-schooled kid from Waxhaw. I haven't seen Tanner in a few years, but I know him. His older brother is Marshall Winchester -- the best speller from these parts in recent history.

In 2004, Marshall tied for fourth at the National Spelling Bee in Washington. I've covered a bunch of competitive events -- the Panthers' Super Bowl, a few Final Fours, the ACC Tournament -- but that spelling bee was more dramatic than any of those. I was standing about 25 feet away when this happened to Akshay Buddiga, one of the other contestants:

I can't tell you how much I love that he got up and SPELLED THE WORD RIGHT.

Here's the story from Marshall's final day at the Bee that year. Some days -- most days -- I feel really lucky to have this job. This was one of those days.


June 4, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Marshall Winchester had planned a graceful exit.

A couple of days ago he went to his friend Nupur Lala, who won the 1999 National Spelling Bee. He asked if she would escort him offstage when he got knocked out of this year's bee.

She said: "Marshall, I don't think you're going out anytime soon."

Smart girl.

Ten million spellers entered local bees this year. Of those, 265 made it to the national bee.

And on Thursday, Marshall Winchester of Mineral Springs tied for fourth.

Marshall, who's 12 and home-schooled, won $1,625, a prime seat at tonight's banquet, and newfound celebrity.

Kids lined up for his autograph. A parent came up to him and called him a hall-of-famer: "If there was a Cooperstown for spelling, you oughta be in it."

An N.C. blogger named Mr. Sun rooted for him online, posting a picture of Mel Gibson in "Braveheart" as inspiration.

Still, the thing that made Marshall the happiest all day was the word "zarzuela."

Zarzuela is the musical theater or light opera of Spain. More important, it's a word Marshall knows, and it got him past the seventh round. He had missed in that round last year and ended up tied for 12th. Marshall's only goal this year was to finish better than that.

When the pronouncer said "zarzuela, " Marshall's reply was: "Really?"

And when he spelled it right, he screamed "YES!", threw up his arms, and ran two rows past his seat before he circled back and found it.

By then the spelling bee had turned into a miniseries, full of joy, humor, agony, and a moment you'll probably see on ESPN's "SportsCenter" for the rest of your life.

At the start of Round 6 - on live TV - Akshay Buddiga of Colorado Springs tried to tackle "alopecoid." As he stood there thinking, apparently the word caught him flush on the jaw - he reeled for a couple of steps and then fell flat on his back across the feet of the spellers behind him.

Everybody thought he was out cold. Some of the grown-ups rushed toward the stage. But after a moment he got up, wobbled to the mike - and spelled the word right.

From then on they brought a chair to the mike every time it was his turn. And somehow he lasted all the way to the end, finishing second when he missed "schwarmerei" in Round 14.

By then, his opponent - David Tidmarsh of South Bend, Ind. - could barely breathe. But he spelled "gaminerie" to clear that round, and then "autochthonous" to win the bee.

After "zarzuela" in Round 7, Marshall nailed "vendaval" (an autumnal storm on the Mexican coast) in Round 8. He raised his arms again and ran "Rocky"-style back to his chair.

By the end of that round there were five spellers left. The families of the remaining spellers had been invited to sit at the side of the stage. Marshall's dad, Eric, and mom, Grindl, squeezed close. Marshall's little brother, Tanner, scrunched down in his mom's lap. It was cold in the Grand Hyatt ballroom but Eric kept wiping sweat.

Round 9.

Two spellers got words right. One missed. Then Marshall walked to the front of the stage, grabbed the mike in his right hand, leaned so close you could hear him breathe through the speakers.

Jacques Bailly, the official pronouncer, said the word: "vimineous."

Marshall stared. "Definition, please?"

"Of or producing long, slender twigs or shoots."

Marshall usually asks lots of questions, loud and rapid-fire.

This time he just touched his forehead to the mike.

After a second he raised up, asked about the part of speech, the alternate definition, the main definition one more time.

Then he leaned in.


The head judge nods if you get a word right. She rings a bell if you get it wrong. Marshall watched as she reached for the bell.

The crowd applauded in respect as he went over to the side of the stage and into his mother's arms. For a few minutes he stared at the big screen that showed his word, and the way he had spelled it, and a red E beside, for error.

But soon enough he was laughing with his family. And when the bee was over it seemed like half the audience wanted to meet him.

Yes, he told everybody, he wants to come back. (He's a seventh-grader, and you can qualify through eighth grade.) Yes, he had a great time. And yes, he knew the word that David Tidmarsh spelled to win the bee.

"Maybe I can win next time, " he said. "But I don't know. Fourth is amazing."

About that time his friend Nupur came over. It turned out that he needn't have worried her about escorting him off the stage. He stayed on all the way to the end.

"Congratulations, " she said, wrapping her arms around him, and the kid who was so cool under pressure stood there in full blush.

For the first time all week, he couldn't say a word.


Monday, February 14, 2011

Some Grammy thoughts

We have friends in town so I missed a few chunks of the Grammys... didn't see Lady Gaga hatch for an egg and sing Madonna's "Express Yourself," for example. (That song IS basically "Express Yourself," right?) But I did see a lot of good stuff:

-- Our local boys, the Avett Brothers, looked good in the stage time they shared with Mumford and Sons, and then Bob Dylan. Fans must have enjoyed it, too -- last night, Mumford and the Avetts were #1 and #2 on the iTunes album sales chart. (As of this morning, Justin Bieber had wedged himself in between.)

It was an interesting moment if you've followed the Avetts for a while... Mumford and Sons looked and sounded like the early Avetts, to the point where I saw some people on Twitter asking if they WERE the Avetts. Then the Avetts followed with "Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise," part of the new direction they took on their last album. Made me think a Mumford/Avetts tour would be a lot of fun.

And then Bob Dylan came out.

Yes, he's one of the most important musicians of all time. Yes, his music made it possible for guys like the Avetts to succeed. But as he started croaking his way through "Maggie's Farm," it reminded me of a bunch of kids playing pickup hoops who let Grandpa on the court to try a few set shots. Grandpa was a three-time All-American. But maybe he should just let the kids play.

-- My man Cee-Lo Green went for the full Elton John in his performance of "Forget You," which many of us know in a different (and better) version. Muppets! A Cee-Lo rocket! Gwyneth Paltrow! And it turns out Gwyneth can sing! This was fun all the way around.

(For a little more Cee-Lo, here's him doing "Crazy" with Prince at Madison Square Garden a few nights ago.)

-- Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now" won the two biggest single-song awards: Song of the Year (for songwriters) and Record of the Year (for artists/producers). I do love the song, but I can't help but wonder if Alan Parsons feels like he's finally won a couple of Grammys.

-- Good to see our own General Johnson make it into the People Who Died montage.

-- And finally, Arcade Fire, who beat out Eminem, Gaga, Lady Antebellum and Katy Perry for Album of the Year. It was a night of big production numbers -- Justin Bieber danced with ninjas, and Rihanna did a duet with Drake around a giant version of one of those backyard fire pits. Arcade Fire started out doing their part -- "Month of May" featured seizure-inducing strobe lights and kids with helmet-cams riding bikes around the stage. (I couldn't find it on YouTube.)

But then, going back out to accept the big Grammy, frontman Win Butler said: "We're gonna go play another song, because we like music." And then they played the great "Ready To Start" straight ahead, with no fancy lights or special effects. Just a fine band playing their hearts out on the biggest stage of their lives.

We're gonna go play another song, because we like music. Isn't that all you hope for, as a fan?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

A storytelling event, and a new class at Queens

Some news about a couple of cool things coming up in the next few weeks:

-- I've signed up to be part of a storytelling night called The Cankerworm, Feb. 22 at Central Coffee at the corner of Central and Louise. (Click the link for details, including how to sign up if you'd like to tell a story.) Why is it The Cankerworm? It's a tribute to The Moth, the great storytelling series that started in New York and has spread across the country.

We'll be telling stories of no longer than five minutes, centered on the theme of trust. This is not a reading -- no notes, we have to go up there and wing it. I think I want to tell a story about me, my dad and professional wrestling. But you'll have to come see to find out.

-- I'm also teaching another class at Queens University on March 5 and 12. (That's one class, spread over two sessions.) It's called "A Writer's Life: Building a Career as a Professional Writer." You can sign up here. There's also a handy page Queens was nice enough to build for all my workshops.

Here's a short clip from an earlier class, "Writing in 3-D":

The reviews are in: "brilliant," "groundbreaking," "the best depiction of Mob life since the Godfather movies." Wait... these appear to be reviews of "The Sopranos." Not sure how they got in there. But these classes have been a lot of fun, definitely for me and I think for everybody else, too. Come join in.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

What would Charlotte's Super Bowl ad look like?

The commercial that has the most lingering buzz from the Super Bowl seems to be this Chrysler ad featuring Eminem. The thing is, it's not an ad for Chrysler as much as it is an ad for Detroit. Everybody has this image of Detroit as a burned-out, bankrupt city, and a lot of that is justified. But there's another side, of course, and this Detroit looks pretty great.

WCNC producer Jeremy Markovich, who's on Twitter as @deftlyinane, had some interesting thoughts after seeing the ad. I'm combining a few of his tweets here:

The Chrysler ad makes me wonder, could you do a two minute spot with this much soul about Charlotte? What would it say? Who would it show? How would it make you feel? What would it sell? Is this a corporate town? Could you do a Charlotte ad that doesn't feel like a tourism video? Cause the Detroit ad sure ain't. Who would get out of this car in Charlotte? Mayor Pat? John P. Kee? Dale Jr.? Hugh McColl? K-Ci and JoJo? Steve Smith?

Good questions from Jeremy... so now I turn those questions to you. If you did a commercial for Charlotte, what would be in it?

I'm sure we'll get our fair share of sarcasm in the comments, and that's fine. But I'd like to see some of y'all take it seriously. Sometimes it seems like the only two views we hear of Charlotte are the shiny-corporate view, or the everything-sucks view. But there's a real city here, with its own story. I'm wondering how you'd tell it.

And if you've got some ideas and a video camera, go ahead and make a version of your own! We're not looking for commercial-grade here... a Flip cam and a good idea is enough. Email me the results at

Monday, February 07, 2011

Super Bowl ads, with the Panthers' new biggest fan

This was as close as the Panthers got to the Super Bowl this year. (From this commercial.)

The best comment came from @ on Twitter: Alf in a Panthers jersey?! Sue Myrick and Bill James seen launching probe into this illegal alien's ties to Charlotte.

If you don't know who Alf is, count yourself lucky, but go here if you must. UPDATE: As a couple of astute readers have pointed out, Alf ATE CATS. Which adds a whole new layer of... something... to the whole thing.

Most of the Super Bowl commercials are gathered in one place on YouTube. My favorites were the Doritos resurrection ad ("Grandpa?"), the Eminem/Chrysler ad (although it would be nice if Chrysler made cars as good as the ad), and the Snickers ad with Richard Lewis and Roseanne Barr. It turns out that watching Roseanne get hit with a log never gets old.

Did anybody else notice that the NASCAR ad (I can't find it online) was all about the crashes? And didn't that feel a little off, seeing that we're coming up on the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona?

And poor Groupon... I'm trying to picture that meeting where they took a vote and said "OK, let's use the troubles in Tibet for a cheap joke to sell our stupid coupons." What I always think when I see an ad like that: How bad was the one they DIDN'T use?

I'd say something about the halftime show, but somebody apparently slipped LSD into my beer, because I hallucinated that the Black-Eyed Peas sang the theme from "Dirty Dancing" while a bunch of dancers acted out a scene from "Tron."

Oh, and the game was pretty good, too.