I am a bit late on the scene with this one, but I had been meaning to post for a while on the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame’s five finalists for the greatest sports moment in the history of our state. Recently, the Hall announced that Carolina’s 1957 national title victory over Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas won the voting as the #1 Greatest Moment.
There is little to dispute here – as the most recognizable and widely followed sports institution in the state, this honor, whether bestowed democratically or not, was going to belong to the Heels. The ’57 tournament title is arguably our most significant, and not only for being the first; it was an epic three overtime win over a great team and a great player, and it was the first time that basketball was televised across North Carolina. The following season a collection of regular season games were televised, and Carolina basketball was on its way to becoming one of our state’s most important cultural institutions.
The Hall got it right at the top, important since that moment will define the larger project, which organizers hope will draw more attention to the museum. But the Hall’s list of five finalists peaks early and gets worse. As Scott Fowler points out in his column on the project, the five finalists are without representation by professional sports or Duke.
Both of these omissions are reasonable, and I will even defend Duke’s. Christian Laettner’s game-winning turnaround to defeat Kentucky in 1992 is comfortably in the top five greatest moments in national college basketball history; but at the time the proportion of this state to which it was significant was far too small for it to be a defining moment in our history.
As for the omission of professional sports, I am far from indignant – like most North Carolinians I am first and foremost a college basketball fan, and it is one of the great characteristics of our state that we have had multiple professional sports teams for over a decade yet can put together a top five list excluding them. As I will note shortly, this is not because our pro teams have been terrible. It is because we are one of a small handful of states with access to pro sports teams that have consistently preferred the college brand as a whole.
However… though it may be possible to construct reasonably a list of our five greatest moments with no mention of professional sports, ultimately the results of the list make this difficult to defend. Attribute the flaws of the list to improperly defined terms: when most of us think of “great moments” we are imagining moments that were culturally significant to North Carolina in a lasting manner, memories that will be passed on to later generations of sports fans. If we assume these terms – which the museum folks clearly did not – we can toss immediately from the list Jim Beatty’s mile run and the formation of the ACC. The first is a tremendous accomplishment, but that’s not the measure. The second is the product of someone severely overthinking this project; yes, that is significant, but absolutely no one remembers it because no one was watching and no one was there.
If I was reconstructing the list, I would mostly leave the remaining moments in tact: they chose the right moments from our storied college basketball history, my only suggestion (credit to Fowler on this one) being to sub in State’s 1974 upset of the UCLA dynasty in the tournament for their win over Maryland a couple of weeks earlier. I might also add Carolina’s 1982 title as greatest moment #6, unable to separate it from the other three college basketball moments since this was Dean’s long overdue first title.
That leaves two remaining spots, and the choices are so obvious – both coming in the past decade – that perhaps the museum folks just didn’t mark post-2000 history high enough. One is the 2006 Stanley Cup Championship by the Carolina Hurricanes. It remains the only professional sports title in North Carolina history (a mark not to be broken any time soon), and it mesmerized, for a brief period of time, a state full of people who know nothing about the sport. Native hockey haters can sneer, but my memory reports truthfully: 30 of my friends huddled around a television to watch a Hurricanes playoff game at my high school graduation party, and the Weynand family (at my coaxing) watched the clinching victory together from a hotel room in Washington, D.C. It was significant.
The other is assuredly less controversial: pick a moment from the amazing 2003 season of the Cardiac Cat Carolina Panthers. It could be one of the four regular season overtime victories, especially the October one over the Colts that took us to 5-0 and alerted the city, and the country, of the special season in progress. If you are looking for moments, it would have to be watching Steve Smith streak across the middle of the field and take a simple slant route 60 yards to end abruptly the NFC Divisional game against the Rams with a touchdown. The moment chosen by the Hall as one of the 22 greatest moments, but not advanced to the final five, was the victory over Philadelphia to win the NFC title and clinch a trip to the Super Bowl (this was technically my first time rushing a street in celebration, and the only time it was not Franklin Street, but Symphony Woods Drive in my neighborhood in Charlotte).
Those last three playoff games nearly shut down Charlotte in total focused attention – I was playing a rec basketball game during the first half of the Rams game and receiving updates from a teammate’s dad sitting on the front row. During that few week span, the Panthers pervaded conversation in the same way the Heels do during March Madness, and it also cemented the Panthers as the state’s first and only perenially relevant professional sports team. It was surreal month – a team from North Carolina playing in what is by far the nation’s biggest sporting event? That’s a top five moment.