Tag Archives: basketball

Growing up Carolina

7 Feb


This is a nostalgic look back triggered by the comments of my daughter here on a run-of-the-mill 21st century Saturday afternoon in the state of Florida. I was born at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte, NC on July 14th, 1966. I remained entrenched there, forgiving my occasional attempts to peek over the hills, until May of 2003. That’s when fate decided I needed to be the one Abernathy in my clan that went and buried roots in another slab of ground that wasn’t made of red clay. Fate sent me to the sandy, shallow soil of the west coast of Florida. But I’m a North Carolinian.  A real one.

Andy Griffith, THE iconic representative image of the state of NC once said…

“I want to say just a few words about North Carolina – my home state – possibly the finest state in this entire union. We got industry of all kinds – pretty country, raise corn, cotton, tobacco, peaches, peanuts, all like that. Got colleges all over the state – fine quality, pretty girls, and run off the finest white lightning made anywhere.”

Children that were raised in North Carolina my age and before, keep that inside them at least for as long as we are here on earth. I have good reason to think it goes to the afterlife too, and nobody with exception of possibly Jesse Helms, that was from NC goes to hell. God deems it so. That’s why He made the sky Carolina blue. We seriously learned that like the 2nd or 3rd thing we were taught. Sit up, walk…God loves North Carolina more than the others…now you can speak. North Carolina in the 70’s and 80’s was a magical place to be a child. I can’t speak to what it’s like now, because I’m not there, and it sure looks a lot different when I come home. But I can speak from the authority of the highest about what it was like then. I have a badge and everything that says so.

I’ve never written a nostalgic piece on here. I’m a watchman…I write about what I see and I warn. I’m a man of God. I write about what I see and I warn. Reading my blog is not usually a happy experience, but it’s an honest experience, and I do the best I can. But this is my blog…and when I titled it the way I did, which was borrowed from a favorite line in an Old 97’s song, I intended this place to be just somewhere I wrote things just like this – Pleasant, detailed stories of well-lived life. So hey, we might as well have an entry like that. This site has reached over 100 nations across the planet. I feel kind of bad that I’ve spread a lot of negative thoughts that far and wide. God forgave my sins as far as the east is from the west, and sometimes I feel like I’ve spread gloom just as far. This world is seriously messed up. But not today.

So earlier this afternoon as my bride served lunch, I switched our old giant television over to the Duke basketball game on ESPN. My eldest daughter, the artistically talented one with the quick mouth, said, “You never cared one thing about basketball until a few years ago, and now the last two seasons you suddenly care.” My mouth agape at just how little she understands about me and my past, I mustered up the best reply I could think of at such a blasphemous charge – “This is the sounds of my childhood.” I explained to her that when I was a boy ACC basketball was everything in the state of North Carolina. “When I go back there, I never hear one single person talk about basketball. North Carolina doesn’t care about basketball,” the blonde daughter chirps. She was born there too mind you…at CMC Hospital in the year of 1998. Both my daughters were. The youngest in 2001 just after the attacks of September 11th. A day that I had to evacuate my 7th month pregnant wife from the largest building in both the Carolinas. So much history. My wife, from Kentucky and a huge Big Blue fan, and I were shocked at her basketball statement. Have we taught her nothing at all? North Carolina doesn’t care about basketball? That’s like saying Kentucky basketball means nothing in the Bluegrass State. It’s kooky talk is what it is.

So it all made me nostalgic. A simpler time and place where things made sense to us growing up in it. Despite the specter of the USSR nuking us to smithereens, we never felt America was in danger. Just to have for historical record for people like my daughter, I thought I should put the pen to paper (or finger to key) and provide a list of memories from a much different world than today – North Carolina in the 4th quarter of the 20th century.

– Young childhood was spent mostly outside. Everything happened outside. Lightning bugs were plentiful and begging to be put in a jar. Friends were always ready to play any kind of game there was, and imagination was such that we could make up new ones at ease. There was nothing but homework or chores to keep us inside, so we went out…as soon as they other two things were completed. If you were a boy, your chores were probably outside anyway. Mine all revolved around yard maintenance. To this day, they still do. Though I hated it with a deep passion back then, living in the scorching heat of central Florida now, I would give anything to go back and rake all those beautiful Autumn leaves that fell from the over 100 trees in my yard. One of my fondest memories is the time my dad and brother were all out raking leaves one Saturday afternoon, and my oldest brother, whom my oldest daughter takes a lot from, smarted off to my dad about something. It was a last straw kind of thing. I was holding the trash bag for my dad and my brother was about 15 ft. away. Suddenly the rake that was previously in the grip of my dad was falling in slow motion to the ground, as his body leapt forward like a Carolina mountain cougar, and he was off to end the mouthing of said brother. Watching him try to catch my athletic and quick sibling was quite a sight. I’m still glad to this day he didn’t. There was a lot of anger present. That’s not a good time for a dad to catch a rebellious child. I just kept raking leaves and putting them in the bag, but inside I was cracking up.

Childhood in North Carolina for a boy mostly meant 2 things…being in the woods or playing sports. I did a lot of both. I spent so many hours in the massive natural woods of my Grandparents property, that I might as well have built a permanent home. There was a big creek filled with everything a boy could possibly want to keep his brain engaged, and I had never heard of a video game or anything electronic that wasn’t a television or radio. When I think about being at my grandparents I think of the following things – Those amazing woods, sweet tea, the best green beans in the history of all mankind, food…like so much food, Sanford and Son and All in the Family (Grandpa Fred’s favorites and he had great taste in the funny stuff), Lawrence Welk (oh how much suffering there was watching that bubble blowing Welk), and happy family everywhere. My parents, my uncles, my aunts, my cousins, my grandparents, and the various friends and family that would drop in. Their house was the center of the universe as far as I was concerned. It was Jerusalem for the Abernathy’s. My early childhood couldn’t have possibly been better. It was as good as going to the lunch counter of Eckerd’s Drugstore in uptown Charlotte, or Morrison’s Cafeteria, and anybody that was anyone back then…knows those 2 things were real tough to beat.

– Basketball, and other not-as-important sports. North Carolina Tarheels, North Carolina State Wolfpack, Duke Blue Devils and Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Tobacco Road. The heart of all of college basketball. You picked a team. There was no choosing from out-of-state. You picked one of those four teams, and you followed them like Jesus on His way to his date with Pilate. I’m sure there had to be boys that didn’t care, but I never met one, and I wouldn’t have socialized with them if I did. You picked a team and you followed them. Period. I was a North Carolina State Wolfpack fan because my brother told me I was. Seemed ok with me. I hated the North Carolina Tarheels because my brother told me I did. Seemed ok with me. Why make things complicated? We also had a college in Charlotte called UNCC, and in 1977 they pulled off a miracle and ran all the way to Final Four in Atlanta to eventually lose to Marquette University in the last second. Waiting in the championship round was the hated North Carolina Tarheels. My brother and I followed every game of that season. During the conference tournament, my friend Jeff Taylor and I got our programs autographed by every single player, including the famous, Cornbread Maxwell. We beat New Orleans to win the Sunbelt Conference title and make it to the NCAA big dance. It was such a thrill ride, that after every road win, a good portion of the city of Charlotte would show up at our then tiny airport to greet the team back home. We knocked off mighty Syracuse and number 1 Michigan on that ride. Nobody in their right mind would have predicted that. We got to the Final Four, and there was Marquette and their massive center, Jerome Whitehead. North Carolina waiting in the final. UNC vs. UNCC. It was a state of North Carolina wet dream. Euphoric. But Jerome Whitehead destroyed that dream with a turnaround jumper at the buzzer. My brother, never one for the calm stuff, slammed his fist so hard into a cabinet that the house shook. My mother cried. Chaos ensued. It was a devastating moment in our lives. But man…what a ride it was. I’ll never forget those games as long as I live.

But the big one was 1983. If you were a school kid back in those days, the entire school system came to a halt on the Friday of the ACC Basketball Tournament. That’s not an exaggeration. TV’s were rolled into every single classroom, and every school in NC started watching the noon game. That game was usually UNC (No. 1 seed) beating up Clemson (a joke). We didn’t care…school was stopped for basketball. How awesome is that? In this pansy world of today, they might do that for the World Cup, but that’s about it. It makes my past boy sad when I think how much fun kids miss now. World Cup? Are you kidding me? This was 1983 and I was a junior at East Mecklenburg High School. My Wolfpack, coached by Jim Valvano, didn’t have much of a chance that season. Our star, Dereck Whittenburg, had been injured most of the season and we had lost too many games. The consensus was that we had to win the ACC tourney to make the NCAA. That seemed highly unlikely with Michael Jordan, James Worthy and UNC standing in the way, and Ralph Sampson and No. 1 Virginia too. Our first game was against Wake Forest. We had just blown them out on the last game of the year by a gigantic margin. This time was far different, and it was a dogfight from start to finish. By the skin of their teeth, the Wolfpack escaped that game and won.

Next up was Michael Jordan before the Nike shoes, the Bulls, the endless championships, the marketing…you know…MICHAEL JORDAN. He also had a guy with him named James Worthy that would go on to star for the Los Angeles Lakers and win a bunch of rings himself. We had a crazy Italian coach from nowhere near North Carolina, and a bunch of misfits that came together at just the right time. We beat them. We beat them. WE BEAT DEAN SMITH AND ALL HIS STUPID ALL-STARS! The season could have stopped right then and I would have been pleased. I loathed Dean Smith and that smirk of his. L-O-A-T-H-E-D. It was a beautiful moment. One more game to win…the ACC Championship…against 7 ft. 4 in. National Player of the Year, Ralph Sampson, and the University of Virginia. The blue bloods of the ACC along with Duke. Nobody in NC paid much attention to Virginia honestly until that giant monster came along. They were about as much of a threat as Clemson. There was no way we were winning that game…except…we did. We chopped that giant tree down like Abe Lincoln with an axe and a head of steam. We won the ACC Championship of 1983. The NC State Wolfpack. Yes we did. We made it to the NCAA.

What would set up from that Virginia game and moving forward, was the most fun 3 weeks of my entire teen years. My friends and I had so much fun watching that NCAA Tournament that it will never be equaled in basketball to me again. One game after the next, the lowly Wolfpack pulled off upset after upset. We went wild each and every time. It was a magical ride and Jim Valvano became, Jim Valvano, to the rest of America. A star was born, and it wasn’t smirky old Dean Smith, or that young whippersnapper with the funny name at Duke. Jim Valvano became a legend in those 3 weeks. It all came down to the National Championship against the closest thing college basketball has ever seen to the Harlem Globetrotters – The 1983 Houston Cougars. Phi Slamma Jamma. Clyde Drexler. Hakeem Olajuwon. Las Vegas gave us as much chance of beating that team as a chipmunk has fighting a bear. There was no way. Except there was. With time running out and the game in chaos, Dereck Whittenburg fired up a shot just under half court that had no prayer of ever going in, but waiting under the basket for it was a nobody named, Lorenzo Charles. He grabbed the ball in midair just before the basket, and gently guided it in the basket as the clock expired. The North Carolina State Wolfpack had won the National Championship. The greatest underdog college basketball had ever seen. My whole house exploded in bedlam. Jim Valvano ran all over the court famously seeking somebody to hug. My brother and I went stark raving bananas.

That’s what college basketball means to this North Carolinian. Just remembering it now gives me shivers. I think I’ll go donate to Jimmy V’s Cancer Fund. Go watch it on YouTube. It’s there.

Other sports in North Carolina at that time? Wrasslin’, NASCAR, and watching the Braves on TBS, and all were huge, but nothing compared to King Basketball. For my sweet daughter to think I don’t care…is to not know an important part of her Daddy’s soul. Basketball, both the kind played by the greats, and the kind my friends and I endlessly played in my driveway…means the world to me. I would give anything to be that young white boy again with a enough spring to touch the rim. I couldn’t even get off the ground now. I don’t think. It would hurt. I know that. lol.

I could go on for thousands of more words here about life at that time in North Carolina. My friends, the beach, the mountains, the music, the memories…but I think I’ve made a good dent here for the sake of history. North Carolina is my home, and in North Carolina I shall be put to rest one day, as God brings me up through that Carolina Blue sky to my true home. I hope they roll out TV’s on tourney day in Heaven.


Gary Abernathy