As my wife will tell you, I have a knack for remembering obscure dates. Can’t remember when my next doctor’s appointment is, but I can tell you the date of a memorable sporting event and every detail of it.
Today, there is a convergence of two dates that are bringing back warm memories. One was yesterday, when Ricky LaBlue celebrated his 27th birthday. As is always the case between two people at the two ends of the age spectrum, Ricky thinks turning 27 means he’s too old. I think at 27 he’s still way too young.
It’s why we get along so well. Yeah, I edit his stories and drive him crazy by rewriting every lead he’s ever put on paper (I confess I kind of do that to everyone), but it’s more than that. He also graciously allows me to bore him with stories of when I was his age, as I try to prevent him from doing the same knucklehead things I – and just about every other guy on the planet – did at that age.
His turning 27 reminded me yesterday of what I was doing in my 27th year, which leads me to the second date. Once out of college, I went into the field of journalism, working as a sportswriter for a relatively large daily called the Roanoke Times. I met my wife there and was doing OK, but then foolishly decided to leave and go to a newspaper that was about a tenth the size for no more money than I was making at the time.
Why? Because I wanted to cover ACC basketball. I couldn’t in Roanoke. I could in Martinsville.
“So,” my Dad said when I told him this. “You’re leaving going from one place to a smaller place for no raise in pay just so you can watch a basketball game that's on television any way? For less money than you could make driving a truck? What are you, some kind of chadrool?”
Dad came from a family of truck drivers. If you couldn’t make more than a truck driver, you needed to come home and drive a truck. If you didn't agree with that philosophy, you were a chadrool (which means fool or idiot in Italian).
In retrospect, it probably was a foolish decision at the time. But in my 27th year on this planet, I found myself sitting at the Omni in Atlanta, watching the ACC Tournament. It was the golden age of basketball in the ACC, and I willingly worked 80 hours a week if it allowed me to be at games in the old Carmichael Auditorium, Cameron Indoor Stadium or Reynolds Coliseum. In addition to also driving up to Blacksburg and seeing many a Virginia Tech game, it provided me rich memories I now find invaluable.
It was the N.C. State games, however, that were the most memorable. I was at Reynolds the night Dereck Whittenburg broke his foot against Virginia (in the first half, I seem to recall, he couldn't miss a shot if he tried), and I was in Atlanta when they shocked the world by beating UNC and Virginia to win the ACC championship. A month later, they completed a Cinderella-like March to the national championship.
The night before they beat UNC in the semis, I ended up in the locker room with only two other writers talking to NC State Coach Jim Valvano, because everyone else rushed back to the court to see Virginia and Ralph Sampson in the next game. It was a moment in time where Valvano was considered just an average coach who uttered funny and quotable phrases, which 24 hours later would change forever.
He chatted with us for a half hour on everything from basketball to what it’s like having an Italian mama growing up. If you’ve ever seen videos of his public speaking, it was exactly like that, as he has what my mother would call “the gift of gab.” It was like three strangers at a bar, entertaining each other with stories.
Two nights later he won his first ACC championship. A month later, he was a national celebrity after winning the NCAA Tournament. For a few years, he was the king of the hill, at the very top of his sport. Television loved him. Everyone loved him.
Then he fell from that pinnacle almost as quickly as he reached it. In the ensuring few years, controversy dogged him and he was soon out of basketball. A few years after that, he was gone, a victim of cancer.
All of that is chronicled in ESPN’s magnificent 30 for 30 episode called “Survive and Advance.” I’ve only watched it a dozen times, and every time I do, it’s like a history lesson that I got to ride shotgun on. The rise, the fall, the speed of which so much of it happened…it’s all there. But the one thing that always gets my attention is the age of the players.
When I covered the team that year, they were all young kids and I was only 27. It still seems to me like it just happened a year or two ago, but in 30 for 30, they were all old, graying men. Some were no longer with us, as the episode starts with a gathering of the team after the funeral of Lorenzo Charles, the man that slammed home the dunk that won the Wolfpack the national championship.
That’s the second date I was referring to. That funeral was 10 years ago today, July 2, 2011. And if I thought they all looked old then, now another decade has passed by.
The show starts showing Whittenburg driving to the restaurant where the team met and saying “We have to start doing this every year. Otherwise, the only time we’re going to see each other is at each other’s funerals.” When I was 27, that would have had no meaning to me. Now in my 60s, I think truer words have never been spoken.
It’s kind of interesting that when I look back at the past these days, leaving a job for no increase in pay just to watch basketball does sound kind of silly. The story does have a happy ending, however, because while in Martinsville, I met people in the furniture industry who encouraged me to go back to school, get an MBA, and they’d help me find a place in that world. I went back to school, they helped me when I graduated, and I had a successful career.
But when I think back over those years, I don’t remember so much the plane rides, the sales meetings, or the furniture markets. I do remember, however, standing on the baseline of the floor at the Omni, and watching Sidney Lowe climb a ladder, cut down the nets after N.C. State won the ACC Tournament, and thinking “this is pretty cool.”
So to Ricky and all other 27-year-olds out there, my advice is this: don’t do knucklehead things like I did when I was 27, like changing jobs just to see certain teams in a certain conference play basketball. In fact, I could have just stopped at “don’t do knucklehead things.”
But chase your dreams. They may be foolish, they may not work out, and your Dad may even call you a chadrool.
But you'll get over it. Especially if they lead to invaluable memories you end up enjoying for the rest of your life… 😊
I was 27 when my first daughter was born - scheduled for Christmas day, Gwyn couldn't wait for Santa and arrived on December 9. Employees where I worked actually put on a musical skit about me having to learn to wash diapers - and I washed many a load. Daughter #2, Stacey was relegated to Pampers, my diaper washing days at age 27 having been retired to the record book.