Sunday, March 17, 2024

ACC title a long time coming for this Wolfpack fan

When I arrived in North Carolina in January 1990, the newspapers were full of stories detailing the fallout of the NCAA's investigation into NC State's athletics department, the basketball program in particular. After a thorough process, the major violations boiled down to student athletes making money by selling tickets and shoes. The NCAA determined the school had received no major competitive advantage, and the case appeared to be winding down.

Until the school itself decided to dig in. Under pressure from the local press, the administration eventually fired legendary Coach Jim Valvano that spring.

None of this deterred me from applying to State as a transfer student. With two-plus years of community college under my belt, I visited East Carolina and NC State. Having moved from Seattle, we were living in an apartment in Durham at the time, and I got a better vibe off State, which was close enough I could commute. They gave me a year's worth of credits for the classes I had taken already, and I entered school that summer as a sophomore.

The basketball program was handed over to former Wolfpack player Les Robinson, who guided the team to a solid 20-11 record and an NCAA Tournament berth, thanks to senior guards Chris Corchiani and Rodney Monroe. But when Fire and Ice graduated, the program slipped into mediocrity, or worse.

Having grown up in Seattle, college basketball was never a huge part of my childhood. Moving to Tobacco Road was a night-and-day difference in that regard, but living off campus I never participated in any campouts for student tickets. I never actually went to any basketball games at all until after I graduated.

I started attending games the following season, when the Pack was a bit of a hopeless cause. Making matters worse, almost everyone else I worked with at Baseball America had graduated from UNC, which is where the big journalism program is. State only offered a minor in journalism, which I completed. But these guys had all worked for The Daily Tar Heel, covering teams that won stuff. And were still winning stuff. Come ACC Tournament time, they had a name for first night's play-in game to narrow the field from nine teams to eight for the "real" bracket: The Les Robinson Invitational. Because State was almost always one of the teams in it.

Robinson's real job was to guide the team through the brutal years where the school imposed stiffer academic rules on the program than the NCAA did. Somehow the squad was able to bring hot recruit Charles Kornegay, but he was ruled academically ineligible early in his career and transferred to Villanova, where he was allowed to play and star for a top team. In his place we got Todd Fuller, who was better known for his classwork than his basketball prowess--at least initially. He turned himself into an All-American, leading the ACC in scoring in 1996 and going on to a five-year NBA career.

Despite his heroics, the Pack finished 3-13 in the conference that spring, and Robinson stepped aside in favor of Herb Sendek. The Pack fared only marginally better in 1997, going 4-12 in conference play. But there was a bit of magic in store that March, as State made a run to the ACC Tournament finals, winning three games in three days (including the Les Robinson Invitational), knocking off Georgia Tech, Duke, and Maryland, before falling to hated rivals North Carolina by 10 in the finale.

By lining up some powder-puff non-conference foes early in the year, State managed to compile winning records under Sendek, despite routinely finishing below .500 in conference. For four years running, the team made it to the NIT in March (aka, the Not Invited Tournament). I attended several of those contests, for which tickets weren't necessarily difficult to come by. Just when the fanbase was starting to weary of being only slightly better than in the truly down days, Sendek scored a stud recruiting class, including brash Julius Hodge, who had been heavily recruited by Syracuse among others. This probably kept him in a job despite a truly lackluster fifth season, when the Pack didn't even make the NIT after going 13-16 in 2000-01.

By this point, I had left North Carolina a second time, moving up to Rochester, NY, in March 2001. My Wolfpack fever, however, was about to go next level. We were finally good. Or good adjacent. Close enough that the losses now felt like blown opportunities instead of inevitabilities. We reached the ACC Tournament finals in both 2002 and 2003, losing to Duke in each case. But we also made it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in my fandom. I will never forget the second-round matchup with Connecticut in 2002. Nor likely, will my dad, a UConn grad and hoops enthusiast, who watched at my house along with a friend of his. There were some close calls at the end that didn't go the Pack's way, and by the time the game ended (77-74 bad guys) I may have thrown myself on the floor once or twice.

My dad didn't completely swear off watching the Pack with me, however, and we drove to Syracuse for a Sweet Sixteen matchup against Wisconsin in 2005. I recall State getting off to a strong start and owning a solid lead at halftime. And I remember them blowing it and losing by nine. To dig the knife in deeper, the second matchup in the building that night was UNC vs Villanova. We rooted like hell for Nova, but they finished a point short. Womp-womp. That was a long, crappy drive home. We didn't use the Sunday tickets to witness UNC vs Wisconsin. No point.

A year later, with the program having plateaued, Sendek moved on, heading west for Arizona State. The coaching search became a horrific joke, led by historically incompetent athletic director Lee Fowler, aka Lee Foul-up. In the end, he settled for 1983 Pack hero Sidney Lowe, who had to first complete his degree by correspondence classes before he could officially be hired. The decision looked like a mistake from the start, and the team struggled that first year, before once again catching lightning in a bottle during the ACC Tournament and making a miracle run to the finals.

There were highs and lows under Lowe, but the writing was on the wall from the start. He just wasn't cut out for coaching at this level. After five seasons, and an 86-78 record, he was out the door. In came Mark Gottfried, who got the team playing at a much higher level. Sadly, he turned out to be a bit of a cheater, both at recruiting and on his wife. He was also, from stories I heard from some friends close to the program, a complete asshole, and I was glad when he was canned in 2016, though it stung a bit to be left holding the bag for the recruiting violations that took place under his watch, specifically in the case of Dennis Smith Jr, who left for the NBA after one season.

In came Kevin Keatts, who seemed like a huge upgrade on a human level. While I hoped for good things, my heart wasn't as into Wolfpack Hoops as it had been for so many years. I had reached a point where it didn't feel right to hang so much of my happiness on the efforts of 19-20 year old kids. And with college basketball shifting to a new reality where half the roster turned over year on year thanks to the transfer portal, I barely knew who most of the guys were anymore anyway.

Whereas my schedule had once been based around Wolfpack basketball, I watched instead when I could. When it was on and I wasn't busy, I tuned in. The team seemed okay. Keatts looked like he was building a roster of guys who could run and play in transition, and when it came off it was fun to watch. But it didn't consistently come off, and I didn't consistently watch.

This season felt different. When the season tipped off in November, once again I barely recognized most of the guys. The two star guards from 2022-23, Terquavion Smith and Jarkel Joiner, were gone. In their place were some new guys, who seemed more interchangeable. The lineup looked good. The early games I saw gave me hope this was the best Wolfpack team I'd seen in years. They started conference play off 4-0 and looked to be NCAA Tournament bound. And then ... slump city. We kept watching, they kept losing. They slid to 10th place, putting them back on the schedule for the first day of the ACC Tourney.

And then they made history.

Louisville, W 94-85.

Syracuse, W 83-65.

Duke, W 74-69.

Virginia, W 73-65 (OT).

UNC, W 84-76.

We finally won something. We finally emerged from a tournament with something more tangible than a moral victory. I had waited so long I had honestly given up hope it would ever happen. And when it did, it almost seemed unreal. I woke up this morning almost wondering if it really had happened.

What a ride this week has been. What an amazing accomplishment. We finally did it. In some ways it's an even greater accomplishment because of the transient nature of transfer-portal basketball. How Keatts put that team together, the chemistry they built in one season, it's incredible. Well done, Pack.

And thank you.

Now let's keep making memories.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Nine Bucks a Pound celebrates its 10th birthday

Ten years ago this week I released my second novel (and second baseball novel), Nine Bucks a Pound. It's possibly my favorite, though sales-wise it ranks a distant third behind The Greatest Show on Dirt and Sorry I Wasn't What You Needed. And in time it will surely be passed up by This Is Who We Are Now.

I didn't realize how fortunate I was with The Greatest Show on Dirt when it was released in 2012, but the Durham Bulls connection there netted a lot of publicity in North Carolina, with several major newspapers running reviews or short features shortly after it came out. It was also still the relatively early days of Kindle sales, and I have never since matched the success of some of the promotions I ran that first year. Even two years later, the market had matured enough that it wasn't as easy to catch that sales wave.

I've also had second thoughts on the title, dating back to even before I hit the publish button. The working title all along was Branded, but it turned out to be not very original. There were, in fact, a number of books already for sale on Amazon called Branded, and they tended to largely fall under the bad-boy romance umbrella. So I reached a little deeper, choosing a name that needed to be explained, which should have been my first clue that it was a poor choice. Then again, there are plenty of very famous books with titles that don't necessarily make it obvious what they're about. The Catcher in the Rye. Bang the Drum Slowly. The Sun Also Rises. Still, going esoteric might not be the best strategy for naming a novel.

The other strong contender for title was Lightning in a Needle. If I could go back 10 years, I think I'd go with that. Combined with the bobblehead holding the bat syringe on the cover, I think that would have done a better job of conveying what the story was about. Which, if you're not familiar, is this:

From the moment he’s drafted, Del Tanner shows the Twins a smooth left-handed stroke and a slick glove at first base. But his path is blocked by players who possess the one thing he lacks—power. When a teammate’s injury is the only thing to spare him on cutdown day, the message is clear: Put more balls over the fence or find a new line of work.

His aspiring agent connects him with a steroid dealer operating out of the back room of a South Florida funeral parlor. After a winter in Mexico, pumping iron by day and riding the bench by night, Del reports to spring training sporting twenty additional pounds of muscle. Suddenly a legitimate power threat, he ascends from the ranks of the unknown to American League Rookie of the Year. Within days of being so honored, allegations surface of his performance-enhancing drug use, forcing him on the defensive as he fights to restore his reputation and repair his personal relationships.

Those who have found it have seemed to like it for the most part. It's currently rocking a 4.2 rating on Amazon, tops among my novels. And those reviews are one of the major reasons I've never re-released it with a different title. No point risking losing all those. That's another thing that seems to have changed over the years. Amazon readers seem a bit stingier with reviews these days. At least based on my own anecdotal evidence.

Lesson learned. Unless I somehow become famous enough to get away with it, cryptic titles are not my friend. You only get one chance to get that name right, and if you don't you may wind up a decade later wondering what if.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Star treatment from Independent Book Review

Reviews are slowly trickling in for This Is Who We Are Now, with the Amazon tally now up to a whopping 5 (with a 4.6 average). Today, we got a big one posted, though, on Independent Book Review, and it was extra nice because they gave it a starred review, calling it a "sassy, hilarious, heartwarming, and provocative surprise." I'll take that.

It's fairly long, but here are some of the best bits:

Redemption, humor, and love shine through the tragic, the inept, and the mundane in this family’s relationships. Henry is a frustrated yet compassionate protagonist who has nonetheless become a halfhearted presence in his own life. 

All characters are incredibly well-developed and interact in refreshingly candid ways. Henry’s wife Denise is thoughtfully painted in complex layers, illuminating the difficulties in her marriage to Henry as well as her individual struggles. Erin, Henry’s high school sweetheart, is a strong presence in her own right, who has carved out a life after tragedy working as a single mom to raise her teenaged son. Henry’s brother highlights the thriving sibling rivalry between him and Henry. Margo serves as a faithful support for Henry throughout the novel, revealing her alcoholism and her own painful struggles along the way. Margo’s boyfriend is at turns ridiculous and endearing. Henry’s parents offer alternating exacerbation and soothing of the family angst throughout the action of the novel. Henry’s sons illustrate the emotional challenges of navigating adolescence while also giving us glimpses into the loving power of parental guidance.


This delightful novel presents steady action balanced with vivid setting descriptions and snappy, engaging dialogue. The end result is a fresh take on adult existential struggles and extended family drama. A thoroughly enjoyable read, this fictional drama proves that a family reunion with a group of highly flawed people can still deliver happiness, love, redemption, and hope.

To see the full review, here's the full link:

Saturday, January 13, 2024

The Adventures of Apple Butt

We bought the boy a foosball table for Christmas. He's 14 now, and when his friends come over, especially in the dead of winter, they need stuff to do. Plus, I would have loved one when I was his age.

The foosball table inspired a large-scale cleanup of the basement, which we finished off before he was born, figuring we'd need the space in time. And, boy, do we use it. My office is down in the basement, as well as a TV room, my library, and the ping pong table. And way, way too much crap. Well, a lot less now than there was two weeks ago. We shifted a roomful of furniture around New Year's thanks to a Salvation Army pickup. And toys. They got a cabinet full of Bat caves and all the little superhero figures that went with them.

I turned my attention to the random containers of art supplies, stickers, and papers today. Dump it, dump it, dump it, was the motto. But I'm not stonehearted enough to do it en masse. (Maybe if I were it wouldn't have all piled up on us like it did.) In one particular box, I found a treasure trove of 8.5 x 11 paper, including an eight-chapter story my son wrote back in second grade. ("Chapters" being a loose term here, though that is what he called them, and I'll defer to the author on such matters.) That was preserved in the file cabinet. You can take that one out of my cold, dead files in about 50 years. (Yes, I'm living to 104.)

And just beneath that, I found three pages of my own handwriting. An unfinished story I had completely forgotten about. I can't pinpoint when it was written, but it was probably about the time he penned (penciled?) his. And it was clearly written to entertain him. As sketchy as I am on the details, I do think I wrote it all in one sitting. And, man, do I wish now that I had finished it, because it makes me laugh. At least I entertained my own future self.

On the off chance it will entertain anyone else, here it is, in all its glory. I didn't title it back then, but let's call it "The Adventures of Apple Butt." For reasons that will soon be obvious.

Monroe Applebottom had had enough. Every day for two weeks his new boss at the Chicken Shack had called him Apple Butt. "Apple Butt, clean out the fryer!" he yelled.

"Apple Butt, empty the mouse trap!"

"Apple Butt, scrub the restroom!"

All of Monroe's co-workers had started calling him Apple Butt, too. If it was okay for the boss, it must be okay for them. So they stopped calling him Monroe, and started referring to him only as Apple Butt.

As Monroe rinsed off plates and glasses to put into the dishwasher, another kitchen worker named Edgar came up and said, "Hey, Apple Butt, boss man wants you." Monroe glared at Edgar as he dried his hands on his apron. He could feel the sweat trickling down his forehead. The last thing he wanted to do was go talk to his boss, who on top of calling him names also liked to give him all the chores no one else would do.

Monroe walked out of the kitchen and down the hall toward Burt's office. Two waitresses, who were leaning against the wall filing their nails, stopped talking and started giggling when they saw him. "I should just keep on walking," thought Monroe. "I should just go straight outside and not stop until I get to the bus stop." That was another thing his co-workers made fun of. Monroe always took the bus to work. His mom used to drop him off, but they laughed even harder about that, so he took the bus instead.

Burt was sitting in his office with his feet up on his desk, sipping on a bottle of Coca-Cola. "Ah, Apple Butt," he said. "I got a job for you."

"I'm not caught up on the dishes yet," Monroe said.

"Dishes can wait. I got something more important." Burt jerked his thumb toward the chair in the corner, upon which sat a large, white box. "I need you to put that on and go pass out coupons."

Monroe lifted the lid on the box. Inside was a fluffy, yellow suit, with a huge chicken head. "Very funny," he said. "Now, if you're done joking, I'll go back and finish the dishes."

"Oh, I'm not joking." Burt cracked a wicked smile. "We need to drum up business, and we all have a role to play. Your role is Mr. Clucks."

"No thanks." Monroe turned to leave Burt's office. "I think Edgar is your man."

"Oh, I think not," retorted his boss. "Suit up, or you're fired."

Monroe hated his job. Being fired didn't sound so bad in some ways. But he really needed money so he could afford to go to Batavia for the comic convention. When he wasn't toiling away at the Chicken Shack, Monroe spent all his time reading and drawing comics. His favorites were superheroes, who always dealt out justice to bullies like Burt. In fact, Monroe had written a new comic just last night about a hero called Megazon who used electromagnetic power to stick Burt to the side of the town water tower. He thought of the terrified expression on water-tower Burt's face as his boss watched him put on the chicken suit.

"Perfect," Burt cackled when Monroe pulled the chicken head on. "You're a real chicken, Apple Butt. Now take these coupons and pass them out to people on the street. And don't just dump them all in the trash. Because I'll be watching."

Monroe stuck his tongue out at Burt, but his boss couldn't see through the beak of the chicken head. He took the stack of coupons in his yellow glove and walked outside. Burt followed, filming everything on his cellphone. "Hey guys," he laughed. "Check out our new mascot, Mr. Clucks. Or as you all know him, Apple Butt."

Monroe wanted to karate kick the phone right out of Burt's hand, just like one of his heroes, Chop Sooey, a pig with a black belt. But he couldn't lift his leg high enough to kick, so he pretended he didn't hear him. He handed a coupon to a woman on a Hoveround.

"What the heck is this?" she demanded. "I ain't gonna eat at Chicken Shack. My sister got E. coli there." She crumpled up the coupon and threw it back at Monroe so hard it bounced off his big plastic googly chicken eye and landed in the gutter. For a lady on a Hoveround, she had a good arm.

He decided to try the bus stop next. A lot of people on the bus smelled like fried chicken, so maybe they would like the coupons better. Without saying anything, he handed coupons to six people standing in the bus shelter. Five of them dropped to the ground. The sixth person used it to blow his nose on.

"Dang it, Apple Butt, they aren't using them," Burt yelled. Monroe had actually forgotten his boss was following him. "Give out some more, and make sure they go to actual customers this time."

Just then, Monroe heard a scream. He looked up the sidewalk and saw the old lady on the Hoveround swinging her cane at a man dressed all in black with a black balaclava over his head. "Give me back my purse, you scumbag!" she yelled.

The robber, for he was indeed a thief, ripped the cane out of her hands and began running up the sidewalk, straight toward Burt and Monroe. Burt held his cellphone up to film the getaway, but as the thief ran past, he snatched it right out of Burt's hands.

"Hey, that's mine!" Burt shouted. "He stole my phone. Help, police!"

But there were no police to be seen, because it was free donut hour as the Les Donuts House on the other side of town. Monroe thought to himself, this is surely a job for Megazon or Chop Sooey, who were always foiling crimes like this. But Megazon was probably back on his home planet of Gorkawow, and Chop Sooey was probably at Les Donuts House, because he loved donuts, too. "If no one else will help, it's up to me," thought Monroe.