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Sports: Who'd A Thought? 

A look back at an odd year in sports

This has been a strange year, and sports on the Charlotte scene are no exception. Who would have thought. . .

* the owners of the Charlotte Hornets would turn into high profile traveling salesmen. To make a deal here, the owners need to face reality and make a substantial contribution to a new arena, then team up with private investors to fund the facility. Of course, they could shuck the whole thing (sell the team), gain the gratitude of fans, and return home to Florida (George Shinn) and Atlanta (Ray Wooldridge).

* the Carolina Panthers would re-write the Paul Simon tune as "50 Ways to Lose a Football Game in the Final Minutes." In my songbook, it's only a short matter of time before Head Coach George Seifert walks away to give someone else a go at building the franchise. This East Coast team never thrived in Seifert's West Coast offense, and now it's someone else's turn.

* the Charlotte Sting would be the most successful major pro sports team in town after a 1-10 start. Unlike the Panthers, the Sting transformed close, early-season losses into lessons that paid off in reaching the WNBA Championship Game and achieving one of the greatest turnarounds in pro sports history. The 2001 season is a tribute to Anne Donovan and her coaching staff, co-captains Andrea Stinson and Dawn Staley, and the rest of the players who never gave up. In the final game, they just ran out of gas.

* No one from the Sting would win a post-season individual honor from the WNBA. No one even made the 10-player, all-league team ­ which is abysmal.

* Dale Earnhardt's death wouldn't be enough to make NASCAR give serious attention to safety measures. There had been plenty of deaths before, including Adam Petty's in 2000, and NASCAR has only begun to take baby steps to address the big problem. I look forward to when the private entity that runs the sport begins to walk.

* Charlotte government officials would be so cowed by the defeat of the June arena referendum that they would stay in the barn the rest of the year. Sure, they don't have a pot of money to give away, but there's such a thing as providing leadership to bring about something the community needs regardless of the Hornets ­ a big draw uptown and a coliseum that's competitive. Sure, the men's ACC basketball tourney comes here in 2002 and 2008, but those decisions were made years ago.

* Utah could suck $1.5 billion (yes, that's a "b") out of the federal tax coffers to defray the cost of the 2002 Winter Olympics and blatantly benefit Salt Lake City-area developers. Now, that's a giant sucking sound.

* Grand Slam tennis tournaments would turn into the "Venus, Serena and Jennifer Show." Where have you gone, Martina Hingis? It's hard to believe Lindsay Davenport finished number one for the year, while the Williams sisters and Jennifer Capriati came up big in the big events. Women's tennis needs to revisit its point system for determining rankings. The system doesn't give enough due to winning Grand Slam titles.

* the Arizona Diamondbacks would be sporting World Series rings. Sure, Arizona had great pitching, but did anybody really think they'd beat the Bronx Bombers?

* the UNC squad bringing home the national trophy would be the men's soccer team, not the women's team. The men played incredible defense in defeating perennial powerhouse Indiana. The UNC women's soccer team suffered its only 2001 loss at the absolutely worst time ­ the national championship match. The women have 16 titles to their credit.

* more than 13,000 people would show up for a high school football game at Memorial Stadium, when Independence pasted East Mecklenburg 42-12 in the state 4A semifinals. The crowd looked even larger than that. Independence, which went on to win its second straight state title ­ a first for a Mecklenburg 4A team ­ was clearly the best football team in town. And to think, All-America quarterback Chris Leak is back next season. He already has so many records to his credit, he'll need a database to keep track of them next year.

* Baron Davis would emerge as "The Man" for the Hornets in the early season. Will "The Baron" overtake "Mash" as the go-to guy when Jamal Mashburn is back from his abdominal muscle strain, or will the Hornets be blessed with a one-two punch? I'm hoping for the latter, of course, and coupling that scenario with David Wesley, P.J. Brown and Elden Campbell playing well, the Hornets could be well on their way to an Eastern Conference crown.

* Barry Bonds' 73 homers in 2001 would break Mark McGwire's season record in just three seasons ­ a record that had stood for nearly four decades (Roger Maris, 61 homers, 1961) before McGwire (70 homers) swatted it down in 1998.

* Charlotte women's basketball team would win five of its first eight games under new head coach, Katie Meier. As of December 16, those five wins represented half of what they won all last season in finishing 10-18 ­ and the 49ers are less than a third into this season.

* the Charlotte Catholic girls' volleyball team would be the best volleyball team in Mecklenburg County (any size school) and own the most impressive win streak in town in any sport I know of ­ 78 straight after winning their third straight 2A state title. Congratulations to Catholic Coach Tim Leary and former coach Bettie Berry (now volleyball coach at Myers Park High) for developing a program that emphasizes early and continued skill development.

* the North Carolina men's basketball team would open its 2001-2002 season with three losses. We'll find out just how good a coach Matt Doherty is ­ at least as far as working with young players who need to develop their talent. It's one thing to coach a team of superstars, another to groom non-household names. What do you want to bet Doherty is 100 percent gray in a couple of months? The question, though: Will he be the Silver Fox?

* the North Carolina women's basketball team would be starting two players from Charlotte Christian School ­ freshman guard Leah Metcalf and sophomore forward Chrystal Baptist.

* the Duke men's basketball team would keep piling up national titles. A "K" symbolizes a strikeout in baseball, but head coach Mike Krzyzewski is nothing but "Special K" for the Blue Devils. In his 22 seasons in Durham, he's won three national titles (1991, 1992 and last spring, in an 82-72 victory over Arizona). The 54-year-old head coach also was named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001.

* a Panthers' No. 1 draft choice would be imprisoned (he's expected to spend at least 18 more years in jail) for conspiring to kill his girlfriend and unborn child. Well, that may not have been much of shock given the way the facts of Rae Carruth's case played out in 2000, but it is still mind-numbing in terms of what his life might have been.

* last season's Hornets would have swept Miami in the playoffs, then reached Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Milwaukee. Late bloomers? You bet, but this success starved sports town will take it. It was the best postseason finish by a Hornets' team.*

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