When I was a shaggy young sports writer with a scraggly chin beard that was far more goat than tee, I cut an impressive figure in press boxes and press rows around the Atlantic Coast Conference, so outstanding almost no one noticed me at all. Typically I wore an outsized sports jacket courtesy of my dad’s closet over a sweatshirt or strategically unpressed dress shirt — the latter with obligatory coffee-stained tie. The jeans were blue or the khakis faded. The brand names on my footwear were high-fashion icons like Adidas, Puma or Converse.
It was like something from a national magazine. High Times I think it was called.
Usually this ensemble, at least in the early to mid-1980s, was crowned by a button on the lapel of whatever old sports coat I was wearing. I had one with the face of slain rock star John Lennon with one word, “Why?” I had one of Elvis Presley, the King of Rock’n’roll. Another advertised my favorite band then and now, REM with the image “What noisy cats are we?”
As I mentioned earlier usually I passed through the press boxes at Kenan Stadium, Wallace Wade Stadium and Groves Stadium (now BB&T Field at Wake Forest) in anonymity, completely unnoticed by human eyes. The more veteran sports writers assembled there were all famous in my estimation. I read some of them for years. I became interested in newspapers through their words. Many were substantially older. A few of them had me by only a few years. One of them, Dan Collins of the Winston-Salem took the time to stop, find out my name, chat and eventually check out whatever button I had on my jacket that day. He made the time to ask how I was doing, where I was from, what I might be interested in. Country Dan, as he’s called by the hundreds of friends he’s made in the business, didn’t even flinch the day my lapel had a button with the image of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Joaquin Andujar, one of the truly tempermental characters in Major League Baseball in the 1980s. In fact, I think he wanted to make a trade for it.
This, of course, is leading somewhere and it’s this: Country Dan filed his last blog post for the Winston-Salem Journal today, ending a 40-plus year career covering ACC sports, minor league baseball and almost anything else that might come up. He was a fixture at the Journal, the paper I grew up reading and is still my mom’s morning paper. The last few years he made a substantial mark as the beat writer covering sports at Wake Forest. As a follower of that team from birth I can honestly say that no one ever covered that university’s athletics better.
I haven’t seen Dan in years and years. I left sports writing for news in around 1988 and eventually put aside news in 2016. For me, 34 years was enough. Dan hung tough in a field he loved. I think covering Wake Forest as a beat kept him hopping and interested. Among sports bloggers in North Carolina, his “My Take on Wake” was among the best. He never backed off from asking hard questions or doing controversial stories when required. But his preferred style was fan and team friendly. He covered Wake Forest honestly and fairly, even during the dark days under former coach Jeff Bzdelik (I think Dan got under his skin a few times — no shock there). Dan is a professional’s professional.
Dan will be missed in a business losing its veteran leadership and writers with a sense of history. He is the dean of sports writers in North Carolina — the last of a breed who remember the Big Four Tournament or an ACC before Georgia Tech — an ACC that included the University of South Carolina.
Here’s the point where I plug Dan’s book. It came out a few years ago and I wrote a column about it that follows. Anyone interested in the league’s basketball past would enjoy reading it. It’s called the “ACC Basketball Book of Fame.” And unless I miss my guess, Dan will one day be in the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame. And if not, he’s certainly in my personal Hall of Fame.
Chances are a lot of people in the area today will be tuned in to the championship game of the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament. That’s especially true if one of the traditional Big Four teams is there. If that’s the case, well, then watching what unfolds on the court at Greensboro Coliseum rivals interest on the back nine Sunday at the Masters golf tournament down in Augusta, Ga. In a few weeks.
Yes, if North Carolina, Duke, N.C. State or Wake Forest somehow get that far, then folks on what used to be called Tobacco Road wouldn’t miss it for the world. And if Wake ever makes it again, well, that could be an early sign of the Apocalypse. No one would want to miss such a spectacle.
There was a time when I was one of those Tobacco Road faithful and proud of it.
ACC basketball used to be, for lack of a better term, a kind of religion around here. I say this with the knowledge that some might be offended by such a statement but equally sure that people certainly exist who have greater devotion to totems for the Tar Heels, Blue Devils, Wolfpack or Demon Deacons than to the denomination of their particular choice. They can certainly produce more fervor about it, too.
Sadly, you know I’m right.
But times change. Dean Smith retired, Tim Duncan graduated, Jim Valvano sadly passed away — and Lorenzo Charles, too, Jay Bilas now teams with Dick Vitale, Lenny Wirtz has been replaced as the most hated referee by Karl Hess, and league road games now go to Syracuse, N.Y. and South Bend, Ind.
So these days I’ve turned into one of those people who has more interest in the ACC’s past than in its present or future. I think the term “old coot” comes to mind in describing this rather routine-to-the-point-of-predictable condition. Soon I’ll probably be yelling for kids to get off my lawn.
Anyway, as an old coot in relatively new standing, it is my sworn duty to drone on to the point of tedium about how much better the ACC was in days gone by. After all, I saw Charlie Scott play — and Charlie Davis and John Roche, too. I watched David Thompson soar, Bobby Jones defend, John Lucas glide, Mitch Kupchak elbow, Lefty Driesell stomp, Phil Ford dribble, Rod Griffin rebound and Dudley Bradley steal the ball. I saw Dereck Whittenburg’s shot come up short, Kenny Dennard’s reverse dunk, Ralph Sampson’s sky hook, Al Wood’s Final Four game for the ages and Randolph Childress’s ACC Tournament for the record books. I saw Carolina rally from eight down to beat Duke then about 30 years later watched Duke do pretty much the same thing to Maryland.
A lot of great teams, players and memories.
EVERYBODY IT seems, has a favorite team or moment in this rich stew — those things are pretty subjective and often random. Debates about the best players in league history rely mainly on armchair speculation or statistical comparisons — once Thompson is removed from the mix and immediately installed as the No. 1, best ACC player ever. The N.C. State All America from Shelby never had and still has no equal. He is without question the greatest player in league annals.
But after Thompson, who else is on the list of the ACC’s immortals? After all, this selection stuff has to be about more than scoring averages, which fluctuate based on how the game might be played in a given era or what rules are applied at a certain time. Scott, Davis and Roche, for example, never had the chance to shoot a three-pointer.
Well, my longtime acquaintance Dan Collins, a sports writer for the Winston-Salem Journal, has developed an interesting formula for designating players for an as yet unconstructed ACC Basketball Hall of Fame. He compiled it into a book he called “The ACC Basketball Book of Fame.”
Dan, a person I met decades ago when I was starting out as a sports writer and who was actually nice to me for no apparent reason, is the beat writer covering Wake Forest and a very good one. It’s a tough job if ever there was one in recent times. But it apparently has given Dan a lot of time to think about this best players thing. You see, Dan, like a lot of better reporters, has a tendency to question things that seem . . . weird.
What caught his eye few years ago were a couple of wrongs when sports writers compiled the 50 best players in ACC history. He noticed that Rod Griffin of Wake Forest was missing as was Duke’s Bob Verga. They were two players with astonishing accomplishments seemingly lost in time. It happens. That’s why so many sports debates of this kind spill from bars into talk radio and the Internet.
Dan figured there had to be a more consistent way to measure players from different eras against each other. Players, after all, can only be assessed on how they performed in their own times and against the competition of those particular years.
So he came up with one.
Dan admits it’s not a foolproof system — players who stay in school only a year or two have no chance, and perhaps shouldn’t. But it’s not bad. Instead of using scoring or rebounding stats to chart how good a player might have been, he uses a point system that rates players based on selections to the yearly All ACC teams and votes they received to achieve that honor. More points are awarded for ACC or national Players of the Year and All Americas. It’s a system balanced across decades of players so Art Heyman for example, can be fairly assessed next to Tyler Hansbrough.
To make the mythical hall of fame, a player would have to achieve 1,000 points from Dan’s system in a career. It’s not an easy cut. Chris Paul, for one, didn’t do it. Neither did Elton Brand or Vince Carter.
By the way, the leader in points based on Dan’s method? David Thompson, of course. And it’s not close.