Thursday, March 07, 2013

The Home Team

Clichés are the bane of journalists and good examples are articles or reports involving Duke basketball.  Invariably they portray Duke as one of the most hated teams in the nation.

Harris, a national polling concern, is probably ramping up its annual survey of the nation’s favorite college teams in advance of “March Madness” the results of which it usually releases during the regional round of the 75th Annual NCAA Tournament which begins in earnest a little more than a week from now.

Duke’s men’s team has rated as the #1 favorite team in the nation in 9 of the last twenty years, #2 most favorite in four years and never lower than #3.  I’m not certain if Harris ranks the most hated teams but applied to Duke the cliché of “most hated” is misleading at best.

I always found it puzzling during my now-concluded 40-year career in destination marketing covering three different communities when people would ask me my favorite team.  The home team of course or in the case of Durham, where I served for more than two decades, “teams” because both Duke and North Carolina Central University are based here.

Even more puzzling was that so many of my counterparts in economic development failed to connect those dots, all the while holding their hand out to Duke for help facilitating projects.  My philosophy was that when you represented a community, you went all in and that included allegiances to local teams.

But then I remember that I chose to attend BYU over the University of Idaho in my home state, merely because the Cougars had won the National Invitational Tournament my senior year in high school, a period during which the NIT was the equal of the now much more highly regarded NCAA Tournament.

The challenge was clear as I arrived in Anchorage in the summer of 1978 to complete the start-up of the community’s destination marketing arm.  I found an immediate ally in Bob Rachel, the first basketball coach for the University of Alaska-Anchorage.

We needed to diversify summer tourism to be more than an overnight stop for highly-escorted cruise-related tours  and expand visitor-centric economic and cultural development across the other three seasons - including winter - something that made me “enemy number one” to a several individuals involved in Seattle-based tourism interests who felt they “owned” Alaska at the time.

Over Thanksgiving weekend that year, I ventured out for each session with 2,500 other souls to Buckner Fieldhouse on the U.S. Army’s Fort Richardson.  It was located across Ship Creek from my offices in downtown Anchorage and adjacent to Elmendorf Air Force Base from which I could break the monotony of long telephone calls by watching the almost vertical take-off of F-15s, often joined by a Snowy Owl perched outside the window.

Today, the two historic facilities bordering downtown Anchorage are known as Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, not quite the same ring.

Coach Rachel was soon gone, the victim of alleged recruiting violations.  He became an assistant at UMass but died of cancer in 1985.  But during his time in Anchorage, he was one of the first in the nation to jump on new NCAA rules permitting teams to add some exempt pre-season games. 

What was known as the Sea Wolf Classic soon became the Great Alaska Shootout and in 1983 moved to Sullivan Arena which I had played a minor role developing.  The Shootout always drew many of the top teams in the nation.  I met Bobby Knight that first year and watched North Carolina State beat Louisville in the championship game.

In 1980 I met Dean Smith, the legendary coach of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Watching the Tar Heels beat Arkansas in the championship, it would still be nearly a decade before North Carolina would be brought to my attention as a place to live when I would be recruited to Durham to jump-start the marketing arm here.

During the 1983 “Shootout” I met the late Jim Valvano whose “cardiac pack” team had won the NCAA Tournament earlier that year and North Carolina State beat Arkansas to win another title game.  North Carolina won again in 1985.

I don’t believe Duke played in the “Shootout” until the 1990s after I had been recruited to Durham and had already become friends with Coach K, winning it in 1995.  By then Trajan Langdon, a star at East Anchorage High School was playing for Duke, followed by Carlos Boozer in 1999 who had played high school ball in Juneau.

The Great Alaska Shootout continues to have a North Carolina flavor with UNC-Charlotte winning the tournament last November but the number of similar tournaments makes it difficult to draw the top teams as the “Shootout” did in the 1980s.

Who was “my team” when I lived in Alaska and marketed Anchorage?  The University of Alaska – Anchorage Sea Wolves, of course, even though those were the Danny Ainge years at BYU when during March Madness in 1981, he went coast to coast in the last eight seconds to beat Notre Dame.

NCCU won a national title the year I arrived in Durham, Duke won three during my tenure marketing Durham and a fourth a few months after I retired.

And the Durham home teams are still my favorites.

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