"I told you (in the media) that Charlotte may have the most talented starting five in the league." — Cincinnati Bearcats coach Bobby Huggins, January 30, 2004
It's homecoming weekend at UNC-Charlotte. Tailgaters fill parking lots with pickups, Jeeps, and SUVs. Barbecues curl smoke into the blue winter sky. Baseball and softball games are taking place, dinners and dances, and all the mugging and mingling you'd expect from such an alcohol-soaked affair.
Soon, the de facto centerpiece of the weekend — a Conference USA men's basketball clash between the Southern Miss Golden Eagles and the Charlotte 49ers — is set to begin.
Inside the school's Halton Arena, every second person is wearing green and gold. The student section is rowdy yet straightforward in their taunting, sort of a Mad TV to the Saturday Night Live of Duke University's famed "Cameron Crazies." Coeds wear shirts emblazoned with legends like "Niner Nation," "Got Lutz? We Do!", and the ever-popular "Get Drunk Go Niners." Fans sitting behind the backboards have been handed large polka-dot-affixed signs with which to hound opposing free throw shooters.
It's also Senior Day, so before the game Niners Brendan Plavich, Chris Sager, Eddie Basden and Marcus Bennett are escorted to center court with their families. Sager and Bennett are lauded for their hard work in helping the team in practice, and commended for their great attitudes. Plavich receives huzzahs for his uncanny three-point marksmanship (at press time, Plavich was leading the country with four three pointers per game). Eddie Basden's introduction — he's the Conference USA Player of the Year, was called the best defensive player in the country by ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated — seems to go on forever. Basden accepts the applause coolly, walking stone-faced to the center of the court to pose with head coach Bobby Lutz before walking hand-in-hand with his mother back to the sidelines.
As the lights go down and an NBA-style 49er logo spins upon the hardwood, Basden and Co. stare at the floor until their names are called, after which the ritual hand slaps and nervous bouncing ensue. They're happy to be where they are, for sure — the team has progressed to the point where people like Detroit Pistons GM and former NBA All-Star Joe Dumars take in 49ers games in person — but you can tell they'd rather be playing basketball, throwing down tomahawk dunks in traffic and lofting three pointers from the baseline. Basketball's just too fun right now, you see.
As of this writing, Basden and the 49ers were ranked 24th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll and 25th in the AP poll, rankings the team hasn't consistently enjoyed since the days of Cedric "Cornbread" Maxwell and the 1977 squad that made it to the Final Four. Sure, there have been NCAA tournament appearances (most notably under Jeff Mullins, with three, and Lutz, who now has four), as well as a number of area fan favorites like Byron Dinkins, Henry Williams, Jarvis Lang and DeMarco Johnson, mid-level players mostly spurned by the bigger schools but who went on to fine college and overseas basketball careers.
"Any of our (former players) are welcome anytime they want to come back," says Lutz, who was named to his post in 1998 after Melvin Watkins left to coach Texas A&M. "Henry Williams lives around here, and he spent some time with (point guard) Mitchell Baldwin over the summer, helping him work on his game. Byron Dinkins. DeMarco Johnson works out here when he's home from overseas. Galen Young, Diego Guevara, all of them! We try and promote that, that sense of family. Tremaine Gardner comes to every game, and a lot of guys still live here and come as much as they can. It helps build a tradition."
Yes, there's something different about this team. Something has changed, even with the team's 0-for-3 performance stretching over the last two games of the season and the first round of conference tournament play. Some weird alchemy of physical ability and mental tenacity has morphed into the same sort of "can do" squad the team boasted during the '77 championship run. Old players like those mentioned above have returned to take in games, giving a helpful word of advice or pat on the back to the new kids. There's an excitement inside the arena. Taking in a game at Halton feels like family again. In other words, a homecoming.
"One thing to say really quick. The Observer sucks. I think the 49ers get more coverage up here in the Washington Post than down there in that kiss-ass paper. The Observer has its head so far up UNC/Duke's ass that they could tell me what Coach K and Coach 'I have never won anything in my life' Williams had for dinner." — "MD49er," on NinerNation.com