There’s no substitute for being there.
I’ve found this to be a good guideline, both for life and for doing interviews as a journalist. Zoom doesn’t cut it. FaceTime doesn’t cut it. Text messages don’t cut it. Virtual reality, no matter how lifelike, isn’t the same as actual reality.
So when the world returned enough to normal that we reporters could interview people face-to-face once again, I came up with an idea — along with veteran Charlotte Observer visual journalist Jeff Siner — for a project to celebrate the Carolinas’ rich sports history. What if we crisscrossed the Carolinas and tracked down some of the most legendary sports figures around, doing in-depth, in-person interviews about their lives and careers at each stop?
Our editors approved it and, thankfully, gave us the time to see it through. The result was “Sports Legends of the Carolinas,” a multimedia project that debuted in August and focused on a different subject every week.
We just finished our first season — 15 up-close-and-personal interviews with the likes of Roy Williams, Steph Curry, Dawn Staley, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danny Ford, Charlie Scott, Jake Delhomme and many others.
Each interview became both a podcast episode and a Q and A for online and in print. Siner also produced videos and took several striking photographic portraits of each legend.
We started “Sports Legends” with former Charlotte Hornet star Muggsy Bogues at his home in Charlotte, who was gracious and set a great tone. We ended with Curry, the global superstar who said he’d be glad to make time for us but that we would need to meet him in Houston on an off day in his NBA schedule.
The flight to Houston was the one time we got on a plane. Everything else was a road trip in Jeff’s sort of clean Honda CR-V. We drove to Columbia, S.C, to interview Staley; to Sea Island, Ga., to talk to golfer Davis Love; to Mooresville to interview Dale Earnhardt Jr. at his race shop and to just outside of Clemson, S.C., to find Ford working the land on his 174-acre farm.
The project has been a happy blur for much of the past six months, as one deadline after another loomed. But after it settled, I sat down with Siner and our audio producer/podcast guru Kata Stevens to talk about some of our favorite highlights in a free “Season in Review” podcast that has just become available on “Sports Legends of the Carolinas” wherever you get your podcasts.
Here are a few of the extremes we encountered over the course of Season 1 highlighted in that “Year in Review” podcast episode that just dropped:
BEST RESCUE: Ford took us out to a part of his farm where he grew cucumbers and sent us home with some (they were undoubtedly the best cucumbers I ever had). However, about two miles away from his home, Ford accidentally locked the keys in his car.
Siner fortunately had his own car nearby, and he drove Ford back to retrieve the keys. The two bonded during the drive over their shared love of high school football.
CUTEST DOG: South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley brought her dog Champ to the interview, and the photogenic Champ — although often yawning and not impressed at all with the cameras — ended up in some of our favorite portraits of the season.
WORST DRIVING: Me. While picking up former UNC coach Roy Williams at his son’s house in Charlotte and driving him to our podcast studio, I tried to make a left turn across four lanes of traffic.
“You’re a lot braver than I would be there,” Williams said from the passenger seat, and I don’t think it was a compliment.
LONGEST INTERVIEW: In terms of a single sitdown interview, it was probably a tie between Williams, Danny Ford, former Panther tight end Wesley Walls and former Panther quarterback Jake Delhomme. All four are extremely gifted storytellers, and each of those interviews went about 90 minutes.
However, the overall title goes to Bob McKillop, who did his “Sports Legends” interview once, but then retired 17 days later.
“I’ll do it again if you want,” McKillop said. And since so much had suddenly changed in his life, that’s what we did. McKillop was the only legend we interviewed twice.
MOST USEFUL HOOPS QUESTION: I’m always going to ask basketball players and coaches about their favorite shots from now on. Williams picking his favorite shot in UNC basketball history generated numerous headlines on various websites, since he chose Marcus Paige’s double-clutching three-pointer against Villanova in 2016 over Michael Jordan’s national championship winner in 1982 or Luke Maye’s jumper to beat Kentucky in 2017.
But Steph Curry also had a great answer to this question, picking three separate shots even though I only asked for one: A game-winning shot he made for Charlotte Christian, a basket for Davidson during the 2008 NCAA tournament run and a shot for the Golden State Warriors in the 2022 NBA Finals.
FUNNIEST LINE ABOUT NON-LEGENDARY STATUS: This one goes to Jay Bilas, the former Duke basketball player and current ESPN analyst.
“I think some real legends must have turned you down if you had to scrape the bottom of this barrel to get me,” Bilas said.
MOST SURPRISING FACTS: These three stick out.
I hadn’t known that future UNC basketball star Charlie Scott — as a ninth-grader in New York — wasn’t allowed to play on his high school basketball team due to racism.
I also didn’t know that Judy Rose, the future Charlotte 49er athletic director, had once coached the basketball team when it was a non-scholarship squad and would sometimes cruise the dorm parking lots, looking for tall girls to fill out the roster.
And when Muggsy Bogues pulled up his shirtsleeve to show the shotgun buckshot still embedded in his bicep — back from when he was shot as a child growing up in a tough neighborhood in Baltimore — I was floored.
BEST COURT CASE DESCRIPTION: Bilas, who also has a law degree from Duke, told a story about fighting Barney the Dinosaur in court that had to be heard to be believed.
MOST USEFUL GENERAL QUESTION: Early in our interviews, Dale Earnhardt Jr., now 48, was talking about what he say to the Dale Jr. of his mid-20s, if that time leap was possible.
“If I could talk to that version of myself, I would slap the s— out of me,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I would. I’m so angry with that person.”
This prompted me to start asking almost every legend what advice he or she would give the 24-year-old version of themselves. The answers were all over the map. Think about it for a moment: What would you say to that question?
SEASON 2 IS COMING: We had a lot of fun doing this project, and we greatly appreciate anyone who read a “Sports Legends” story, looked at a photograph or listened to a podcast.
And yes, since many people have asked: We are planning Season 2 for “Sports Legends of the Carolinas” in 2023.
We hope you’ll come along for the ride.
FULL LIST OF GUESTS FOR SEASON 1 OF “SPORTS LEGENDS OF THE CAROLINAS,” IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE: