CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panther Robbie Anderson had a petulant sideline fit Sunday and got traded Monday. That was exactly one week after Panther head coach Matt Rhule got fired, and on the very same day that the arrest of Charlotte Hornet James Bouknight for driving while impaired was made public.
How was much of this news greeted in Charlotte?
With a little shock, yes, but also a lot of shrugs. The Queen City has become almost numb to bad news about Charlotte’s three professional sports teams, because there’s just been so much of it recently.
Arrests, losses, firings, injuries, more losses — can somebody turn off the fire hose? We get it. Somehow, the city of Charlotte has offended the sports gods, and so instead of giving us our first team championship at pro sports’ highest level (it still has never happened here!), we’re getting a year — or maybe several years — full of gloominess.
In 2022, just between April and October, all three of Charlotte’s major professional sports teams fired their head coaches. Two of them didn’t even make it halfway through their season (yeah, those were both employees of Dave Tepper).
Steve Clifford took the Hornets job June 24 that had already been taken by a guy who quickly reversed field and decided he didn’t want it — which is looking more and more like a wise move by Kenny Atkinson. Clifford found out less than a week after taking the job that Charlotte’s leading scorer, Miles Bridges, was accused of domestic violence in a California court case that has now been delayed seven times.
And of course there’s all the losing, which is so commonplace at the moment it hardly bears mentioning. The Panthers are 1-5 this season and have lost 12 of their past 13 games dating back to last year. The Hornets have missed the playoffs for six straight seasons. Charlotte FC had a decent inaugural season — other than firing its coach — but also ended up with a losing record and missed the playoffs, which the Major League Soccer squad had repeatedly stated as a first-year goal.
It goes on: For the Hornets, in a four-month span, Bouknight got arrested, Bridges got arrested and former Hornet Montrezl Harrell got arrested.
For the Panthers, the team has been so thoroughly laced with injury that they were playing their fifth-string quarterback at the end of Sunday’s 24-10 loss to the L.A. Rams, due to the first four all getting hurt.
In other words, Charlotte’s three biggest pro sports franchises are a mess. And because of all this gray hair and the fact I’ve been working for The Charlotte Observer since 1994, I’ve been asked several times recently if this is the worst period in Charlotte pro sports history.
In a word:
20 years ago, it was worse
As bad as it is right now, it’s recency bias to believe that what we’re experiencing now — even though it feels discouraging and awful — is worse than the 15-month period between Nov. 16, 1999 and Feb. 18, 2001.
In that 460-day span, four people died. A baby was deprived of oxygen for so long in the womb he would develop brain damage and cerebral palsy. And all of that was the result of four separate incidents related to well-known sports figures in Charlotte.
Right now there seems to be a new negative headline every day. Players get hurt or cut. Players get upset and then traded. Coaches get fired.
And there’s some stuff that makes you cringe: Bouknight’s driving record (how in the world did this guy still have a license?). The photos posted by Bridges’ accuser on social media to try and prove his alleged domestic abuse by sharing photos of her injuries. Anderson getting ordered off the sideline on Sunday by interim head coach Steve Wilks.
But none of that is actual life or death.
Carruth, Earnhardt, Phills, Lane
I won’t go deeply into the four incidents from 1999 to 2001, because this isn’t the time or the place for that. But here’s a brief synopsis:
— On Nov. 16, 1999, Cherica Adams, 24 years old and pregnant, was shot four times in a drive-by ambush in Charlotte by a hitman who would later testify he had been hired by Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth, the team’s first-round draft pick in 1997. Carruth was the father of Adams’ baby and, it would be alleged in court, he didn’t want to pay child support once the child was born.
Adams died of her wounds 28 days later, but she saved her baby, who would be named Chancellor Lee Adams, with a heroic, 12-minute “911” call after being shot. Carruth would serve nearly 19 years in North Carolina prisons after a jury convicted him of conspiracy to commit murder and other charges; he was released in 2018.
— On Jan. 12, 2000, Charlotte Hornet Bobby Phills was speeding in his souped-up black Porsche after a team practice concluded. Phills was instantly killed in a car wreck he caused when he lost control of the car and skidded into an oncoming Oldsmobile. He was 30 years old.
And if Bouknight has never looked up in the rafters before a Hornets game, seen Phills’ No. 13 jersey and wondered, “Who was that guy and what happened to him?” he certainly should.
— On July 6, 2000, just six months after Phills’ death, former Panthers running back Fred Lane died just inside his home in south Charlotte. He had been shot twice with a shotgun by his estranged wife, who would go to prison for eight years for the crime. Police found his body just inside the front door, with the keys still hanging in the door lock.
Lane was 24 and, at the time he was killed, was the Panthers’ all-time leading rusher. He still ranks No. 8 on that list.
— On Feb. 18, 2001, NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500 — the sport’s showcase race. And while this column concentrates mostly on team sports, I’m including this incident because it unleashed a torrent of grief the likes of which that sport has never seen. Earnhardt’s death still reverberates within the sport in many ways, including in its numerous safety improvements.
For Charlotte pro sports, there has never been anything like those 15 months, which is a very good thing.
The Panthers were losing back then, too, smack in the middle of a six-year, no-playoffs streak. But believe me when I tell you all those games have now blurred together for me, as the 38 games under Rhule will for us all one day.
What sticks out to me from that time period a generation ago?
Lane’s keys in the door. Phills’ crumpled-up Porsche. NASCAR’s Mike Helton saying, “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” And the smile of Chancellor Lee Adams and his grandmother Saundra, who has raised him from birth after he somehow survived his mother being shot and his premature birth (amazingly he has graduated from high school and is about to turn 23).
It will get better, Charlotte
This isn’t meant to be a depressing column, although I know I just brought up a series of incredibly dark days for the city. It’s meant only to put the current state of things in perspective.
It’s bad now, but it could get far worse. And for one awful 15-month period from late 1999 to early 2001, it did.
This hole can be climbed out of more easily. The Panthers or the Hornets just need to win some more, and help us forget what’s happening now. That won’t happen this season, but it will happen.
In the meantime, take a deep breath. Go outside and enjoy the glories of fall. Don’t check your phone for news or scores.
Sports will still be waiting when you get back. And one day around here, it’s going to be better. I promise.