"If God isn't a Tar Heel," said Michael Jordan, dusting off the line Tar Heels have told a million times, at least, "then why is the sky Carolina blue?"
Welcome to the NBA's 41st annual All-Star Game, and its first-ever in Carolina, the First State of Basketball if it does say so itself.The state is shaped more or less like a backboard. Its patron saint is James Naismith. Its favorite season is basketball. A dunk is considered high culture. Season ticket holders at Duke or UNC or N.C. State or Wake Forest are considered patrons of the arts.
Ask Carolinans their greatest contribution to mankind and they'll answer Michael Jordan, followed by Orville and Wilbur Wright. First, second and third in flight.
Jordan grew up in Wilmington, N.C. and played for the Tar Heels at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Of the 24 players in today's All-Star game in the Charlotte Coliseum, he is joined by
no less than three other native North Carolinans and two other former Tar Heels. They include James Worthy, Brad Daughtery and Dominique Wilkins. Wilkins, after graduating from high school in Washington, N.C., played collegiately, for some reason, at the University of Georgia. The other two were Tar Heels.
Appropriately, no other state will be represented by as many All-Stars at tipoff today as North Carolina.
Said Jordan as he welcomed the outsiders on the All-Star teams this week, "I hope you all remember to wipe your feet off when you step off the plane."
This weekend's Carolina connections don't end with the All-Star Game itself. In Saturday's Legends game, eight of the 20 players had Carolina ties, and in the slamdunk compettion, five of the eight had Carolina ties. Also, one of the Legends Game coaches, Frank McGuire, coached at North Carolina.
Legends players Tom Burleson, Phil Ford, Bobby Jones, Jack Marin, Charlie Scott, David Thompson, Artis Gilmore and Sam Jones either played collegiately or were raised in North Carolina. Ford, currently an assistant coach to Dean Smith at UNC, was given the day off so he could play in the game.
In the dunk contest, native Carolinans included the Jazz's Blue Edwards, Kenny Smith and Kenny Williams, while Kendall Gill and Rex Chapman are current players for the Charlotte Hornets.
Among all these players mentioned above, there was considerable ticket arranging that preceded All-Star Weekend.
"Oh man, how many tickets did I get?" said Jordan. "I'd say about a hundred. And I could have used about a hundred and fifty."
That was just his short list for family and close friends.
James Worthy needed more than that. While Jordan's hometown is more than 100 miles away from Charlotte, Worthy's hometown of Gastonia is just 18 miles away - an easy drive to the hoop, as Carolinans would put it.
"A lot of people I went to school with said they would love to see the All-Star game," Worthy said, smiling.
The Coliseum's 23,530 seats sold out for today's game months ago. That's nothing new, since the arena has sold out for every game since the Hornets joined the NBA two and a half seasons ago. But it is something new when an NBA All-Star game attracts a scalping market that inflated the price of tickets from their $50 face value to asking prices on the street of $450 and up.
The mood for today's All-Star Game is expected to be much like the mood for Saturday's activities. Overall cordial but particularly partial to anyone who grew up eating grits and fried chicken, who says y'all by instinct, and who's only break from watching basketball is watching stock car races.
"I'm proud to come back here, and bring these other guys with me," said Jordan, who added that he'll move his home from Chicago, where he now plays, to North Carolina when his playing days are over. "I would love to come back here to live and raise my kids," he said. "Pinehurst is not a bad idea. Somewhere quiet, less people, and a lot of golf courses."
And all that blue sky, of course. If when today's All-Star Game is history a Carolinan isn't getting the MVP Trophy, consider it an upset. Nobody from the Charlotte Hornets is in the game, so you could call it officially a neutral court. But still, one-sixth of the roster will enjoy a rather formidable homestate advantage.