I talk a lot about ACC hoops this time of year, because that’s what I grew up watching. It’s still, in my opinion, based on regular-season rivalries and postseason results, the best basketball conference in the country.
But it’s time to give my South Carolina Gamecocks some love.
Now, this is a dicey proposition. Historically, said Gamecocks have not done well with praise - or even, really, attention. There is a Chicken Curse, it is real, and that’s all we need to say about that.
However, as I was watching the South Carolina men demolish Tennessee last night, the SEC Network announcers informed me that the USC men’s and women’s basketball teams have the best combined winning percentage in the country – better than UConn, better than Baylor. The men are 23-5 and in second place in the Southeastern Conference. The women, coming off their first-ever Final Four appearance, are 26-1 and alone atop the SEC at 14-0.
A Google search for a blog a few days ago informed me that the top-drawing women’s basketball program in the country is not Tennessee or UConn. It’s South Carolina.
Men’s coach Frank Martin and women’s coach Dawn Staley are leading a revolution in Columbia. It’s even being televised – sometimes.
I must admit, I haven’t watched religiously. For one thing, I lived in Florida, where SEC TV offerings tend to be coated in orange and blue. And for another, I’m a bit scared.
I’m afraid to believe in garnet-and-black success. When I covered Hampton University and the Pirates faced Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference foe Coppin State, I inwardly cringed. Spent some time at the University of Richmond, too, and while I generally like spiders, these particular ones also carry the memory of a painful bite.
In case you don’t know, Coppin State became the first No. 15 seed to beat a No. 2 when it shocked South Carolina in the 1997 NCAA tournament. A year later, No. 14 seed Richmond reprised that role of scrappy underdog, knocking off the third-seeded Gamecocks.
You could argue 1997 was a long time ago, and it was. But I remember, clear as day, watching BJ McKie and company lose. I calmly stood up from my desk at the Hilton Head Island Packet, walked outside, and let loose a primal scream of angry frustration that quite startled the girl from advertising having a cigarette across the parking lot.
Since then, it has been a proven – well, it would be proven had I kept track – fact that the Gamecocks do better when I don’t watch. And they most definitely do better when I don't talk about them.
There’s an inferiority complex in Columbia, as much a part of South Carolina’s capitol city as train tracks and the Adluh Flour sign. You get used to it. You get used to seeing Gamecock players appear on SportsCenter highlights as hapless foes being bowled over by the team being lauded. You get used to the thinly - and not-so-thinly - veiled surprise expressed when South Carolina teams succeed. You understand, because even when the Gamecocks are, say, winning back-to-back Outback Bowls or beating fierce in-state rival Clemson five straight seasons, you, too, in the back of your mind, expect it to end.
I have not suffered as long as some. It’s been well-documented here that I grew up with Clemson Tiger paws painted on my schoolgirl face. The first game I ever saw was at Death Valley, and watching the players rub Howard’s Rock and run down the hill still gives me chills.
What I probably have neglected to talk about is the way the amplified strains of “2001” can fill your whole body until it feels like the top of your head may explode, how I have seen the upper deck of Williams Brice Stadium actually sway, how lining up to get my first student football ticket made me feel like I had, somehow, arrived at a place I was always meant to be. It’s not that my present-day love for the Gamecocks is less than my childhood love for the Tigers. I believe, heretical though this statement may be, that I love them the same – just in different ways.
My love for alma mater, like most things formed in the fragile fire of emerging adulthood, can feel a bit more tenuous at times. But, by the same token, it can be all-consuming, turning me into an emotion-ruled lunatic with whom people refuse to watch games.
I am an admitted Johnny-come-lately to the Gamecocks hoops party, for reasons external and internal. I’m giving a tentative wave to the bandwagon as it whooshes by me, and considering getting in my car to follow it.
I, class of ’95, hail thee. I’ll try not to be afraid to love you anymore.