The following words just came out of ESPN announcer Dave O'Brien's mouth: "You want to celebrate a national championship? Better move to the state of South Carolina."
Never thought I'd see the day. Never thought I'd see the South Carolina women's basketball team cutting down the nets as national champions, either.
I spend a fair amount of time apologizing for where I’m from.
Not out loud, usually. It’s more of an internal dialogue, borne of the inward cringe when some inbred folk choose to accessorize a near-perfect weekend of basketball with a Confederate flag, or when news about the survivalist cult trying to gain traction in my neck of the Upstate woods appears on my Twitter feed.
This week, I have not felt the least bit apologetic.
I just returned from a conference in Chicago. I had a good time, saw some sights, learned some things, met some folks. Several of these were at a pizza joint my friend recommended. Chatting with the nice people, accepting a tasty local brew from them, I told them I was from South Carolina in the accent I can’t change and wouldn’t really want to, anyway.
The question soon followed from one of the dudes: So, do you like Trump?
Bless his heart.
I explained, courteously enough, that I did not. I showed him the safety pin affixed near my Gamecock pendant. I drank my beer, letting it soothe the embers of anger that seethed beneath my good manners.
This weekend, I have had two other, large-than-life people fighting such battles for me, taking on those who think they know my state and proving them, game by game, wrong.
One is a tiny, tough woman from Philadelphia; the other the large, boisterous grandson of Cuban immigrants. Dawn Staley and Frank Martin have taken the South Carolina women’s and men’s basketball teams, respectively, to basketball's biggest stage, and winning has a way of shutting people – including the insidious little voices that hibernate in your own head – up.
Staley’s team, led by two-time SEC player of the year A’ja Wilson and a cast of characters that has had to step up in the absence of double-double machine Alaina Coates, held off Mississippi State, which stunned the sports world by ending UConn’s 111-game winning streak, to win its first-ever national championship tonight. Martin’s came up just short the night before against Gonzaga in the first game of the men’s Final Four after a magic carpet ride of a season - by far the most successful in the history of a school founded in 1801.
The Gamecocks' national championship in women's hoops joined those earned by Coastal Carolina in baseball and Clemson in football and continued a remarkable run of victory for a state that hasn't always been held up as the pinnacle of success, athletic or otherwise. I mean, if you want to start with Fort Sumter, we've had a rather long history of being a little cantankerous - and not always at the forefront of progressive change.
Martin has spoken with characteristic passion about his love for his adopted state. Confronted with a question about said Confederate flag incident last month in Greenville, when the Gamecocks began their improbable NCAA run by beating Marquette and then upsetting Duke, Martin faced the issue head-on, with the intense gaze that often accompanies his sideline stalking. In America, he said, people are going to have opinions you don’t like that you still have to allow to be expressed, because that’s America. Now, he said, let me tell you about South Carolina – the state that has shown nothing but love to me and my Jamaican wife and my mixed-race children, the state that loves this basketball team, the state that is united.
After her Gamecocks downed Stanford on Friday night, Staley – perhaps the greatest point guard ever during her playing days at Virginia and the newly named coach of the U.S. national team – strode through the tunnel to the locker room. “South Carolina!” she shouted, her Philly accent giving the words an unfamiliar but beautiful lilt and the stilettos that – along with a splash of leather – have become her trademark providing punctuation. “South Carolina – where you compete for national championships!”
That’s right. That’s what my state is.
Staley talked about it with obvious pride after finally securing the national title that had eluded her in three Final Fours as a player. She talked about belief, and loyalty, and family. She was talking about the team I've gone to see play several times this year, the one I screamed myself hoarse for as it edged Arizona State in the NCAA first round, the one that represents my state and my alma mater.
It’s a state that still has problems, no doubt. I frequently walk the grounds of our gracious state capitol, its copper dome glinting in the sunlight – no longer marred by the stars and bars, but presiding over the statues of slave owners. This beautiful place has a bloody past, one it can be uncomfortable to honestly acknowledge, and a sometimes-squirmy present. But like Martin, we should all muster the courage to look that history, both long-ago and up-to-the-minute, in the eye, address it, and state unequivocally that we are better than it.
This is where I’m from – a land of dogwoods and azaleas, pollen and pines. I can get lazy with the ‘g’s on the end of my words and draw out an ‘i’ in the middle of one until it begs for mercy. I need a proper amount of sugar in my tea – while it’s being brewed, you heathen – and, assuming butter and other essential loving has been added, I will eat the hell out of some grits.
I am proud of my state and the majority of its people. I don’t deny there is work yet to be done. But this week, I strolled the campus where I went to class 22 years ago and where I now work with proud affection. In a Midwestern commerce and culture capital, I talked basketball with colleagues from Boston and Minneapolis (and Clemson). I raced home to my cat and my couch to see one team keep its dream alive, and I watched as another's came up just short with soul sports sisters in a packed downtown bar whose patrons burst into applause as the final seconds of a magical season ticked away.
I’m from South Carolina. And right about now, nothing could be finer.