CHARLOTTE, N.C. For much of Charlottes recent history, our biggest moments have had something to do with sports.
The ascendance of Charlotte as a banking town has drawn enormous attention. But when it comes to standing in the white-hot glare of a spotlight for a short period of time, the Democratic National Convention has a lot in common with the NFL, the NBA and the Final Four games that Charlotte has hosted.
Charlotte has long been NASCARs hub. By the 1980s, it had grown used to the crowds in excess of 100,000 at Charlotte Motor Speedway to watch legendary drivers like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. But racing was considered only a Southern sport back then, so the city didnt really feel like it was big league until it got its first big-league team the NBAs Charlotte Hornets, in 1988.
That team spawned the sort of endearing enthusiasm that is hard to imagine now. The first Hornets team lost 76 percent of its games, but still led the NBA in attendance and was celebrated after the season with an uptown parade. About 30,000 people showed up, and they dropped 4,000 pounds of confetti on the pleasantly surprised players.
I joined The Charlotte Observer as a reporter in 1994, the week before the mens Final Four tipped off in Charlotte.
Charlottes center city was basically an office park then, with nightlife nearly non-existent. So organizers concocted the Street of Champions a four-block façade of temporary bars and restaurants that were shoehorned into empty storefronts.
Although it barely lasted longer than a soap bubble, the Street of Champions didnt seem ridiculous at the time. It seemed necessary, because fans needed something to do between games.
Richard Vinroot was Charlottes mayor during that Final Four. Now weve got a lot of real stuff in uptown, Vinroot said in an interview, and not a lot of made-up stuff.
Vinroot now serves on Charlottes host and steering committee for the DNC a token Republican, as he said. A former basketball player at North Carolina, he is well-versed in both politics and sports.
As a one-time event, the DNC certainly doesnt compare with having the NFL here every Sunday, Vinroot said. But on a national and international stage, I cant think of anything bigger than this, other than the Super Bowl or the Olympics.
DNC organizers held an open house at Time Warner Cable Arena on Friday, where the general public could come by to check out the $7-million makeover for what is normally the Charlotte Bobcats home arena (the Hornets are long gone).
Some adults brought their kids, hoping to impress the importance of the next few days upon them.
Erika Burley-Wilson, a Charlotte dentist, held her 10-month-old son Ellis as she walked on the arena floor.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience right in our hometown, she said. Its an exciting time for Charlotte. We get to show what our great city is all about. And I brought him because even though hes too young to understand it I want to take photos and at least document that he was here.
Renee Alsop brought her sons directly after they finished a half-day of school nine-year-old Cameron and six-year-old Evan. We wanted to see where history would happen, Alsop said.
Said Cameron: It was pretty cool to think where youre standing is going to be on TV in a few days.
While the conventions first two days will take place at the arena where the Bobcats recently strung together the worst season in NBA history, it shifts Thursday for President Barack Obamas speech to Bank of America Stadium home of the Panthers, quarterback Cam Newton and a resounding sense of optimism about this years squad.
That 70,000-seat stadium opened for the Panthers 1996 season and has hosted a number of major gatherings since, including a Rolling Stones concert, a Billy Graham crusade and two playoff wins versus the Dallas Cowboys.
Of all those events, Ive never seen Charlotte as giddy as it was before the first playoff game in the stadium on Jan.5, 1997. The Cowboys were Americas team and the defending Super Bowl champions, with a Fab Four of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders. The Panthers were hard-hitting no-names. But Carolina won.
Whats going on now in Charlotte has the feel of that first NFL playoff game of 15 years ago. Theres a giddiness to this, and an unpredictability, too.
We are worried and happy. Ecstatic and irritable. Despite all the prep work, were not totally sure we are ready.
And while this time there are no footballs or basketballs in sight, the same feelings of trepidation and exhilaration remain.
This is new enough to us that we still wonder: What will others think of us? What sort of job will we do? Is everyone going to have a good time?
Unlike a sports event, the ultimate outcome of the DNC is pre-ordained. Obama who on Saturday was already on his Road to Charlotte tour will accept the Democratic Partys presidential nomination once again on Thursday night.
So there is no mystery about the ending.
But getting to the end? Thats what will make DNC week in Charlotte so provocative.
Scott Fowler, an Observer sports columnist, will write columns about the DNC throughout the week. Scott: 704-358-5140; firstname.lastname@example.org.