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Charlotte superfans never give up hope for Panthers, Bobcats

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/29/18/36/1vg6DP.Em.138.jpeg|237
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    Gladys and John T. Massey, in the Time Warner Cable arena at a Bobcats game, have attended thousands of pro sports games. Even when Charlotte teams struggled, the Masseys never gave up.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/30/19/16/8feTE.Em.138.jpeg|323
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    Former Charlotte Hornets star Alonzo Mourning, left celebrates a game-winning shot against Boston in the 1993 playoffs.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/30/19/16/LY5av.Em.138.jpeg|287
    JEFF SINER -
    Former Charlotte Hornets star Dell Curry, left, photographed in 2004 with his son, Stephen Curry, who at the time played basketball for Charlotte Christian School.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/30/19/16/lpPVU.Em.138.jpeg|268
    CHRISTOPHER A. RECORD -
    Panthers personnel and players restrain Kevin Greene, right, in 1998 after Greene shoved linebacker coach Kevin Steele.

They are in their early 80s now, so it’s harder to navigate the stairs. It would be so easy to simply flick on the television at their modest home in west Charlotte – the same house they have lived in since they got married in 1966 – and watch games that way instead of dealing with traffic, weather and overpriced concessions.

But they don’t do it that way, because Gladys and John T. Massey are two of the most loyal professional sports fans in Charlotte history. They are the kinds of fans that teams dream about – the kind to whom the phrase “two tickets to paradise” simply means attending another local game. The Masseys are far from rich, but each year they have carefully saved enough money to attend a staggering number of pro basketball and football games.

“TV is real good,” John T. Massey said, “but being there at a game is altogether different.”

The Masseys owned Charlotte Hornets season tickets every year from the beginning. The same with Charlotte Bobcats season tickets. And Carolina Panthers season tickets. And – yes, it’s true – Charlotte Sting season tickets.

Sometimes when we think of any team’s biggest fans, we think of those who paint their faces or wear outlandish homemade costumes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the Masseys’ style. TV cameras never find them. They have no real connection to any player on any of the teams, and they have met very few of them over the years.

The Masseys simply show up, get to know all their neighbors in the adjoining seats by their first names, cheer for the home team and leave. They don’t seek any publicity – they figure that’s for the players. I only know about them because one of their children sent me an email about their decades of loyalty.

If you do the math, the Masseys have attended well over 1,200 pro football and basketball home games in Charlotte over the past 25 years since the Hornets debuted in 1988.

They also have seen more than 650 losses in person, since most of the time the home teams they have followed have not been very good. Yet they say they have never seriously considered giving up their tickets for any of the franchises.

Two teams have abandoned them. The Sting, one of the original women’s basketball franchises in the WNBA, folded. The original Charlotte Hornets moved to New Orleans, causing John T. to throw away some of his Hornets paraphernalia in disgust.

But they have never abandoned their teams.

“Each year we keep hoping things would get better for the teams,” Massey said. “And sometimes they’d get better, and then sometimes they’d fall, and that’s just the way it’s been – a rise and then a fall, over and over. But we would never give up on them.”

Massey memory No.1: Alonzo Mourning

John T: “In the Hornets’ first playoff series (in 1993), when Alonzo hit that shot to beat Boston, that was something. Zo and Larry, Muggsy and Dell. We were building. Every year, we’d get a piece. And then Zo hit that shot at the end to win the series, and he laid on the floor and just kicked! That was a remembering time for me, for sure. That let us know we could hang with the big boys.”

Deep Charlotte roots

Gladys Massey probably knew this sort of life was coming, because she married a sports nut. “When we decided to get married, he suggested that we marry on Thanksgiving Day at 1 p.m.,” she said. “I agreed. I did not know that a big football game was coming on TV at 3 p.m.”

They just finished celebrating their wedding anniversary, since Thanksgiving is late this year. Each year John T. sends his wife a rose for every year they have been married. The vase bulged with 47 roses this year.

It would be harder to find a couple with much deeper Charlotte roots than the Masseys. Both have lived their entire life in Charlotte. Gladys, 82, went to West Charlotte High and then Johnson C. Smith for college. She played basketball in high school.

John T., 83, went to Second Ward High, which is no longer in existence, and was a good enough baseball player that he both played and managed in a loosely organized semi-pro league in Charlotte. The league featured African-American baseball teams from various neighborhoods around town.

They are a blended family. Together they have seven children, 15 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. They both worked most of their lives and are now retired.

John T. was a warehouse manager for a chemical company in Charlotte, loading and unloading trucks every day. Gladys was a middle manager at the Employment Security Commission. When they wrote checks to pay bills every month, they always added in one for the Charlotte Housing Authority scholarship fund, which helps provide college scholarships for kids who grow up in public housing.

They are also religious people. Gladys made sure after a recent foot problem kept her from getting out of the house for a couple of weeks that when she was well enough to go somewhere, she went to the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church first for a Sunday service before she went to another sporting event.

Massey memory No.2: Kevin Greene.

John T: “In 1996, the year we made the playoffs, who was that fellow who played defense and we liked him so good?”

Gladys: “Let’s see, Salt and Pepper – it was Salt... Kevin Greene!”

John T: “Oh, you’re going way back now!”

Gladys: “I told my husband one time (in 1998), ‘Look over there, Kevin Greene is fighting his coach.’ And I just fell out laughing! I had never seen that before in my life.’”

‘One of the first to get tickets’

When the Charlotte Hornets became Charlotte’s first NBA team in 1988, John T. Massey was excited. He wasn’t a NASCAR fan. And while he liked going to West Charlotte high school football games and minor-league baseball games, he recognized that there were no team sports around Charlotte being played at the highest level.

“So I was just so interested in the NBA coming to town,” Massey said. “I wanted to jump on board and be one of the first to get tickets.”

Actually, that year it was just one ticket. The Masseys are old school and never buy anything on credit. They have a single credit card because life is hard to manage without one, but they hardly ever use it. They bought a single season ticket in 1988-89 because that fit in best with their budget.

“But I got tired of going by myself,” Massey said. So they made it work the next season.

Massey memory No.3: Michael Jordan.

Gladys: “The first time Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls came (on Dec.23, 1988), I didn’t go. But my husband did. And it was his birthday.”

John T: “I came home and I had this big smile on my face.”

Gladys: “I had been at church. And all he could say when he got home was, ‘We beat Michael Jordan – on my birthday!’”

$8,000-plus per year

For the 1989-90 Hornets’ season, Gladys started going with her husband. They have gone whole seasons without missing a single game, but they also missed one entire season.

When the Panthers came in 1995, the Masseys bought two season tickets right away. But they didn’t attend the first year’s “home” games 140 miles away in Clemson, S.C., selling those tickets for one season but retaining the rights to them and waiting until the stadium in Charlotte began hosting the team in 1996.

After some early years with average seats, they now splurge, buying expensive mid-level club seats for $260 apiece per game. Their Bobcats’ tickets are $40 each per game.

The Masseys will spend more than $8,000 overall just on tickets this season. On the rare occasions when they can’t go, they give their tickets to friends – except for one evening.

“This one time,” Gladys said, “we decided to sell our tickets when Michael Jordan came to town. This was not the initial year, but another year early in the Hornets. People out in the parking lot were out there begging. They were holding up $100 bills. We had planned to go.”

“But money talks!” cackled John T. “We came home and watched that one on TV.”

The Masseys have rarely had any contact with players. But they did meet former Panther safety Mike Minter once and they hosted former Panthers defensive tackle Ray Seals and a friend of his at their home in 1997.

Seals had gotten to know Gladys’s brother, who had raved about her cooking. Seals said he and a buddy would come over to dinner on a certain night.

When the appointed evening came, Seals was late. Because of her brother, Gladys knew what hotel Seals was staying in and called him. She had a church engagement and didn’t want to be delayed.

After she told him that she had fried chicken, collard greens and homemade cornbread on the table and that she needed to get to church soon, Seals came quickly.

Massey memory No.4: Dell Curry.

Gladys: “My favorite person was Dell Curry. I looked at the way he was raising his two little boys. And we watched those boys when they were just little ones, shooting during warmups while he was playing for the Hornets, and we saw them develop into men. And now both of them are playing professional ball.”

John T: “And she won’t miss a game when they play, either. When Golden State is playing, she’s got to watch, so she can see Steph.”

Gladys: “As for Dell, I think he knows us a little from sitting at the top of the stairs because when he comes up he always speaks. But as to names and all that, I doubt he knows ours. We’re just the two old folks sitting there.”

I called Curry – who now broadcasts Bobcat games on TV – and asked if this was true. “Absolutely,” Curry said. “I don’t know their names, but I know exactly where they sit. I’ve seen them all the time, for years and years. They always seem happy.”

‘MVPs of the team’

The Masseys haven’t been to as many games as usual this year, although they were at the Bobcats’ home game vs. Boston Monday night. Gladys is about to have an operation on her foot so she can walk better.

But they still plan to keep going regularly for as long as they can. Although pro sports leagues struggle to fill seats these days because high-definition TVs have gotten so good and so cheap, the Masseys and fans like them keep the turnstiles turning.

The Panthers have avoided local TV blackouts with 110 straight sellouts – allowing everyone who doesn’t want to go to the game locally to see it on free TV – because of the Masseys and thousands of PSL owners just like them.

Said Phil Youtsey, who has directed the Panthers’ ticket operation since the team’s inception: “Fans like the Masseys are, indeed, the most valuable members of our team.”

As you might imagine, no one is enjoying the Panthers’ seven-game win streak more than the Masseys.

“We often have talked about the Bobcats and the Panthers over the years,” Massey said. “It’s like they just can’t get over that hump to be a consistent winner. But there’s just something about them. They’re our teams, and they are Charlotte’s teams. And we just don’t give up on them, you know? We just fell in love with them. And we just keep hoping that maybe, just maybe, this is finally the year.”

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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