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Fowler: Charlotte pro sports uptown reach a golden age

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

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Sometimes a golden age sneaks up on you.

Sometimes it is only visible when you look back on it a few years later through the prism of time. It’s a “those were the days” sort of feeling.

Remember back when the kids were young? Remember when we all went to the beach? Remember that summer? Remember that year?

The trick is recognizing a golden age while it is occurring, so it can be fully appreciated while it is in progress. In other words, instead of “not knowing how lucky you are,” as the old saying goes, you actually realize it for once.

I think we have reached a golden age in Charlotte pro sports uptown.

The Charlotte Bobcats clinched a playoff spot Saturday night – only their second in franchise history. The Carolina Panthers went 12-4 in the regular season and hosted their first playoff game in five years in January.

The Charlotte Checkers, who share Time Warner Cable Arena with the Bobcats, are fighting for the American Hockey League playoffs. The Charlotte Knights will open an extraordinary new minor league baseball stadium in uptown Friday.

Those four professional teams – two at the highest level, two of them only one notch below – now are clustered within a few blocks of each other uptown. It is our own personal sports smorgasbord. It is the spectacular now.

If you want, you can go uptown three nights in a row this week to watch the Checkers play Thursday, the Knights play Friday and the Bobcats play Saturday. Two of those games will have playoff implications, and the third will christen BB&T BallPark.

And of course we have the Panthers, who loom over all of the local franchises because of the colossus that is the NFL. Despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the free-agency moves so far – and I still believe letting Steve Smith go was a mistake – they are going to be good for quite a while, assuming quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly stay healthy.

The Bobcats’ ascendance has been one of the most surprising parts of all this. Remember, they were a combined 28-120 over the past two seasons – the worst record in the NBA. Now they are 39-38.

They won again Saturday night in Cleveland, even though center Al Jefferson was average (for him) until overtime and Kemba Walker missed a last-second shot that would have won it in regulation.

The Bobcats won even while Kyrie Irving was scoring a career-high 44 points for Cleveland. Charlotte did just enough to ensure that Bobcats’ playoff tickets could go on sale (and they do at 10 a.m. Monday) no matter what happens in the final five games.

Like the Panthers in 2013, the Bobcats’ locker room right now is a pleasure to visit. Their talent is middle-of-the-road, but rookie coach Steve Clifford has molded the players into a good team.

Said Walker when describing this dynamic: “We have great guys and really down-to-earth guys, guys who are able to get along with anybody. That’s the great thing about our team. I think our chemistry off the court translates to on the court, and you can see it the way we’re out there playing.”

The Panthers and Charlotte’s NBA franchise have made the playoffs in the same calendar year only one other time. In January 1997, the Panthers played two playoff games, eventually losing in the NFC Championship Game to Green Bay. Three months later, the Charlotte Hornets finished a 54-28 regular season but then got swept in the first round by the New York Knicks.

That was a silver-plated time.

The Panthers would not make the playoffs again for seven years. Their next No. 1 draft pick after that playoff appearance would be Rae Carruth. The Hornets’ buzz already had abated some, but the franchise eventually would fall so far that the team would move to New Orleans a few years later.

This time, though, feels different. There’s a new ballpark, some young stars and a sense that we are at the beginning of something, not at the end. This feels golden.

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