There are no trumpets. There is merely the arrival of two very nice vehicles. Out step Gerald Henderson and Kemba Walker. They join James Southerland, who showed up early. They walk into the Subway on South Boulevard, put on aprons, visors and plastic gloves, and go to work.
Most of their Charlotte Bobcats teammates started earlier. Three players visited Novant Health Hemby Children’s hospital on Hawthorne Lane. Three helped customers check out at the Walgreen’s on Morrison Boulevard. Three helped people check in at the Dowd YMCA on Morehead Street.
The idea is to make surprise appearances around town. There is a barrier between athletes and the fans who cheer for them. For a day, the barrier is down.
“This is unique,” says Henderson.
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The Bobcats, who will open the season Wednesday in Houston, start slowly Monday. Henderson, who last made a sandwich two days earlier, peanut butter and jelly, reaches for the olives but grabs jalapeno peppers instead.
Anil Vakil, who owns the three-year old Subway, moves in and subtly blocks the jalapenos.
The players assume roles. Henderson, who has the most seniority, is first in line. He stands behind the fresh veggies sign. Walker is next. He stands behind Choose Your Own Sauce. Southerland, a 6-foot-8 first-year player from Syracuse, is last. He isn’t allowed to create. He wraps the sandwiches in paper.
“It’s OK,” Southerland says. “I’m a rookie.”
Henderson and Walker work. To sandwiches they add olives and onions, tomatoes and lettuce, pickles and cucumbers.
Henderson struggles. He holds up a bottle and asks, “Is this vinegar?”
Walker, however, is smooth. He was once a Subway regular.
“I knew I could spread everything,” he says later. “I was nice.”
But Walker, too, is challenged. A woman orders a salad with olives, tomatoes, banana peppers, spinach, provolone and turkey. Walker chops it, dices it and slices it. He’s cautious. This is no fast break.
“You’re taking forever,” says Henderson.
Walker looks hurt.
“No, you did a great job,” the woman says.
A man wants a meatball sub. Henderson begins to push it down the line to Walker, but pulls it back and makes a shooting motion.
“I’m a shooting guard,” he says.
Then comes the reluctant assist.
Up on the wall above them all, above even Southerland, is a picture of Jared, the biggest star in the Subway empire.
I ask Vakil, the owner, who’s the bigger name – Jared or Gerald?
“That’s a tough choice,” he says.
The players work behind the counter for nearly an hour, and 40 minutes in the change is evident: The sandwiches and the wrapping become faster and more precise. It’s as if the three went to sandwich camp in Asheville, and the lessons are kicking in. Walker leads the break, Henderson is speeding on his right and Southerland is, well, wrapping.
“This is cool,” says Walker.
You think a 6-inch turkey on honey oat bread with spinach, tomatoes, onions, pickles, banana peppers and black pepper is a problem?
“Black pepper?” asks Henderson, a quick learner and a former star at Duke. The man who orders it catches himself.
“Black olives,” the customer says.
Signing autographs, posing for pictures, dealing vinegar, oregano, Italian herbs and cheese, fat free red wine vinaigrette, sweet onion sauce, turkey breast, chicken breast – nothing throws the Bobcats.
Nothing throws the Bobcats until a man attempts to pay with a Wells Fargo card emblazoned with a North Carolina logo.
Henderson tells the man he needs to find another form of payment because Subway does not accept UNC cards.
“Obviously they were going to accept it,” Henderson says later. “But if I were the owner, I’d think twice.”