Columns & Blogs

Tom Talks: Ric Flair’s out of the hospital. Let’s hope he’s OK.

Former pro wrestler Ric Flair, once a Charlotte resident, was recently released from an Atlanta-area hospital.
Former pro wrestler Ric Flair, once a Charlotte resident, was recently released from an Atlanta-area hospital. File

Don’t know why Ric Flair spent the last week at Gwinnett Medical Center outside Atlanta. Speculation has ranged from an emergency to a scheduled procedure, from catastrophic to calm.

But we know why Flair left the hospital Wednesday. 

He’s the Nature Boy.

“Not ready to go quite yet,” he texted.

Flair, 70, is a friend. I’ve done a lot with him over the decades. The one thing I never could do was buy. And I tried. Attempt to buy the man a drink (when he drank), and you got shut out. With a glance, he’d cut a silent deal with the bartender.

Walk into a restaurant or a bar with Flair, and everybody looks. Everybody knows him. And almost everybody says, “Woo!”

He treats his fans as if they matter. He loves the adulation, and he works to make the people who offer it feel good.

“Always appreciate what the Carolinas did for me in my quest to be the man,” Flair texted.

To be the man, you have to beat the man. I told Flair he can use that if he wants.

Professional wrestling was once as popular as any sport in Charlotte. Wrestlers and managers were so much fun to write about. You’d go to their headquarters, Jim Crockett Promotions, or their unofficial headquarters, Bennigan’s.

Not once did a wrestler say, “No comment.”

Some wrestlers couldn’t speak, or couldn’t speak a known language, so they were silent. But I understood.

Flair was the most famous of them, the biggest star. Here’s an example of the impact he had even after the NBA came to town.

A Charlotte Hornets player was waiting to get into a popular restaurant and bar, and the line outside moved slowly if at all. Flair, then a Hornets’ season ticket holder, saw the player, pulled him out of line and brought him to the door. “He’s with me,” Flair said.

Thus did the wait end.

Happy that Flair’s hospital stay did, too.

Get well, Ric.

NASCAR got it right with All-Star race

We can be unfair to NASCAR. We can treat every race as if it’s an audition. If the race is good, we give the sport another chance. If it’s not, we say, “This is what’s wrong with NASCAR!”

If we applied the same standard to the NFL, and every game had to be entertaining, the sport’s TV ratings would slip-slide to the nether regions where “Empire” lives.

NASCAR had a good All-Star Race Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I’m happy for winner Kyle Larson, whom I’ve predicted since he was a rookie would become a major star. (No rush, Kyle.)

I also liked the fight.

In some sports, fights should be avoided. NBA players tend to be so big and so athletic that the damage they do to each other could end a career.

In hockey, fighting is part of the culture. There’s a code. Enforcers fight; stars are protected.

In NASCAR, most of the pushing and shoving is done on the track. Instead of leading with a left, drivers lead with their bumpers. Sometimes that’s not enough.

On Saturday, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman banged each other during the race and during the cool-down lap after it. When the cars finally stopped, cool down didn’t apply.

Bowyer left his Ford, ran to Newman’s Ford and began to fling punches. Bowyer threw lefts and rights with the speed of a Cuisinart blender. Don’t say they’re not athletes. 

This was quality stuff. Left, right, left, right, left, right – I’ve seen professional boxers who didn’t punch as accurately. Had Newman not been wearing a helmet, officials probably would have had to stop the fight.

Newman, who is 18th in the Cup standings, wasn’t just going to sit there. He went to Bowyer, who is ninth. This time, Newman didn’t wear a helmet. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 207 pounds, Newman would in boxing be a heavyweight. Listed at 6-0 and 165 pounds, Bowyer would be a super middleweight.

As they talked, each used his right hand to gesture and point. Both were summoned to the NASCAR hauler, one at a time. We’ve all been there, but for us it was the principal’s office.

Was the fight good for racing?

Of course, it was. The drivers will compete Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway at the Coca-Cola 600. The cars they drive are too big and too fast to do anything reckless.

The 600 is the longest race on the NASCAR circuit, and although fans won’t sit at ringside, they’ll have one more thing to look for during each of the 400 laps.

Nobody was hurt Saturday, and fans still were talking about and writing about the scuffle long after they stopped talking about and writing about Larson’s victory.

If Saturday was an audition, NASCAR passed.

Appreciate the Warriors while we can

The only reason to be sick of the Golden State Warriors is that they’re on TV more than all the NCISes combined.

For the fifth straight season, Golden State will play in the NBA Finals. If Golden State plays in the NBA Finals every season, your team probably does not. Three of those seasons, the Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2015-16, Cleveland beat them.

The NBA has offered some wildly entertaining teams, from Magic Johnson’s Showtime Los Angeles Lakers to Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers to the New York Knicks of Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe.

But these Warriors are among the most entertaining teams to play basketball, and one of the best. I suspect that, like greatness in a lot of areas, they might not be appreciated until they’re gone.

Look, I’m biased. Like almost everybody in Charlotte who has picked up a pen, I’ve spent time with Golden State’s Steph Curry. But first I spent time around Steph’s father, Dell.

Some fans believe that all Dell Curry could do was shoot. But how did he get those shots? He dissected a zone defense the way a receiver does in football, and his wrists were powerful, his release quick and true.

One night after a playoff game in Chicago, I saw Dell in Charlotte’s locker room. The media had access to beer. Players, at least in that place at that time, did not. Dell looked parched. I asked him if he wanted one, and snuck one in.

At the Dowd Y one afternoon I’d finished playing basketball with my older son and we ran into Dell in the adjoining gym.

“What’s his game like?” Dell asked.

“He just wants to shoot, and he doesn’t play defense,” I said.

Said Dell: “That’s what they say about me.”

Steph comes from good stock.

The beauty of the Warriors is that they aren’t a one-man show. Steph Curry moves relentlessly without the ball. The best shooter in NBA history, he passes freely and well, and so do his teammates. They are a selfless collection of stars.

Golden State guard Klay Thompson plays very good defense, can hit from anywhere and is a willing and able passer.

Forward Draymond Green could have odes written to him. Green often plays like the biggest man on the court, but he’s 6-7 and 230 pounds. What you want, he offers. He shoots, sprints, passes, rebounds, plays all-world defense and occasionally acknowledges that when he knocked the guy over, he might have committed a foul.

Golden State has other essential players, foremost among them Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, whose defense is essential.

Reserves always seem to be in the right place at the right time. They know what to do, and they do it.

Curry, Thompson and Green are the nucleus, each a Golden State lifer.

The Warriors drafted Curry out of Davidson with the seventh pick in the 2009 draft, and he has never played anywhere else.

The Warriors drafted Thompson with the 12th pick in the 2011 draft, and he has never played anywhere else.

The Warriors drafted Green with 35th pick in the 2012 draft, and he has never played anywhere else.

Durant, who joined the Warriors in 2016, and Thompson will be free agents. I hope Golden State finds a way to retain Thompson.     

How long can the Warriors keep the group together? They’re not a team you want to leave.  They have great coaches and a great culture, and they are one of the best teams ever to play this game.

Their sustained excellence is such that when they finally are dethroned, we’ll know their opponent is special. Until then, they are.

Ted Ginn Jr.’s speed still there, even at 34                         

Ted Ginn Jr. is the fastest football player I have ever seen. He runs as if he was designed to do it. Nothing is wasted. The only body parts that move are those that have to.

Ginn, who plays for the New Orleans Saints, played for the Carolina Panthers in 2013 and again in 2015 and ’16. When Panthers quarterback Cam Newton stepped into a throw, you knew the ball was going to No. 19. As fast as Carolina receiver Steve Smith was, Smith acknowledged that Ginn had an extra gear. The man has run a 4.2 40.

Ginn is 34 now, old for a speedster. But Ginn told Pro Football Talk last week that he’d race anybody from pole to pole for $10,000 or more.

The challenge was publicized, and Houston sprinter Matthew Boling, who will run track for Georgia next year, says he’ll take it.

If you haven’t seen Boling run, find one of his races. He ran an incredible 9.98 in the 100, which didn’t count because it was aided by the wind. When the wind went away, he ran the 100 in 10.13.

I’d pay to watch Ginn-Boling. Speed is pure. It’s a quality that is the essence of sport. Ask a fast football player who is the fastest guy on the team, and he’ll say he is (a Panther told me that Wednesday). There are no tricks; the short runner can be as fast as the tall runner. Just get up, take off, and show what you have. Imagine being the fastest kid in class, in school, in the state, or in the country.

Although Boling has yet to work with a college track coach, 18 is closer to a sprinter’s peak than 34 is.

But if Boling wins, won’t the prize money violate NCAA rules because the money is paid over the table?

Thing is, Boling won’t win.

Anybody who underestimates Ginn’s speed because of his age makes a mistake. Here’s how fast Ginn is.

If he sees somebody in his yard, and yells out the second-floor window, “Get off my lawn!” Ginn can be outside before the trespasser has a chance to leave.

I once asked Ginn when he was last on a football field with somebody faster than he is. He looked at me as if I needed therapy. Then he leaned into his locker and thought.

Ginn finally said that back in Cleveland, where he grew up, there was a high school player who was faster.

How old were you?

Said Ginn: “Fifth grade.”

For Panthers prospects, it’s all about the opportunity

For years, the Panthers lacked a deep threat. Now they collect them.

How many do you have?

“I think all of us,” says Rashad Ross, a deep threat. “Every last one of us. Even Chris Hogan, when he was with the (New England) Patriots, he was going deep and making big plays.”

There are 11 receivers on the field Wednesday during the second day of organized team activities. Among them are the players we know – D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel and Jarius Wright. Carolina drafted Terry Godwin in the seventh round. It signed free agents Hogan and Aldrick Robinson.

That’s a crowded receivers room. What does Ross offer?

He can fly. He’s one of those players who looks fast when he’s not moving. He wears No. 19, the number Ginn wore when he was a Panther. Like Ginn, Ross ran college track. As a junior at Arizona State, Ross won the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation indoors 200-meters. 

“Every time, every time, you have to have confidence in you,” Ross says after practice Wednesday from the side of the field. “I always think I’m the fastest no matter what.”

Because he can run, he gets a lot of looks. Undrafted, he’s played for seven NFL teams, usually on the practice squad, and twice with Washington.

In his second stint with Washington, Ross made the active roster. He returned a kickoff 101 yards on Thursday Night Football, caught a 71-yard touchdown pass, and recovered a blocked punt in the end zone.

Ross most recently played for the Arizona Hotshots of the Alliance of American Football, and led all receivers with seven touchdowns (in eight games before the AAF folded), and was second with 583 receiving yards. The Panthers signed him in April.

“The AAF showed my versatility,” says Ross. “I can play the slot, outside, run short routes, intermediate routes, deep balls. It was a blessing for my dad to see me play and do good before he passed away.”

Zach Ross, 59, died from liver cancer in April, after Rashad signed with Carolina.

Says Ross: “He told me before he passed, ‘You got to want it. You won’t make the team unless you want do it for yourself.’ I’m playing through him, but I want it for myself also. That’s been my dream since day one.”

You watch Ross on Wednesday, watch him sprint and cut and beat Ross Cockrell on a flawless out route, and think, why not?

Maybe he’s a receiver, maybe he’s a return man, maybe he’s a Panther.

Told that a former AAF team executive praised what Ross did there, Ross says: “I still need work, still got to practice my craft, make the tough catches and the easy catches, and all the deep ball stuff since everybody knows I’m a deep threat. It’s got to be 100% when they (the passes) come my way.”

Think of the pressure players on the periphery of an NFL roster face. I’m not sure we appreciate it. At some point, the auditions end.

“It’s a great place, a great opportunity,” Ross says about the Panthers. “It kind of keeps my mind off all the negative things.  And I convert the negative to the positive.”

That’s a great theory. But how do you do it?

Ross pauses and says: “So, nothing comes easy for anybody, don’t matter if you’re rich or poor. Everybody has downfalls, everybody has setbacks.”

In sports and in life.

“And in life,” says Ross. “If I don’t make this team, or I don’t make the catch, I still got the opportunity. There’s a lot of folks out there that never got the opportunity. So, I’m blessed.”

If Ross can come close to replicating the work he did in the AAF, the Panthers will be.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen