GREENSBORO, N.C. - As a North Carolinian, Brenda Smith knows some humans who are mad as a March hare for college basketball. As the president of the North Carolina Rabbit Breeders Association, she has joked with such humans that the NCAA should get out of the way and ease the March calendar. Her association's bylaws mandate that its major rabbit show occur each March, and since 2010, it has gone down at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, where finding a good weekend can prove tricky.
Well, look here. For an unforeseeable reason, the NCAA did get out of the way last September. On the weekend of March 17-19, where there would have been eight basketball teams and eight sets of fans plus various neutral stragglers frothing with March Madness, there will be, at the eight venues in the complex, a jewelry show and a Greensboro Swarm game in the NBA Development League and 3,000 rabbits, vying. While the Coliseum itself will remain dark, there will be Holland Lops, Standard Chinchillas, Rhinelanders, Hotots and whatnot in the Special Events Center. That promises the usual cacophonous grooming area, with some of the 600 exhibitors blow-drying their rabbits to puff up their coats.
"It's basically the equivalent of a dog show, but it's for rabbits," Smith said. "But you do not walk them on a leash."
She laughed when she joshed, "Actually, I think we're friendlier than the dog show people."
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She also debunked a common misconception about rabbits and breeding that might go like this: Who knew they needed any help?
The NCAA men's basketball tournament weekend that would have become Greensboro's fifth in the last 20 years, and North Carolina's 29th in the last 30, abandoned this intersection of slapdash American city boulevards. Its overwhelming apparatus aims instead for Greenville in South Carolina, a state that hadn't held a regional in 15 years. Not only had South Carolina removed its Confederate flag from its statehouse grounds in 2015, but in 2016 the North Carolina government passed the Public Facilities Privacy and Facilities Act, better known as House Bill 2, which will turn one year old on March 23. Overriding a Charlotte ordinance that lent protections to LGBT citizens, HB2 ordered that transgender residents use restrooms corresponding to their birth certificates, rather than to the gender with which they identify. The NCAA agreed with the NBA, the ACC, Bruce Springsteen, Cirque du Soleil and some others in deeming it discriminatory.
With the law still testily debated, and with state lawmakers wrangling this winter over compromise bills, at least two feelings hold sway. There's a weariness of the issue - "I think people are sick of it," Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said on March 3 on MSNBC's "Meet The Press" - and there's an uncertainty in the hallways of the places that lure events.
The Greensboro Coliseum Complex projects a $118 million impact from 53 potential NCAA events between 2018 and 2022, figures provided by spokesman Andrew Brown. It marks its to-date losses of various championships and conventions at $23.5 million. It counts $100,000 for the loss of Springsteen on April 10, $68,267 for Cirque du Soleil on April 20-24, $20,195 for the loss of the band Boston on May 5, $72,261 from the ACC Swimming and Diving Championships of February, and $493,124 for the would-have-been NCAA men's basketball regional of March 17-19.
Over at the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau, HB2 lurks in minds daily. That's where Scott Dupree, executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, wrote a flashing-lights letter in February to state lawmakers, noting the threat to the 133 bids for NCAA-related events in North Carolina between 2018 and 2022. While the NCAA meets to sort out a giant puzzle of competitions and bidders and name locations for competitions on April 18, it figures to cut some site candidates along the way.
"What we don't know is when these cuts will happen," bureau spokesman Scott Peacock said. He also said, "We haven't been called by anyone to be told effectively that we've been cut," and that he and Dupree regularly see each other and ask, "Did you hear anything" from legislators?
Two-ish miles down the road from the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, there's already pain at Hooters.
Asked what effect the coming absence will have, manager Dennis Perry said: "Obviously, money. Because it's packed" during basketball events. "Oh, I mean, the place is packed. No seats. lining at the door." While on the phone, he checked some books quickly and said, "We probably missed out on 60 to 70 grand from that." He said: "It's a disappointment. It's a normal thing that we look forward to. Not having it this year is extremely disappointing."
At Jake's Billiards, half a mile from the coliseum, nobody on a recent weekday expected any effect. About seven miles away at the relocated Cooper's Ale House, a popular place to watch sports, general manager Pat Miller had a different projection.
"We usually see a little bit of a decrease in business when it's held locally," he said of the regional, soon adding, "With it not being held in this area, I should see an increase in business just because people would come to the bar" instead of the Coliseum. Any influx of visitors coming from other states, he said, does not offset the loss from locals who choose to watch live rather than on fine bar TVs.
On Saturday, March 18, in the Fieldhouse, not the Coliseum, the Grand Rapids Drive will visit for the burning skill and lukewarm atmosphere of the D-League against the Swarm, whose roster includes recent college players such as Rasheed Sulaimon (Duke, Maryland) and Mike Tobey (Virginia), as well as 37-year-old, five-NBA-team veteran Damien Wilkins.
And on both that Saturday morning at 7 and Sunday morning at 8, the rabbits will be up and out and on display. "They know when they're going to shows," Smith said. "The young ones are all fussy sometimes on the judging tables." She said rabbit shows are huge in Japan. She said her organization's show actually got the Coliseum itself last year, and that one rabbit went missing for three days afterward until cleaning people found him lounging around cheerily. By way of educating, she said: "They're actually very hard to breed and raise. There's an art to it, and like the best-quality dogs, we raise show rabbits, the best quality."
There'll be between 12 and 16 judges and four best-in-show winners. "We chase points," Smith said, "kind of like the NASCAR concept."