In a battle of the Carolinas, legislators from the two states, North and South, will take to the basketball court Tuesday to compete for bragging rights and a coveted gold trophy.
This one basketball game every other year is about the extent of the interaction between the two state legislative bodies, but it has become a tradition dating back at least 25 years. The game alternates between Columbia and Raleigh and will be played this year in Carolina Coliseum on the University of South Carolina campus.
Not only does the contest allow legislators from the two Carolinas to bond a bit, but N.C. team captain Rep. Bryan Holloway said the pre-game practices and friendly rivalry with the neighboring state brings Tar Heel lawmakers closer to their own colleagues in the House and the Senate.
“It’s good for everybody to have some camaraderie instead of always fighting with each other over politics,” said Holloway, a Republican from Stokes County. “On the court, nobody cares what party you’re from, only that you can put the ball in the hoop.”
Which doesn’t happen as often the teams would like, if the score from the 2013 game is any indication. North Carolina won 35-27.
The N.C. General Assembly team held Monday night practices for two months leading up to the big game, sparing against their own staff and lobbyists. Each competition between the states consists of two games; the staff and lobbyists play first, followed by the main event featuring the legislators.
Practicing against the lobbyist and staff team was good warm-up for the legislators. They teased Senate Sergeant at Arms Marcus Kitts, who played college basketball at the College of William & Mary and some pro ball in Europe, saying that he took it easy on them during practice and that he needed to bring it during the South Carolina game.
Kitts said that playing against the lawmakers feels a bit like an “old man YMCA game,” but that “there are some good legislative ballers.”
And some experienced players. Rep. John Blust, a Republican from Guilford County, has been on the team since the late 1990s.
“I could dominate out there in ’97 and the early 2000s. I’m still in it trying to impress the NBA scouts,” Blust joked. “I’m just thankful to be able to move around on the court.”
The oldest member of the North Carolina team is John Ager, 66 years old and a freshman in the House.
“It’s my second coming of age,” said Ager, a Democrat from Buncombe County. “This has been a good way to meet some of my colleagues and to get in shape.”
While the two states would love to play a game every year, schedules are too conflicted during short-session years. Plus, it’s not clear the players can handle the strain.
“It takes us a year to recover,” N.C. Sen. Andrew Brock said, laughing.
The 2013 game at N.C. State Reynolds Coliseum resulted in a few nasty collisions and broken ribs.
“It’s a cross between basketball and football,” said Brock, a Republican from Davie County. “It gets kind of rough.”
In that last game, the North Carolina team had the support of an extra player, Gov. Pat McCrory, as well as a cheer squad of 20 women legislators. (Women are allowed to play in the game but none do.)
Rep. Julia Howard, a Republican from Davie County, headed up the cheer team and clarified that there were no flyers, pyramids or stunts. However, they made cardboard letters and chanted, “We are the mighty, mighty NCLEG.”
The North Carolina players will be traveling without their cheer squad this year, but South Carolina Sen. Ronnie Sabb expects there will be some cheerleaders for the South Carolina team.
Sabb, the South Carolina team captain and a Democrat, put together a bipartisan team of about 12 players and said he looks forward to welcoming their counterparts from the north.
“One of the reasons we look forward to this is because there is not much interaction with North Carolina,” Sabb said. “Our states are very similar in a lot of ways. This opportunity to fellowship and get to know each other socially is important to both states.”
Although South Carolina didn’t hold as many team practices as its neighbors to the north, Sabb still believes his team has a chance to reclaim the trophy.
“I think we are in decent shape,” Sabb said. “We have a chance of taking the trophy back, and we intend to do just that. We know there are some good North Carolina players, so we expect to have to earn it.”
The North Carolina team is just as confident, as Rep. Howard J. Hunter III of Ahoskie put it: “It will be fun to go down, whip some tail and come back.”
The games are open to the public but aren’t well publicized and haven’t traditionally drawn a large crowd. The staff/lobbyist game will start at 5:30 p.m. with the legislators to follow in the Carolina Coliseum, 1051 Blossom St. in Columbia.