Back in April, a group of Charlotte boys’ and girls’ high school basketball players traveled to Limoges, France, to play in a tournament of teams from Limoges’ sister cities. The Charlotte teams did us and James Naismith proud – affirming our basketball heritage by soundly beating each opponent on the way to both tournament titles.
The group also spent time touring Limoges, a city in west-central France with rich architecture that includes centuries-old chapels and ruins from the first century, when Limoges was a Roman settlement. This past week, we did our part in this cultural exchange, hosting a team of high school boys who spent seven days playing basketball and touring the area.
We know what some of you are thinking.
A week in France. A week in Charlotte.
Someone is clearly getting a better exchange rate here.
Alina MacNichol hears that sort of thing all the time. She’s executive director of Charlotte International Cabinet, a non-profit that promotes Charlotte as an international city. Her responsibilities include overseeing the visits of groups from sister cities, including Limoges.
Do people here sometimes smirk at her task of showing international visitors our culture? “Yes,” she said, before the question is finished.
So what does a professional try to show others about us?
That depends. If it’s a business group, they get a thorough walk around Uuptown and a drive to the University City area to the innovative Ben Craig Center for entrepreneurs. If it’s a cultural group, they head to the Charlotte Museum of History Charlotte History Museum and the Levine Museum of the New South.
As for teenage basketball players, well, that’s easy. Charlotte is helped by its abundant shopping and sports offerings, as well as the fact that teenagers universally think any place on Earth is more exciting than the place they live.
So instead of the Mint and Bechtler, it was Concord Mills and Carolina Place for the young men from Limoges. The group also got some history from the Levine Museum and civics from the Government Center. And yes, there was a spin around Charlotte Motor Speedway, as well as a visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Limoges may have ruins, but we have wrecks.
The team was most excited, however, at getting to see a Charlotte Bobcats practice, where Michael Jordan was in attendance, watching from a balcony. The young men also got to shoot around before Saturday’s game at Time Warner Cable Arena Arena, thanks to Charlotte International Cabinet official Jerry Helms, who happened to be roommates 50 years ago at UNC Chapel Hill with Bobcats coach Larry Brown.
On Friday, before a day at Rocky River High School in Mint Hill, team members spoke about their week, about the glory of cheeseburgers, and cheerleaders, and about how Charlotte was not what they expected. “Everything is bigger,” said Enzo Chaume.
MacNichol hears a lot of that, too. Business groups, she says, are surprised at Charlotte’s diversified economy and hundreds of foreign-owned firms. Others marvel at the city’s liveability and how friendly the people are here.
“They’re surprised at the fact that we have so much that’s at a high level,” she said.
So maybe you think that’s exactly what MacNichol is supposed to say. But it’s what a lot of us heard and said about Charlotte, until the economy took the shine off the Uuptown towers. Now we have a high jobless rate, and we’re fighting over our schools, and the usual escape from all that, our NFL team, is delivering a new dose of grim each week.
But spend some time with a group of French teenage basketball players, and maybe you get a new look at the bigness they see – the buildings and opportunities, the distinct culture of wanting to be better. Despite all the things we aren’t, this is still a place that celebrates that culture, a place that for decades has been – and likely will be – capable of not only surprising others, but ourselves.