North Carolina Becomes Center of Basketball Action

SPORTS-WISE, nothin' could be finah than to be in Carolina these days. North Carolina, that is. The state has always gone bonkers over college basketball, and this year the sport's two major college championship tournaments touch down in North Carolina. Charlotte hosts the men's Final Four April 2 and 4; Richmond has the women in town April 2 and 3 for their tournament semifinals and final.

Meanwhile, the Charlotte Hornets roll on as the National Basketball Association's attendance kings. They've held that status four of the five years they've been in the league, and sell out 23,698 seats game after game.

Once the basketball cheering stops, the state's residents have pro football to look forward to, beginning in 1995, when the expansion Carolina Panthers first take the field.

Olympic speed-skater Dan Jansen, whose brother-in-law is part owner of the Panthers, wore a Panthers cap during last month's Winter Games, so even he is wrapped in the state's sports glow. Jansen wrote a happy ending to his trying Olympic career with a world record and gold medal in his last race.

And the good winter vibrations don't end with Jansen. The Hornets may be the hottest regular attraction in Charlotte, but the city's reincarnated minor-league hockey team has been drawing surprisingly well, too. The Checkers have been averaging close to 7,800 spectators per game, raising hopes that the city may some day earn a National Hockey League expansion franchise. The current club is affiliated with the NHL's Boston Bruins.

Getting back to those two basketball finals, North Carolina's landing them is akin to Norway's hosting the Winter Olympics. There's probably no region in the country more zealous about the college game, and certainly no other state can claim two national powers of the caliber of the University of North Carolina and Duke University. UNC's Tar Heels are the defending national champions, and Duke's Blue Devils won the two titles before that. Bonnie Blair Hits Grocery Shelves

WHILE silver-medal figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was off at Disney World decompressing after her Olympic experience and uttering her now notorious line about ``the corniest thing'' she'd ever done, Bonnie Blair was ``in production'' at a cereal plant in Battle Creek, Mich. - or at least her likeness was.

Surely, Blair could have adapted Kerrigan's corny line with better results, since it fits perfectly - given Kellogg's decision to put her on the front of its Corn Flakes packages.

Initially, the company only planned to run the historymaking speed skater - the first United States woman to win five Olympic gold medals - on boxes distributed in Blair's home state of Illinois. Consumer demand quickly prompted Kellogg's to reconsider. The commemorative packages that salute ``America's Little Sister'' are expected on grocery shelves nationwide starting this week. The same sort of switch occurred in 1992, when a limited-edition Special K box bearing the likeness of Olympic figure-skating champion Kristi Yamaguchi went from California-only to nationwide distribution.

The conservative distribution plan in Blair's case may have been based on the limited popularity of speed skating in the US. As the most decorated woman in US Olympic history, however, Blair transcends ``limited edition'' popularity. Truly, it's hard to imagine any parent finding a better athletic role model for a child.

At the Olympics, some American reporters assigned to cover speed skating almost complained that Blair was not a great interview - that she didn't have a lot of interesting things to say. Maybe not, but the sincerity with which she said them and her genuine friendliness - her Midwestern-ness - made her a delight.

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