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From Dairy Daddies to Trash Pandas: How branding creates fans for lower-league baseball teams

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From Dairy Daddies to Trash Pandas: How branding creates fans for lower-league baseball teams

Maybe you’ve seen him.

Perhaps his sideways glance and piercing blue eyes have crossed your timeline. His smirk might be all over your TikTok. If you follow baseball or if your algorithm has decided you like livestock, you may have encountered McCreamy, the muscular mascot of the Danville Dairy Daddies.

The brawny bull with a bright pink nose dons blue jeans and a “DD” belt buckle but no shirt, propping one hoof on his hip while the other rests against a bat standing by his feet. His unveiling went viral, providing a level of exposure not usually seen for a collegiate summer baseball team from an unincorporated Virginia city of 42,000 people in the regional Old North State League.

But this was no accident. The Danville Dairy Daddies knew exactly what they were doing.

There’s a story behind their name, a thought process behind their color palette and an award-winning designer behind their logo. Such is the case for many of the eccentric team names filling the minor leagues and collegiate summer leagues in recent years. The magic lies in the quirks that tie the clubs to their communities. The fun comes from the winks, nods and Easter eggs that teams incorporate in their branding to tell locals, “Hey, we know what makes this town special, and we’re leaning into it.”

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That’s partially how a topless bull came to represent a team in Pittsylvania County, which boasts three of the five largest dairy farms in Virginia. The Dairy Daddies moniker was initially suggested to general manager Austin Scher as a potential name for Danville’s first collegiate summer team, the Otterbots, in 2021. Over the next three years, the alliteration stuck in Scher’s brain, and when he learned of the local connection, there was no denying the divining of the Dairy Daddies and their main man McCreamy.

“While it is quirky and silly and somewhat tongue in cheek, there is a very real community connection,” Scher said. “The blue and pink are designed to elicit feelings of newness, of birth, of rebirth. You see those two colors together and you might think of a gender reveal party or a nursery. Then you look at this muscle-bound cow, and you’re thinking, ‘Well, that’s not a baby. That’s very much full-grown.’ Danville and all of southern Virginia are in the middle of this massive resurgence.”

Each component of McCreamy conveys a characteristic of his community. Paul Caputo, host of the “Baseball by Design” podcast, which explores the origin stories for minor-league nicknames, sees that same quality in team names across the country.

“You can tell the story of America by understanding why minor-league baseball teams have the names that they have,” he said.

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The Dairy Daddies are just the latest in a long line of lower-league baseball teams that shirk traditional names in favor of more eye-catching identities. Pinpointing the origins of the trend is difficult — you could trace it all the way back to the late 1800s, when a team called the Dudes existed in Pensacola, Fla. — but the recent surge of silliness stems in part from Major League Baseball’s downsizing of the affiliated minor leagues from 163 teams to 120. Forty-three franchises lost their affiliation in 2020. Many of those teams played under the same names as their former MLB parent clubs and had to rebrand. Former rookie-league teams like the Burlington (N.C.) Royals and Pulaski  (Va.) Yankees re-emerged as the Sock Puppets and River Turtles to play collegiate summer ball in the Appalachian League.

Teams that maintained their MLB affiliations have also jumped on the funky name train with hopes of invigorating their brands. Pick nearly any league, at any level, and there’s a nickname or logo that will make you stop and gawk. The Carolina Disco Turkeys. The Montgomery (Ala.) Biscuits (formerly the Orlando Rays). The Minot (N.D.) Hot Tots. The Rocket City (Ala.) Trash Pandas (formerly the Mobile BayBears). The Wichita Chili Buns (an alternate identity of the Wichita Wind Surge).

Without the constant media coverage and cash flow MLB organizations enjoy, lower-league teams have to get creative to stir up engagement, increase exposure and keep their franchises afloat.

“I see pictures of people visiting the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal and they’re wearing Trash Pandas shirts when they do it,” Rocket City’s director of marketing Ricky Fernandez said. “It blows my mind that someone’s like, ‘We’re going to the Eiffel Tower today! I better get my finest raccoon astronaut T-shirt on so I can snap a selfie!’”

Even with a local connection, an unusual name can take time to accept. Take the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. The Miami Marlins’ Triple-A affiliate played as the Suns from 1990 to 2016, when new ownership took over. Though the new team name has a tie-in to the local shrimping industry, the public wasn’t immediately sold. Noel Blaha, Jacksonville’s vice president of marketing and media, said the antipathy was expected and they planned the reveal accordingly.

“We very purposefully had some elementary school kids in the front row of the press conference because if things turned sideways and people were throwing tomatoes, they weren’t gonna go after the kids,” he said.

Still, someone started an online petition to change the name back to the Suns. Five thousand people signed within two hours.

“We got angry Facebook posts. We got some very offensive emails,” Blaha said. “People were pissed, point blank.”

But slowly, the tide turned.

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“What it resulted in was incredible merchandise sales in the months leading up to the start of the season, and then the season started and we set an attendance record that weekend,” he said.

The DubSea (Wash.) Fish Sticks (previously the Highline Bears) experienced the same rejection-turned-resurgence after their new identity won an online poll pitting Fish Sticks against Seal Slingers as the two options for the team name.

“I had zero people get angry about the name the Highline Bears. I also had zero people get excited about it,” team president Justin Moser said. “Before we rebranded, I don’t think we ever sold anything online. Maybe one or two t-shirts as the Highline Bears.”

Despite social media comments calling the new name stupid and “a disgrace to the area,” the Fish Sticks have since shipped orders to all 50 states and nine countries. They recorded five sellouts last summer and announced that their June 1 season opener sold out on April 23.


Fin Crispy Jr. is the mascot for the DubSea Fish Sticks, a summer collegiate baseball team in Washington. (Photo: Blake Dahlin / courtesy of the DubSea Fish Sticks)

These days, teams that aren’t getting creative with branding can seem a bit stale, said Caputo.

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“Being named for a local animal just feels very 1990s,” he added. “It feels old.”

That’s where sports branding companies come in. In the minor-league baseball space, there are two heavy hitters responsible for most of the new, splashy nicknames: Brandiose and Studio Simon. Team staffers work with designers to brainstorm an identity linked to the local history, industries, cuisine, natural landmarks or traditions.

“Every community has a story waiting to be told, and the goal is that when you visit a sports experience, particularly in minor-league baseball, we want you to step into a whole other world,” Brandiose co-founder Jason Klein said. “We want you to step into a story, a nine-inning vacation as we call it. But that story is the story of your hometown.”

Anchoring each team’s story is its logo, the main character of the narrative. Amarillo Sod Poodles GM Tony Ensor knew that nailing his Texas League team’s logo would be key to winning over naysayers, so he went to Brandiose with detailed instructions.

“I want the mouth to be John Wayne,” he said of the animated black-tailed prairie dog, “and the eyes to be Clint Eastwood.”

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The Amarillo Sod Poodles are the Double-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Photo: John E. Moore III / Getty Images)

Scher, the Dairy Daddies GM, had similarly specific requests for Studio Simon creative director Dan Simon when molding McCreamy. Simon envisioned the bull as having a dad bod. The response was a swift “no.”

“They wanted him built but not Arnold Schwarzenegger-built. He’s fine-tuned,” Simon said. “This cow was going to be kind of a ladies’ man. Or, in this case, a male cow is a bull. So he’s a cow’s man.”

Partially inspired by McDreamy, the surgeon Patrick Dempsey portrays in “Grey’s Anatomy,” McCreamy also embodies the spirit of another beloved TV character. Simon sees the bull as boasting the charisma of Joey Tribbiani from “Friends” with a facial expression that seems to ask, “How you doin’?”

These flirty, wacky, happy characters do get some blowback for deviating from traditional logos, or for being kitschy tactics intended to sell T-shirts. But Simon, Klein and the teams that proudly play as Sock Puppets, Trash Pandas and Sod Poodles shrug off that notion.

“The sports fans are going to go to the games anyway,” Simon said. “These identities are drawing people who wouldn’t otherwise come, and hopefully when they do come, they go, ‘Hey, this was fun! I’m going to come again!’ It’s not like you drew them in under false pretenses. It’s not that at all. Minor-league and collegiate summer league baseball, it’s fun! It’s fun to go to those games, so you bring in new fans and you’ve made new fans who hopefully come back.”

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The players, whether they’re college athletes trying to get on scouts’ radars or minor leaguers assigned to the clubs by their MLB organizations, also benefit from the increased exposure and engaged crowds.

“I’ve heard from several players that it’s like a little taste of the majors before you actually make it to the show,” Fernandez of the Trash Pandas said. “The old team we had before they moved, we were getting like 200, 300 people a game. It was kinda sad to be at a game because there’d be so many empty seats. Here we’ve led the league in attendance every single season. We average 5,000 people a night.”

Los Angeles Angels starting shortstop Zach Neto, who played 37 games for Rocket City (based in Madison, Ala.) on his path to the majors, had a pair of custom Trash Panda cleats made and said he still rocks the team’s merch.

“We got to play there in an awesome atmosphere every night,” he said. “Even to this day, I still see myself as a Trash Panda.”

The college kids feel it, too. East Carolina catcher Ryan McCrystal, who spent the last two summers as a Burlington Sock Puppet, said the North Carolina community embraced all the players but admitted it can take a bit of effort to convince friends and family you’re playing for a real team.

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“They think it’s a joke, but I think it’s really cool because it’s easier to rally around a team with that kind of name. It’s easier to build up a community around a team name that is something that brings people together,” he said.

“It’s the only sport that you can really do it where it makes sense. It’s something small but beautiful about the game.”

(Illustration: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic; top photos courtesy of Rocket City Trash Pandas, Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp) 

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The lesson of Scottie Scheffler at this U.S. Open, from the man who taught him

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The lesson of Scottie Scheffler at this U.S. Open, from the man who taught him

PINEHURST, N.C. — Randy Smith saw something that needed fixing, so he went about fixing it. It’s what he does. He pulled a piece of paper out of his desk at Royal Oaks Country Club in Dallas and scribbled down his idea. A line here. A line there. All the details. He folded it up, walked across the club and handed it to his student.

“This,” Smith said, “will work.”

Tom Landry took the paper.

The Dallas Cowboys coach eyed Smith, then looked down at a page of Xs moving this way and Os moving that way. The key, Smith explained, was putting Roger Staubach into shotgun play-action and allowing Drew Pearson to operate in space. Pure genius, in 1976, at least.

Landry, a Royal Oaks member, studied the play for about a minute. “Randy, I absolutely love it,” he finally said. Smith, then a 27-year-old golf pro and teaching instructor, nodded.

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“Star-right 47,” Landry said.

“What?” Smith asked.

“We already run it,” Landry said. “Star-right 47. That’s the play.”

Turns out, Smith’s design already existed, but with a different pre-snap motion. Nonetheless, the young golf coach from Odessa proved he had an eye for how to play, how to design Xs better than Os, and how to scheme up a win.

Fifty years later, nothing is different, except Smith is now coach and confidant to the current greatest player in professional golf.

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Randy Smith, left, has been working with Scottie Scheffler for more than 20 years. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Smith is the genius who told young Scottie Scheffler it was OK to let those feet fly; the visionary who knew a gift when he saw it. He first met a 7-year-old Scheffler at Royal Oaks around 2004. What was supposed to be a 10-minute youth lesson turned into an hour and 40 minutes. Smith, hand on chin, unblinking, only interjected here and there. “Can you try … yep.” “And how about … yep.” Smith knew immediately that Scheffler was one of one. He had not seen anything like him since a boy named Justin Leonard showed up on the driving range nearly 25 years earlier. Scheffler was somehow better.

And now, in 2024, Scheffler is the best. The hottest player in golf. Winner in five of his last eight events. A visitor from another planet. The 27-year-old can make it six wins in his last nine with a win at Pinehurst this week, where he’s trying for his third career major and first U.S. Open championship. A victory feels oddly inevitable. Scheffler is playing so well, so often, that fellow players are seemingly content to acknowledge their own inadequacies.

“He is the gold standard right now,” Bryson DeChambeau said Tuesday, “and we’re all looking up to him going, ‘All right, how do we get to that level?’”

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It won’t be easy, in part, because no one else out here has been hard-wired by the hands of Randy Smith. The coach is, in Scheffler’s words, “a savant,” and they are now two decades into a lesson that’s proving to have some staying power. It’s all worked because it’s never felt like work.

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“Randy has always been really good at not overthinking things,” Scheffler says.

Which might sound simple, yet is anything but.

Now 72, Smith walked along Pinehurst No. 2’s back nine on Tuesday trying to explain what gets so often confused in golf — that once a player has the basics down, their swing must be their own creation, not someone else’s. This is why, while recent generations of players were told the same four misguided words — “Keep your head down.” — Smith told his young players the opposite.

“The head’s gotta move, man,” Smith said, stressing hard. “That’d be like telling a basketball player to keep his eye on the ball during a free throw.”

Smith still spends more than half of his time at Royal Oaks working with kids and when he does, he first wants to see good contact. Then a good grip. Then a reasonable ability to aim the body at the target. Then comes the interesting part. “You see if they can create.” Instead of tweaking the form, Smith wants to see what’s in the instincts. He hands the player a 7-iron and asks, “How would you make the ball fly really high? How about really low?” He wants to see imagination before imitation.

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“You know, the body moves in response to action,” Smith said. “Most people say, ‘You have to make the body do this to create this and this.’ That’s bulls—.”

Smith picked up an imaginary baseball.

“I’m gonna throw this ball right at Scottie’s ass,” he said, pointing across the green at Scheffler.

Smith shifted his hips, cocked his arm and made a throwing motion.

“See, there were 42 things going on to make that motion,” he went on. “No one told me to shift my weight into my hip or use 30 degrees of knee bend or tilt my shoulders to the angle or the throw or … ”

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The point: A swing need to be a product of instincts and action. This is how Smith sees the game and keeps kids interested in playing. Then, little by little, “I sneak up on ’em with the technique stuff.”


Scheffler has won five tournaments in 2024, including last week’s Memorial Tournament. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

When Smith is dealing a player who’s struggling, he’ll take him or her out to the course, stick ‘em behind a tree in a fairway, point to a green in the distance and say, “You gotta slice this sucker 40 yards to get to that target. Figure it out.” Lo and behold, the student stops thinking and instead creates a swing to shape the shot.

“But if they’re out there 170 yards, middle of the fairway, staring at the pin, they’re thinking about all kinds of other stuff,” Smith said. “You gotta get that out of there.”

No wonder Scheffler swings how he swings, thinks how he thinks. His game was shaped by Occam’s razor.

Perhaps that’s the secret to what is, in golf parlance, a heater, turning into something much bigger. Scheffler is turning into this era’s greatest player with a recipe that can seemingly fit on a single page. All the fixes are uncomplicated. All the solutions are straightforward. In April, at the Masters, when Scheffler felt he escaped the first round with a 66 despite a swing that “felt like I was using all hands,” he spent five minutes with Smith on the driving range.

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“He gave me a little tip with my grip,” Scheffler said Tuesday. “I hit a couple shots, felt exactly what I needed to feel. Then it was over, from there.”

Scheffler won by four shots.

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Now it’s the U.S. Open, where Smith is by Scheffler’s side, like usual, and keeping everything simple, like usual. On a week that should present extreme tests and stressful shotmaking, such a disposition feels like a cheat code. When Scheffler inevitably paints a masterpiece one of these days, and builds his lead, and looks like he’s playing a different game than everyone else, it’ll be worth remembering that nothing is by accident.

Walking around Tuesday, Smith studied Pinehurst’s rolling fairways and turtleback greens. The old coach was drawing up some Xs and Os.

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“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent is here,” Smith said, pointing to his left, “There,” he said point to his right, “What shots to hit and where. How about here? Maybe there. Where to hit it low. Where to hit it high. That’s uphill. That’s downhill. Where is the false front? Where’s the best way to access this pin, that pin?”

Smith stopped, then raised his hands.

“But nothing here,” he said, forming a grip, “And nothing there,” he said, bringing that grip to impact position.

Smith paused, then called a play.

“Target, feel, create.”

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(Top photo: Alex Slitz / Getty Images)

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U.S. women's basketball Olympic roster breakdown: Experience leads hunt for another gold

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U.S. women's basketball Olympic roster breakdown: Experience leads hunt for another gold

The U.S. women’s basketball roster was officially announced Tuesday, and in six weeks, the 12 players will go after a record eighth consecutive Olympic gold medal. With seven players who’ve already appeared on Team USA (and an additional two who were on the three-on-three team, known as 3×3, the last time around), this is an experienced group that enters the Games as the favorite.

Experience and maturity are only heightened considering the roster skews toward players in their late 20s; the youngest players are 26 and Diana Taurasi at 42 is the oldest. Unlike previous iterations of Olympic rosters, no recent college grads were included. Indiana Fever rookie Caitlin Clark’s exclusion from the roster has been the subject of much debate, and reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year Aliyah Boston also wasn’t selected.

With 12 versatile, slightly older players, coach Cheryl Reeve has plenty of flexibility with lineups and rotations, similar to how the defensive-oriented coach operates with her Minnesota Lynx squad. She is known for getting the most out of her players, orchestrating the Lynx’s run in the 2010s to four WNBA titles in seven seasons. This will be Reeve’s first time at the helm of the national team at the Olympics. She was named the head coach for this cycle in 2021 after being an assistant for both Geno Auriemma (2016) and Dawn Staley (2020).

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Get to know the players who will represent Team USA in France this summer.

Collier, 27, was the 11th or 12th player on the Tokyo roster, but for this Olympics, she’s a probable starter alongside Chelsea Gray, A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart. Her game has continued to evolve (which is no surprise considering Reeve is her coach with the Lynx) — she’s shooting 40 percent on 3-pointers this WNBA season. Collier showed in an Olympic qualifier game earlier this year that she potentially can become a statistical leader, after tallying 23 points, 7 rebounds and 3 steals in a tightly-contested game against Belgium.

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Copper, 29, is playing the best basketball of her career in her first season with the Phoenix Mercury, averaging 24 points a game while shooting 39 percent from long range as a high-volume 3-point shooter. Unlike many other players on this Olympic roster who came up through the youth system, Copper’s first time in the Team USA pool was in 2021, and her game has only gone up. Her versatility is accentuated on defense, where she can guard multiple positions, both matching up with larger, more physical players and keeping step with perimeter guards.

Gray, 31, has yet to play this WNBA season after suffering a leg injury during the 2023 WNBA Finals. However, Team USA said it had been in regular communication with Gray and her medical team and feel confident she’ll be able to compete in France. Assuming that holds true, Gray will be the team’s best passer and its engine. For the Las Vegas Aces, she has been a dynamic scorer-facilitator, but if her role from the 2022 World Cup repeats, expect Gray to settle in more as a primary facilitator, especially because there’s not another pure point guard on the roster. Reeve will need a high-assist, low-risk floor general, and that’s Gray.

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When Griner, 33, returned to the U.S. from her 10-month detainment in Russia, she said she’d only go overseas again to play for her country in the Olympics. Now, that’s happening as Griner makes her third Olympic roster. She recently returned to the floor in the WNBA after recovering from a toe fracture, but even in two games, she looks great, averaging 17.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.5 blocks a game (in 30 minutes of play). She started all six games in Team USA’s 2021 run in Tokyo (averaging 16.5 points and over 7 rebounds a game while shooting nearly 70 percent). At 6-foot-9, she’s the tallest player on the roster, providing Team USA an instant mismatch against any opponent.

Napheesa Collier

A young role player the last Olympic cycle, Napheesa Collier now steps into a more prominent position for Paris. (Dirk Waem / BELGA MAG / AFP via Getty Images)

Ionescu, 26, is another potential backup ballhandler who likely will split responsibilities with other guards, but her versatility as a scorer and rebounder will come in handy. Like Alyssa Thomas, Ionescu can go off for a triple-double. With her long range and quick release, she could be used off the bench to help build a lead, or in close games, she could be inserted for her reliable free-throw shooting (over 90 percent for her WNBA career).

With no true backup point guard on the roster, Loyd, 30, likely will be called into some backup ballhandling responsibilities — a task Team USA probably will take on by committee. Loyd could be considered for the final starter, a spot that remains a bit of a question mark and might be determined by game-specific matchups. She’s a tried-and-true scorer and an excellent rebounder who can get Team USA out on the break and either distribute or score. One of the many perks of this roster is the number of players who have shown they can catch fire even after a slump, and Loyd is one of those.

A member of the inaugural 3×3 squad, Plum, 29, could find herself in that starting two-guard spot, or she could be a burst of energy and instant scorer off the bench. She’s a high-volume 3-point shooter for the Aces, but she can also get downhill and finish through contact. With Gray out, the Aces have shared facilitating duties, and Plum is averaging nearly 5 assists a game. Her familiarity with Wilson, Gray and Jackie Young is an important benefit for potential playing time, and that unit could be used as a “reset” at times, especially early in pool play, when Team USA needs to get on the same page.

Breanna Stewart, F

At 29, Stewart will play in her third Olympics. In tandem with Wilson, Stewart provides versatility and steadiness on both ends of the floor. Her 3-point shooting has been down this WNBA season, but Stewart is a three-level scorer with a knack for making defensive plays. Expect Stewart and Wilson to start regardless of the matchup as Reeve uses them as centerpieces and builds out from there.

Diana Taurasi, G

This will be Taurasi’s sixth Olympics. Her first came in 2004 in Athens, where at 22 she was the youngest player on the team. Her eldest teammate that year? Then-34-year-old Dawn Staley, who — 16 years later — would coach Taurasi at the Tokyo Olympics. Taurasi’s deft passing and sharp shooting will be helpful, but her experience is irreplaceable compared to any other player in the Team USA pool. “We knew Diana’s basketball ability would be clutch for us in so many moments, but we also knew that her leadership was something this team didn’t have,” U.S. women’s national team committee chair Jen Rizzotti said.

Diana Taurasi

Diana Taurasi, a staple of the U.S. national team for two decades, will go for her sixth Olympic gold medal. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

Alyssa Thomas, F

Known as “The Engine” in the WNBA, Thomas, 32, is a triple-double threat every night in the league. She’s not the tallest on any court, but she might be the strongest 6-2 player in the league. The common storyline for commentators about the 10-year vet is that Thomas has two torn labrums (cartilage in her shoulders) so she uses an unconventional shooting form. However, that hasn’t stopped Thomas from being so effective that Reeve actually asked her to return to the Team USA player pool before the 2022 World Cup after Thomas spent several years on the outside looking in.

A’ja Wilson, F

The two-time WNBA MVP has been successful in Olympic and international play. As an Olympic rookie in Tokyo, Wilson was a standout, averaging over 16 points and 7 rebounds a game while playing for Staley, her former coach at South Carolina.  She’ll again have a comfort level in France from being surrounded by three of her Aces teammates. She also has added a 3-point shot to her offensive arsenal. Wilson — and Stewart — are the new faces of Team USA in a changing-of-the-guard era, a new challenge for both. Wilson, 27, has handled that same responsibility on and off the court for the Aces, and she appears primed for the occasion.

Jackie Young, G

Young, 26, was a member of the Tokyo 3×3 squad. She was called into preparation at the last minute after initial 3×3 team member Katie Lou Samuelson tested positive for COVID-19 before the team’s departure. Young has been one of the most improved players through the most recent Olympic cycle, becoming a more prolific scorer and passer. She’s a tough perimeter defender and reliable scorer who, like the other guards on this roster, could find herself filling Gray’s shoes when she’s not on the floor.

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(Photo of Breanna Stewart, Kelsey Plum, A’Ja Wilson and Sabrina Ionescu celebrating their gold-medal win at the 2022 FIBA World Cup: Kelly Defina / Getty Images)

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The two Pinehursts have not always seen eye to eye

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The two Pinehursts have not always seen eye to eye

PINEHURST, N.C. — It can trick you, this place. It’s all so charming and whimsical, Mayberry turned golf mecca in the sandhills of North Carolina.

You stroll along the brick walking paths through the village, passing the two-story brick buildings filled with cute shops and quaint pubs. More than a million people travel here each year to this Disney World for idyllic golf-themed getaways.

It can trick you into thinking you stumbled onto a golf oasis. Trick you into forgetting this place is a juggernaut, a resort, a full-on corporation with luxury hotels and cottages and 10 courses designed by renowned golf architects. Yes, it may have started with a pharmacy chain owner offering tuberculosis patients a chance to recover in a haven designed by the same man who designed Central Park. But the reasons a place begins are very rarely the same reasons that keep a destination thriving.

Now, Pinehurst Resort calls itself the cradle of American golf. The USGA announced it as the first of its new “anchor sites,” which will host U.S. Opens every 5-6 years for the next 30 years, beginning this week.

Pinehurst brought back the World Golf Hall of Fame. Its relationship with the town is strong and it’s a bucket-list destination for generations of recreational golfers. It is, for the foreseeable future, a central focal point marrying the casual and professional golf worlds.

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But it wasn’t that long ago this place was climbing out of $70 million in debt, that it was at war with the people of this town and embroiled in countless lawsuits focusing on issues ranging from predatory management strategies to members feeling cheated.

And it wasn’t so long ago that a private detective who called himself “the Fat Man” had a poster of Pinehurst’s owner on a chair in front of his desk with a simple mission: “I just want this guy nailed to the wall.”


There’s a mantra Robert H. Dedman Jr. repeats at will: “Always Pinehurst, but always better.”

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But progress doesn’t always go in a straight line. What began as a company town turned into something else when James W. Tufts hired Donald Ross as golf pro and formed Pinehurst No. 1 before completing his masterpiece — Pinehurst No. 2 — in 1907. Ross finished his fourth Pinehurst course before 1920 and the resort had become a premier golf destination with three inns. The town and the resort were so intertwined that resort employees were paid during the Depression in scrip redeemable only at Tufts-owned businesses. And it started its entry into pro golf circles, hosting the 1936 PGA Championship and 1951 Ryder Cup.

But in 1971, the Tufts family sold Pinehurst to Diamondhead Corporation, a real estate project owned by Malcom McLean that took a place rooted in tradition and lined the courses with condos and attempted to modernize the look of Ross’ design. Sacrilege. The prestige of the resort declined, as did its quality, and it compiled $70 million in debt by the time Diamondhead had to hand Pinehurst over to a consortium of eight banks in 1982.


Spectators are turning out in droves to watch Tiger Woods and the rest of the U.S. Open field at Pinehurst this week. (Andrew Redington / Getty Images)

In came the savior, a moniker that became a point of contention for many.

Robert H. Dedman Sr. was the founder of ClubCorp, a Dallas-based corporation that made a killing buying distressed private golf and country clubs and rebuilding them. They eventually owned more than 200 properties around the world, and Dedman Sr. was a billionaire often named by Golf Digest as one of the most important people in golf. He was a charming, self-made man from Arkansas who successfully branded himself as something between a capitalist and a romantic.

“The first time I stood in front of the clubhouse and looked out on all those ribbons of fairway, I got tears in my eyes,” Dedman Sr. told Sports Illustrated in 1999. “I had always venerated Pinehurst for its place in the history of golf, and when I finally saw it I knew instantly that we would take this fallen angel and make it not as good as it was, but better than it had ever been.”

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Always Pinehurst, but always better. But better usually comes with costs. Capitalism is a game of winners and losers, and progress often leaves others behind.

Pinehurst was the crown jewel of ClubCorp’s empire, and Dedman Sr. made good on those dreams by restoring tradition and returning Pinehurst to its rightful place in the sport. In fact, he elevated it.

Fifteen years and $100 million after buying it, the 1999 U.S. Open came to Pinehurst. Dedman Sr. died in 2002, but Dedman Jr. (known as Bob) was running much of the company by the 1990s. It hosted the U.S. Open again in 2005. The Dedmans sold ClubCorp in 2006 but kept Pinehurst as their baby, and after a successful restoration it made history by holding the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens in consecutive weeks in 2014. The men’s tournament went 10 years without returning, but with its new anchor site designation Pinehurst has successfully cemented its place at the forefront of American golf.

That build, though, came with pushback. Starting in 1991 and carrying on through 2000, as much as 55 percent (more than 3,000) of Pinehurst members contributed to legal funds for a lawsuit claiming the club brought in too many outsiders, denied them agreed upon access to tee times and improperly raised membership fees.

In 1990, ClubCorp sold its stake in nearby Pinewild Country Club to Japanese cookie maker Tohato Inc. with a deal for Tohato to pay ClubCorp to manage it. By 1996, Tohato sued ClubCorp because it felt hoodwinked, claiming the latter used Pinewild as inexpensive overflow courses for guests paying to stay next door at Pinehurst Resort. Tohato officials also claimed ClubCorp tried to purposely mismanage the property to force Tohato to want out and sell back to Pinehurst at a fraction of the original cost.

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Things turned dramatic when Tohato hired the celebrity private detective William Graham to help with the case. Graham was an eccentric who appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” and “20/20” and was in talks with studios to produce a movie about his life. Graham pursued ClubCorp so hard they ultimately sued him for libel. And in the meantime Graham caused the Dedmans constant headaches.

In 1997, Graham sent out faxes across the country detailing 33 alleged “civil and criminal violations” against ClubCorp. He was quoted in South Carolina’s The State newspaper calling Dedman Sr. and his company, “a bunch of backstabbing, corkscrewing, double-dealing, lying, cheating, stealing (SOBs).”

All of this ClubCorp of course used in its libel case, which was folded into a seven-figure settlement paid by Tohato to ClubCorp. But those faxes led to major outlets like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times investigating and publishing large pieces painting ClubCorp in an unflattering light. In the two years before the U.S. Open, at least seven of the company’s 70 country clubs were involved in lawsuits against ClubCorp filed by either members homeowners or a co-owner, per the New York Times. (ClubCorp eventually pulled out of its management arrangement at Pinewild, telling members in a letter it had “been placed in a position that makes it impossible to do our job.”)

So when Pinehurst hosted the 1999 U.S. Open — what was supposed to be Dedman Sr.’s crowning achievement — he instead sat with Sports Illustrated for a profile on how such a beloved figure was suddenly disliked by so many around the club.

“Just because we have a great reputation, people think that if they make a few grandiose statements we’ll cave in and pay their blackmail,” Dedman Sr. told SI. “We can’t afford to do that. We have had people go to obnoxious lengths to try to get a settlement. We have zero tolerance for that behavior. Our philosophy, to quote one of our former Presidents, is millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.”

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When Pinehurst hosted the 1994 U.S. Senior Open the No. 2 course barely resembled Donald Ross’ original design. It’s been since restored. (Gary Newkirk / Allsport via Getty Images)

But the public relations issues for Pinehurst really took over when the battles started with the townspeople. In 1995, a Pinehurst resident named Edmund Dietrich wrote a letter to The Pilot, the local paper in Southern Pines, saying tips given to resort employees were being withheld. Dietrich was sued for libel, though ClubCorp later dropped it. Then, ClubCorp reportedly threatened local businesses for using Pinehurst in their names, citing trademark infringement. It claimed Pinehurst was only the name of the resort and facilities, and that the town was the “Village of Pinehurst.”

ClubCorp lawyer Stephen Trattner famously said: “I don’t believe there is a Pinehurst, N.C. You may call it that, and the mail may get there that way, (but) you don’t live in Pinehurst. You live in the Village of Pinehurst.”

Dedman Sr. had created an environment in which members and guests were treated like royalty, with staff remembering their favorite cocktails and making sure to use their name at least four times a trip, but the people who lived in the town — a town founded to help people get healthy — felt alienated. Pinehurst Business Guild became the Village of Pinehurst Business Guild. Companies like Pinehurst Interiors had to change their name to Village Design Group, which still stands today.

If Dedman Sr. was the charming personality who could light up a room, Bob Jr. was the hard-nosed, forward-thinking CEO who, his father admitted, was a more organized executive. But if at the time Dedman Jr. was labeled as a bottom line executive pushing for growth, he’s also been the one overseeing its public rehabilitation.

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Another funny thing about progress is success tends to mend most wounds. Pinehurst has become more and more of a powerhouse in the world of golf, bringing millions and millions of tourism dollars to the area each year. Dedman Jr. founded a local Boys & Girls Club chapter in Pinehurst in 1999 and now receives local hospitality awards. While the mayor back in 1999 was calling his father arrogant and a bully, former Pinehurst mayor Nancy Roy Fiorillo (2011-2019) raved about all the good Dedman Jr. does and how great Pinehurst Resort is for the town.

“Bob Dedman Jr. is Doing All the Good He Can” was the headline of a story in The Pilot last week. Similar pieces have been written by Global Golf Post and PineStraw Magazine. Maybe some of it is from the ClubCorp sale — it’s far easier to be magnanimous proprietors when you’re running one iconic club and not a conglomerate fighting for every little margin.

What’s clear is Pinehurst is now thriving. More than 12 million Americans have traveled to play golf each of the past two years, up about 20 percent over the historical average, according to the National Golf Foundation. Pinehurst attracts a large chunk of that.

Every resort is trying catch up to it, a place that can boast both incredible history with everyone from Bobby Jones to Tiger Woods having played here, mixed with constant innovation and new courses. The restoration of No. 2 by the architect team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw took the already famous course to new heights by removing rough and leaving tough, sandy areas off the fairways. Gil Hanse’s redesign of No. 4 has boosted it in significance. All of the top designers of past and present have contributed to one course or another.

And the resort keeps pushing itself off the course, turning an abandoned steam plant into a brewery and refurbishing the clubhouse with lush new digs for members. They expanded the Deuce Grill, restored one inn and renovated another. All of that on top of the USGA’s new Golf House Pinehurst and the World Golf Hall of Fame, which returned from St. Augustine, Fla.

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The Dedmans tried to ensure that it was always about Pinehurst but always making it better, and they’ve continued to push and push to a point it seems unstoppable going forward. And now, the conversation of the week is entirely about the course and how great it will be to watch. Not the issues of the past.

They couldn’t pin the Dedmans to the wall.

(Top photo: Tracy Wilcox / PGA Tour via Getty Images)

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