CHARLOTTE, NC (Scott Fowler/The Charlotte Observer) - They are a trio of Charlotte stars so well-known they can be identified on a first-name basis: Cam, Kemba and Luke.
Cam Newton, Kemba Walker and Luke Kuechly have brightened many a sports day and night around the Carolinas. They have all made multiple all-star teams while playing for the two most well-known pro sports teams in Charlotte. Collectively, they are a rare treasure.
But the end of their time together in this city is no longer a distant point on the horizon. Walker's contract expires after the NBA's 2018-19 season; Newton's after the NFL's 2020 season; Kuechly's after the 2021 season.
And I fear that their best years as athletes are going to wind up being wasted. I worry that in a dozen years we will look back, think of the period when all three of these men were in their late 20s, lived in Charlotte and were smack in the middle of their athletic primes and say: "Man, if they only had been given a better team around them. Wouldn't that have been something?"
For all their honors, Cam, Kemba and Luke don't have a single pro championship ring between them.
Cam and Luke came very close, advancing the Super Bowl during the 2015 season before losing to Denver. Kemba has played seven years with the Charlotte Hornets and is still looking for his first playoff series victory. Despite his stellar play this season, the Hornets are eight games under .500 and almost certainly will fail to make the playoffs for the fifth time in his seven seasons.
Kemba scored an astounding 46 points in only 28 minutes the other night, and I agree with my colleague Rick Bonnell that Kemba is the best player Charlotte has ever employed. (Alonzo Mourning had a better overall career, but most of it occurred elsewhere.)
But Kemba is the centerpiece of a very flawed Hornets dinner table. When he becomes a free agent in the summer of 2019, it would be hard to blame him if he wanted to leave for a team that didn't always seem to have a "Pardon Our Construction" sign at the ready. Of these three, Walker is the most likely to be the first one out the door.
This all reminds me of something I saw firsthand much earlier in my sportswriting career. In the early 1990s, I was a beat writer covering the Miami Dolphins for the Miami Herald. Dan Marino was still in his prime.
Marino was a ridiculously good dropback quarterback with perhaps the fastest release ever. For you youngsters who only remember Marino as a TV commentator, Marino was a bigger version of Drew Brees. While his skill set was far different than the dual threat that Newton poses, Marino's career arc at that point was similar. Like Newton, Marino won a league MVP award and led his team to a Super Bowl – but lost – early in his career.
And then Marino never even got back to a Super Bowl. The Dolphins time and again didn't give him enough help – particularly not enough of a running game or a defense – to get there. So now the first thing people say about Marino – or maybe the second, after marveling about the arm that carried him through 17 NFL seasons and to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005 – is "Yeah, but.... he never won a Super Bowl."
Will this be the case for Kemba, Cam and Luke? No championship rings for any of them?
Newton and Kuechly, in particular, boast the sort of career trajectory that could lead them to the hall of fame themselves assuming they don't have a career-ending injury. This is more of a fear with Kuechly, because of his history of concussions.
Newton has already been the NFL MVP and has become the best running quarterback the NFL has ever seen by numerous metrics. Former Miami coach Don Shula, who would know, told me once that Newton sure looked like a hall of famer to him.
Kuechly has already been the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year and remains one of the surest tacklers and fastest linebackers to ever play in the NFL. But each of them badly need the aura that a Super Bowl ring provides to secure their legacies in the sport.
3 more years for Cam-Luke
Kemba has just one more season that he is guaranteed to be with the Hornets, and the new Charlotte GM (whomever that might be) will have a tall task to convince Walker to return for the 2019-20 season if the team is undergoing yet another serious reconstruction.
Cam and Luke will be together at least three more – the 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons. Then Cam's contract expires. Kuechly's deal lasts a year longer than the quarterback's contract.
Former Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman did that on purpose, he told me. He thought the blow of possibly losing Cam and Luke in the same offseason would be too catrastrophic.
"I did not want Luke's and Cam's contracts ending in the same year," Gettleman told me in 2016, "and I wasn't going to let that happen. Initially the length of the deal that (Kuechly's agents) wanted was going to finish the same year as Cam and I said, 'That ain't happening.' ... So Cam's last season under contract is 2020 and Kuechly's is 2021."
That doesn't seem like a lot of time, does it?
And yet there is time – for all three men, really. Kuechly is only 26. Walker is 27. Newton is 28. They all have birthdays coming up within the next two months. Still, it sounds sort of young, doesn't it, given how long they have played?
Cam was the first to arrive in Charlotte as the NFL's No. 1 overall pick in 2011. Kemba showed up a couple of months later – the No. 9 overall choice for the Hornets in 2011 NBA draft. Luke was also a No. 9 pick, of the Panthers in 2012, back when nobody knew how to pronounce the middle linebacker's last name. The other two had won national college championships (Newton at Auburn, Walker at Connecticut). Kuechly came nowhere close to that – he was a diamond in the rough at Boston College.
Can stars ever align?
The Panthers are obviously closer to their championship goal than the Hornets are. Carolina went 11-5 in 2017 and made the playoffs before losing in the first round. Old/new Panthers GM Marty Hurney – who drafted Newton and Kuechly in the first place – has spent this offseason trying to give both his star quarterback and his standout linebacker more weapons to allow them to be great.
But will it be enough? The Hornets tried to give Walker more talent, too. And while they are no longer a 7-59 laughingstock like they were in 2012, no matter who surrounds Walker, they can't seem to climb more than halfway up the mountain.
Like Cam and Luke, Kemba keeps chasing the dream. In the right circumstances, with the right teammates, they all have the ability to catch it.
Charlotte is a city that badly needs a major pro sports title itself. It has the athletic stars in place – but will the stars ever align?
If none of these three fine men and extraordinary athletes ever get to the mountaintop during their careers in Charlotte, they will still be lauded for all their accomplishments.
And yet when their careers in the Queen City are brought up, two words will always surface shortly afterward.