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Rufus on Fire Retrospective with Ben Swanson (aka @CardboardGerald)

During this past off-season I found myself reflecting on my formulative years following the NBA, I was a 14 year old English kid who inadvertently stumbled across the then Charlotte Bobcats and decided to commit to following the team. I didn’t grow up with any form of basketball influence or culture, I was a complete newbie to the sport but was eager to learn. In 2006 the Bobcats were fresh off drafting former Gonzaga standout Adam Morrison 3rd overall and were continuing in their campaign to gain respect around the league. Most Bobcats fans found it hard to find another fan to speak to in North Carolina, never mind Manchester in the United Kingdom. I don’t know why I didn’t just stumble into being a part time supporter from a distance, but all of a sudden I wanted to learn about the team, was drafting DJ Augstin ahead of Brook Lopez a bad move? Could Kwame Brown reach the potential he flashed in college? These were the sort of questions I needed answering.

Back in the 2006-14 era there weren’t many places to converse with fans, a well run forum by John Petty aka Ziggy by the name of “Bobcats Planet” was my starting point. However, Baseline Buzz and SB Nation’s Rufus on Fire (Renamed At The Hive when the Hornets name returned) were the only two other website that had any form of blogging content. The site manager of Rufus on Fire Ben Swanson was at the time one of the most prevalent Bobcats personalities in the early NBA blogging/twitter community. I reached out to former “Rufus on Fire” writer and site manager Ben Swanson, better known by most as @CardboardGerald on twitter. Ben’s time as site manager covered a period of time which included the infamous 7-59 season and a combined 71-169 record over three years, a period I’m officially referring to as “The Dark Years”. I caught up with Ben on a wide range of issues from how he became site manager, favourite memories and his experience interning with the team during the 2011-12 season including some fantastic Michael Jordan anecdotes. I’ve pulled out some of the “Best bits” from our discussion for this piece, but if you prefer to re-live those dark times via audio you can listen to our full discussion by podcast on the At The Hive podcast feed which will be published alongside the publishing of this piece.

JP What was your journey to becoming site manager of Rufus on Fire?

BS I was in high school at this point. I had a friend on the cross country team, his dad used to run a local pizza chain in town called “Bricks”. They had season tickets, it was pretty good as they would use them for clients and when they weren’t using them we could use them. We were a couple of high school kids really into basketball, nobody else was really into Bobcats basketball that much so it was sort of our personalities were tied into this rag-tag NBA team. It was almost kind of a niche thing, at that time it was before the first playoff run. They had Gerald Wallace who was my favorite player, Matt Carrol, Raymond Felton, DJ Augustin as a rookie. There was sum level of talent, Gerald Wallace was an under the radar player, they had some promising guys, there were some pieces who were fun to watch at least.

We were Bobcats nerds, I wasn’t on Twitter at that point but you find these collections of other fans. There weren’t a ton of places to discuss the team, David Arnott was the founder of Rufus on Fire was one, Adam Chin at Bobcats Baseline. You want to go to a place with a lot of interaction, I actually do remember Bobcats Planet as well. Being a super fan, I was bringing signs to the game, Cardboard Gerald was a big part of that.

JP “So what is the history with Cardboard Gerald , how did that come about?”

BS When I was in high school I had some friends that were older but they did something similar with Adam Morrison, but I think they only his head. I decided to do the full guy, obviously I couldn’t do it full size! I had to make it to scale to make it manageable.

JP “Did you draw it yourself?”

BS Yeah it was drawn, that has always been the person I am. Making signs, arts and crafts and stuff that was our thing, bringing something home made to games, trying to get other people to engage with the team.

As a user on Rufus on Fire you could make your own posts, they were called fan posts. Being an 18 year old I’d try to have some fun, I’d make these fan posts every once in a while. I’d sometimes do some analysis, but a lot of the time I’d have fun. I would go and look at random things on Ebay that were kind of goofy. Something about the Bobcats in general that will probably forever be this way, they were so kitschy, the name the Charlotte Bobcats, the logos, the colors, mascots, it lends itself to a kitsch.

JP In some ways it was so uncool, it made it cool?

BS Yeah! So I used to go onto Ebay and find Melvin Ely game used shoes and other stupid things. I looked at other blogs that were doing stuff that was a mix of serious analysis and fun, that was always my goal, in that era of internet the whole goal of blogs was to have some fun with it.

JP Do you think that’s the same now?

BS That kind of change to some degree, now you can find a job out of it. The space for finding a job out of being goofy is not super huge, but becoming an authority of sorts has value.

In February of 2011 in my first year at UNC, Rufus on Fire founder David Arnott reached out to me. I think he was trying to focus on his job, Rufus on Fire was his secondary thing he did for fun. SB Nation was trying to make it more of a full time kind of thing and he couldn’t do that, honestly neither could I being in school! But David said he liked what I had written and it was something I couldn’t really pass up. That February I took over, started doing game previews and recaps, I kept that up for 3-4 years. There were so many games I tried to introduce a little bit of fun for each one, I tried to use Microsoft paint at times, similar to that guy “NBA Paint”. You had to have that balance between keeping people interested in the games. We used to do battle raps, one of my friends from twitter called Christian who was also into music and rap, he was a wizards fan. We used to write these diss raps about both our teams who were terrible.

JP Now it seems to be more important to “Grind tape” and understand Xs & Os? I remember your content always had a comic edge to it, where as now it’s a lot of wanna be GMs.

After our conversation I managed to track down one of Ben’s “diss” raps from a Milwaukee Bucks game preview

Alright it’s cool you guys have got a great defender in Larry Sanders

Rest of the team are some characters that leave us groaning [Groening] like Ned Flanders

Nothing on your team is gonna have anyone jealous

Tell us, how are you gonna get above a 6 seed with Monta Ellis?

Whole squad is a mistake leaving us with heads that ache

More bad shots you take than copies of albums Jennings bought from Drake

Only legit offense you have just might be post ups from Ersan Ilyasova

You think you’re gonna win? You’re some wild cats, and I ain’t talking Villanova

The bobcats are the realest souljas

I know you feel your cup of luck runneth ova

If youre The Milwaukee Dead Deer carcasses, we changed our name to the Charlotte Vultures

No coach could ever fix this messy calamity

Playing Jennings and Ellis makes me pray for Jim Boylan’s sanity

Meanwhile, Larry Sanders keeps blowing up like post-Hurricane Ned Flanders

And you would have been better off if your roster was built by asking Ann Landers

You’ve still got Drew Gooden but now he’s more like Drew Badden

Your fans he’ll sadden, he’s as useless as a plane for John Madden

I’m about to move to Milwaukee, open a record store and become a millionaire

‘Cause Brandon Jennings is going to spend his whole salary on Take Care

A first-round exit is undoubtedly your 2013 conclusion

Either that or Jennings giving your fans brain contusions.

BS One summer I got an internship with the Bobcats but it was the summer of the lockout so that wasn’t great. I definitely got a lot of good experience out of it, but I just remember at 12pm the night the lockout hit all NBA Team sites had to switchover to a version where no current player could be mentioned. You had to do a lot with retired players, cheerleaders or the community.

JP There isn’t exactly a long lineage of Bobcats retired players you could draw on?

BS Yeah, it’s one thing if you’re the Knicks. But the Bobcats at that time didn’t have Hornets history, there just wasn’t much we could do. At one point I covered a golf tournament where Alonzo Mourning and some of those guys were at, Brevin Knight too. The same day as the golf event they did a season ticket holders event, a kind of shootaround/drills session at Time Warner Cable Arena. Michael Jordan showed up, he was supposed to stay for a little bit but ended up sticking around for the whole thing. He was going through drills, he played some pick up.

JP Can you imagine saying you played pick-up with MJ!?

BS I know, I actually had to leave for some community event but I was like, can’t we stay and watch Michael Jordan play pick-up?

It was funny actually, when he was down there with the adults some guy was cracking jokes with Michael “You can’t do this anymore” and whatever. The guy was wearing these Reeboks, and of course Michael was like “So you think you can talk like that? So Michael brings everyone in (50-100 people) around the guy at the FT line and he says something along the lines of “If this guy makes this one free throw I’ll buy everyone in here Jordans. But if he misses it, you all get NOTHING.” The guy gets up there, he had one of the worst looking shots I’ve ever seen, he bricked that shot so bad. Michael pointed out that was just 100 people, imagine the arena full of people and the pressure which comes with that on a nightly basis.

JP Can you imagine that footage emerging in The Last Dance?

BS I remember he dunked, he was 48 or 49, I was like oh my god.

JP Any memories that stick out with Rufus on Fire, funny stories or active commenters?

BS I remember this guy who was a contrarian to some degree, I think his name was Michael Procton or something like that. He annoyed people to no end, he was devils advocate for everything. To a lot of people he was pessimistic, I didn’t view him that way, looking back he was probably more right than wrong. It was just such a downer if you’re always going to be like that, but I couldn’t just ban the guy, he was just debating. I tried to foster this atmosphere of good, challenging debate. That was the most challenging part of managing the site, trying to foster that friendly discourse in the comments which isn’t always easy when the team is 7-59.

Another funny memory was David Arnott who was the original site founder, I remember he did this hilarious music video which you will have to try and find (Spoiler, I did)

BS During the lockout I bought a DVD of Kobe Bryant’s 58 points which came in a 133-124 triple overtime loss against the Bobcats. Bobcats fans will fondly remember that the Lakers could not beat them. You couldn’t explain it, plus Lakers fans were so insufferable, maybe I’ve mellowed since then but at the time they were so annoying to me. The fact that the lowly Bobcats could be the thorn in their paw, it was so fun watching Gerald Wallace and Emeka Okafor beat the Lakers. Anyway, I watched these games and did a retrospective where I revelled in what for the Bobcats was their championship.

(You can see that article below)

Thanks to Ben for taking the time to reflect on his time with Bobcats Planet. I found it fitting that Ben’s time with the site came to an end the same year as the Bobcats did as the team re-branded as the Hornets. He will always be tied to that era of Bobcats fandom and the current Hornets community owes a lot to Ben and before him site founder David for creating engaging content during a time when few others were.