Monday, August 31, 2009

John's Monday Washington Post Article...

Here's my column from The Washington Post today, covering the Nats newest, Stephen Strasburg.....

Let's begin today with Stephen Strasburg's opening line to the media after his first 45-minute workout on Sunday as an employee of the Washington Nationals: "I thought I'd get a little bit of peace out here, but you guys are following me everywhere. It's something I guess I gotta deal with. I guess it just goes with the territory."

Yes it does. It goes with the territory when you're the No. 1 pick in the Major League Baseball draft and when you are seen as the potential savior of a woebegone franchise. Athletes with special gifts can expect scrutiny -- sometimes over-the-top scrutiny.

Click here for the full story.......For Stephen Strasburg, the Missing 'Peace'

The Start of the US Open—and My View of Some of the Troubles of Tennis

The United States Open tennis tournament begins today in New York. Normally, I make my annual Open appearance on the first day, swooping in to see a few friends, spend some time wandering the outside courts—still the most fun you can have at a major as far as I’m concerned—and then get out of town before I start to get upset about the continuing disaster that is the management of tennis around the world.

You see, I love tennis. The last two Wimbledon men’s finals (Federer-Nadal and Federer-Roddick) were about as good as sports ever gets. Tennis was the one sport my dad really enjoyed and I grew up trying—without too much luck—to play it. I still have a few trophies from boyhood but I pretty much knew at the age of 12 when I managed to reach the final at a reasonably decent tennis camp in New Jersey that I wasn’t destined for greatness. I played a kid named Barry Barth in the final and he beat me 6-0, 6-1. I was down 5-0 when I finally won that one game and when we shook hands, Barth was clearly upset. “I can’t believe I let you win a game,” he said.

I learned two lessons that day: I was never going to compete with really good players—later that summer I saw Barth play then-12-year-old Gene Mayer and Mayer was upset because BARTH won a game—and the best players in the sport are frequently jerks.

That didn’t change a whole lot when I covered tennis regularly for The Washington Post and then The National Sports Daily for 10 years beginning in 1981 and wrote my tennis book, ‘Hard Courts,’ which came out in 1991. Some of the players were okay, I grew to like some of the stars, particularly John McEnroe and Chris Evert (okay, I still had a boyhood crush on her) and Martina Navratilova and Boris Becker. I even got along with Ivan Lendl towards the end of both our tennis careers.

But covering the sport was HARD. Unlike golf, where the players understand that dealing with the media is part of the job, tennis players are shielded like no athletes in the world. Locker rooms, even at rinky-dink tournaments, are closed to the media. Even player lounges are usually closed. At Wimbledon you practically need a court order to get into the players ‘tea room.’ I almost got arrested—no exaggeration—at a rinky-dink tournament in Australia because Lendl invited me into the locker room to talk to him and, as I was walking OUT, I was stopped by two security guards demanding to know how I had ‘sneaked,’ into the locker room.

Sitting down one-on-one with someone usually involves going through their agent and life is just too short to deal with those people on a regular basis. Dealing with most players in those days was best summed up by a guy named Jim Pugh. If you’re a real tennis geek you may remember him: he was a Davis Cup doubles player (along with Rick Leach) for several years. As part of my book research, I wanted to spend maybe an hour with him AT SOME POINT during 1990.

We first set up a time to talk in Australia. He blew me off. Then Rome and Paris and London. Same thing. Finally we agreed we would talk on a Saturday morning in Newport, about as laid-back an event as you could find. I showed up to watch he and Leach finish a match off. As he walked back to the old clubhouse, I fell into step and said something like, “you want to shower and grab something to eat or do you just want to do this right away?”

Pugh looked at me as if I’d asked him to front him a million bucks. “What do you mean?” he asked. (We had confirmed the interview the previous afternoon). “I’m going to go play some golf.”

I’m usually pretty patient with athletes when, for one reason or another they put off an interview. After all, they are giving me their time. This time, I lost it. “PLAYING GOLF?” I screamed. “PLAYING GOLF? YOU AND I CONFIRMED THIS 15 HOURS AGO, WHAT DO YOU MEAN PLAYING GOLF?”

“Well, it’s a nice day and I thought we could do this another time.”


Apparently Pugh realized I meant it. “Okay, okay,” he finally said. When we sat down, he was fine. But seriously, should one have to work that hard to interview Jim Pugh?

Now, I know most of you don’t really care about media access or how hard or easy it is for us to do our jobs. But you should. The ONLY reason we have access—or should have access—is so that we can report back (thus the term) to the public that has an interest in the athletes and coaches on what they are doing, saying or thinking. As I said in arguing the case with tennis officials for years, it is the public that makes these guys rich and we are supposed to represent that public. We don’t always do it well, but we’re supposed to try our best to do it.

The tennis people laughed me off when, as president of the U.S. Tennis Writers Association, I pleaded for more access, pointing out that tennis would not be a boom sport forever. I’m not saying the sport’s fall from popularity is because the media can’t get to the players on a regular basis but I think it’s a factor. People feel as if they KNOW golfers, even Tiger Woods, who is less accessible than any golfer in history but still more accessible than 99 percent of tennis players.

Tennis ratings have dwindled to almost nothing except for a Wimbledon or U.S. Open final here or there. Half the tournaments once played in the U.S. are long gone. The Davis Cup, which used to be a BIG deal, is practically invisible in this country. And yet, tennis people still don’t get it.

A few years ago I wrote a column on the first day of the Open saying half the problem with tennis was that when people like me—and I’m surely not alone, my friend Sally Jenkins wrote a cover piece for Sports Illustrated titled, ‘The Death of tennis,’—said that tennis was in trouble, tennis people always insisted that WE were the trouble. Sure enough, later that day I was standing in a hallway at the Open talking to a friend. McEnroe walked by and when I said hello, he put his head down and kept going.

“Hey John,” I said. “You don’t even say hello?”

He whirled, pointed his finger at me and said, “Why should I say hello? You’re just out here to try to destroy tennis.”

“Actually I’m here to try and help you get the Davis Cup captaincy,” I said. (he was campaigning for it back then).

McEnroe smiled and walked back to me, hand out. “In that case,” he said. “It’s good to see you.”

At least he—unlike most in tennis—still has a sense of humor.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Pitino, Calipari and Now Gillispie - Crazy Couple of Weeks in Kentucky; Quick Favre Talk

The news has been coming from all directions in sports this week. Some of it actually matters, much of it—the breathless updates on Brett Favre’s relationship with his new teammates come to mind—does not.

Let’s talk about Favre for just a moment. I believe ESPN now has 43 people assigned to the NFL which means there are 43 people getting yelled at regularly for getting beaten on stories by Jay Glazer. One of the 43 put something out the other day about a rift between Favre and his new Viking teammates. My guess is three or four of the Vikings have grumbled—not for attribution of course—about Favre’s Hamlet act and all the attention he has been getting since he rode into camp. (I’m also guessing none of them actually reference Hamlet).

Gee, that’s a surprise. So here’s the deal: Favre produces wins, everyone will love him; he doesn’t the grumbling will grow louder. Someone may actually go on the record. There is truly nothing more meaningless in sports than the month of August in the NFL, unless it is the month of July in the NFL. But because the sport is an obsession in this country, training camp workouts are actually analyzed. In New York, they are STILL talking about Mark Sanchez’s first pass in an exhibition game a couple weeks ago as if it was Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress for the winning touchdown two Super Bowls ago.

The NFL will matter—a lot—beginning September 10th. Until then, everything, including what Michael Vick did in his EXHIBITION debut last night, tells us nothing and matters about as much as the Mets 34 remaining games. (No truth to the rumor that they’re bringing Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman back to pitch, although I do think they could help).

If you want news right now the state of Kentucky is the place to be.

As a reporter, it is tough to criticize Rick Pitino for actually meeting with the media and taking questions on the soap opera that his life has become. Most guys in his situation would hide behind the, “it’s under adjudication,” excuse. And yet, listening to Pitino, it was hard to feel sorry for him—his family, yes—Pitino, no.

This is on him, even though there seems little doubt that he got himself involved with someone who isn’t playing with all 52 cards. Maybe not half a deck come to think of it. The notion that the media is in any way responsible for this is simply ridiculous. None of the media were in that restaurant six years ago. For Pitino’s sake, I hope he’s telling the truth and the whole truth right now. If any hole at all is punched in his story, as popular as he is at Louisville and as successful as he has been, he’ll be gone. My gut says this one isn’t going to have a happy ending for anyone.

On the subject of unhappy endings: how about the sage of Billy (the kid) Gillispie. Just a few years ago he was one of college basketball’s hot coaches. He had taken downtrodden programs at UTEP and at Texas A+M and built winners and that got him hired at Kentucky. That meant a lot of money, a lot of glamour and a lot of scrutiny. Gillispie didn’t win enough at UK and got fired this spring. A coach with his resume can certainly bounce back from something like that.

But he had two DUI stops along the way, plus the weird story about the lawsuit that happened because he never got around to actually signing his contract at Kentucky. The other night, he got stopped for DUI again. He refused to take a breathalyzer and spent the night in jail. Not good. The worst part may have been the cop who made the stop referring to him as “Billy,” when describing his condition. My guess is most police in Kentucky would NEVER refer to Coach Calipari as “John,” or “Cal,” at this point. Then again, he’s never lost a game at UK.

Can Gillispie come back from this and coach? Sure. He’s won before so someone will take a chance on him someplace. But if the police description of his condition is accurate, he needs to get some help before he thinks about coaching again.

As for Coach Cal? He’s started off-season workouts at Kentucky and is as happy as a hockey fan when a fight breaks out. My guess is John will win a national championship—or two—at Kentucky. If he does, his on court resume should make him a lock Hall of Famer. The question is this: With two Final Four appearances vacated at two schools, will he get in? Other coaches convicted of crimes by the NCAA police are in the Hall, how will the voters (whose names are kept strictly secret by the oh-so-sanctimonious people who run the Hall) treat Calipari when the time comes?

One other Kentucky note I’ve been meaning to get to all week: In writing my Washington Post column earlier this week I repeated a mistake I’ve made for years. I always thought it was $10,000 that fell out of the envelope en route to Chris Mills’ father. It was actually $1,000. I apologize for the mistake I wish it was my first, I’m pretty sure it won’t be my last. I will say this though: it seems to me that sending that kind of money is even STUPIDER than sending 10 grand. If you’re trying to buy a player, BUY him for crying out loud.

There’s a guy who runs a website listing the all-time enemies list for Kentucky basketball. (Talk about needing a life). I’m proud to report I’ve been number one on that list for many years ahead of such villains as Sports Illustrated, Billy Packer and Bob Knight. He was absolutely right to complain about me getting the dollar figure wrong. I’d also say he’s sort of missing the forest for the trees but that’s another story for another day.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

FIU and Isiah Thomas; College Basketball ‘Tournaments’

In most newspapers around the country it was a brief item yesterday with a headline that said something about Florida International being upset about opening its basketball season playing defending national champion North Carolina—in Chapel Hill.

The back story—in short—is this. Carolina and FIU are part of a 16 team tournament that bears the imprimatur of Coaches vs. Cancer but always has some corporate name slapped on it by The Gazelle Group, the entity that runs the event. FIU thought it was going to play Ohio State in the first round. When the ACC announced its schedule for the season earlier this week, the school learned it was going to Chapel Hill.

In defense of FIU, the tournament is bogus in a lot of ways. To begin with, it isn’t really a tournament. Four host schools are ‘designated,’ to play the semifinals in Madison Square Garden, regardless of what happens in the opening round games. So, if FIU, under new Coach Isiah Thomas goes into Chapel Hill and stuns the Tar Heels, they don’t go to New York but instead go to another site along with three other smaller schools to play a round robin while the four glamour schools—Carolina, Ohio State, Syracuse and California. Move on to play on ESPN.

Having been burned in the past by upsets the corporate and TV folks are no longer taking chances. They even announced the semifinal matchups before they announced the first round matchups.

This is not the first time The Gazelle people have pulled a fast one on a smaller school. A few years back, Holy Cross was invited to play in the event. Coach Ralph Willard looked at his schedule and saw that his players had exams the following week. But he really wanted to play since one of his players, Andrew Keister, had beaten cancer as a kid and he knew how much it would mean to Keister and his family to see him play in the tournament.

So he told the Gazelle people he’d like to play but only if The Crusaders could make a one hour bus trip to Connecticut—one of the four hosts that year—rather than being sent across the country someplace on an airplane.

The Gazelle people agreed. When Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun found out he might play Holy Cross in his second game he wasn’t happy. Under Willard, Holy Cross played a rarely-seen 3-2 zone that gave teams fits, in part because it was unusual, in part because Willard coached it so well. Calhoun told Willard that summer, “I don’t want to play you guys. It will mess up our offense for weeks.”

Willard thought Calhoun—a friend—was more or less joking. After all, he expected to lose the game to the Huskies by at least 20 points. In September, he found out that Calhoun wasn’t joking when someone from Gazelle called to tell Willard his first round games were at Oklahoma.

“I told you we can’t go there,” Willard said. “We can’t travel for that long right before exams. I thought I made that clear.”

“Well,” the guy said. “We think this gives you a better chance to get to New York. (This was before upsets were banned).

Willard knew that was a lie. He knew Calhoun had gone to Gazelle and demanded the switch. He pulled out of the event rather than travel his kids even though it was a huge disappointment.

This time is different. The contract FIU signed stipulated it could be sent to Ohio State or North Carolina. Thomas says he had been assured he was going to Ohio State. Why the switch was made to send Alcorn State to Columbus is anybody’s guess but, in truth, it doesn’t matter—FIU is going to get crushed in either place. In fact, if there’s ever a time to play Carolina in a season opener this might be it with four starters gone from the national championship team.

While it is impossible to sympathize with Gazelle and its bogus event (it would be interesting to request the 501C3 for the tournament and see how much money goes to Coaches vs. Cancer and how much to corporate entities) this is classic Isiah for any and all who know him. Trouble seems to follow him whether it involves being the most disliked player in the NBA; saying that Larry Bird would be no big deal if he wasn’t white (!!) or the sexual harassment suit the Knicks lost while he was running them into the ground the last few years.

I know first hand how little one should trust Isiah. Remember when Bob Knight was fired at Indiana? Isiah was coaching the Pacers at the time and he instantly came to Knight’s defense, saying he wouldn’t have become the person he was if not for Knight. No one stood up for Knight more than Isiah.

I found that interesting since the one and only ex-Indiana player who had refused to talk to me about Knight when I was researching ‘Season on the Brink,’ was—you guessed it—Isiah Thomas. I drove up to Indianapolis to see him when the Pistons came to town. When I told him what I was looking for he shook his head and said, “Can’t do it.”

I thought he meant this was a bad time and I started to tell him there as no need to do it then, that we could schedule it another time. “That’s not it,” he said. “It’s just that my mother always told me, ‘if you don’t have something nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.’”

He gave me that Isiah smile, wished me luck on the book, shook my hand and was gone. I found out soon after that he and Knight hadn’t spoken since a well-documented incident in Fort Wayne in which Thomas had described in detail some of the words Knight liked to use when talking to his player during an awards dinner. Knight, who was there, was embarrassed and furious and told Thomas so the next day when Thomas was playing pickup ball back at IU. At the very least Isiah and I have something in common: incurring Knight’s wrath for ‘revealing’ that he can be profane at times.

This time around it would be tough to feel much sympathy for Isiah—he’s going to lose the opening game regardless. Except you DO have to feel sorry for any coach who is told before he plays a game in a ‘tournament,’ that even if he wins, he doesn’t advance.

I just hope this doesn’t give the NCAA any ideas. If The Gazelle Group had been running the tournament in 2006, George Mason never would have gotten out of the first round.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Sad Day in American History - Remembering Ted Kennedy; Back to Sports Tomorrow

I truly believe this is a sad day in American history—regardless of your politics.

I know Ted Kennedy was a punchline for many years for conservatives and also a target since, unlike a lot of Democrats, he never hid from the word liberal. But he was someone who was a force in the United States senate for a staggering amount of time—47 years—and, if you ask those who worked with him on both sides of the aisle, became one of the few people in an increasingly polarized political world who could actually get bi-partisan legislation moving in spite of Congressional gridlock.

In all, this has been a difficult summer for American icons (forget Michael Jackson PLEASE): Walter Cronkite, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and now, her younger brother, Teddy. There’s no doubt that all the living presidents from Jimmy Carter to Bush 1 and Bush 2 to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama will attend the memorial service for a man whose personal indiscretions kept him from being president but didn’t prevent him from making huge contributions to American life.

I certainly can’t claim to have known Senator Kennedy well at all. I interviewed him once, when I was researching my book on Red Auerbach. He and Red were good friends and had become very close when the senator’s son, Ted Jr., was fighting cancer as a 12-year-old. He was being treated at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Every other Friday he had to go in for a chemo treatment and, without fail if the Celtics were in town, Red would show up with at least one of his players to try to distract the younger Kennedy. In those days the Celtics almost always played at home on Sunday afternoons and Red would set the father and son up with tickets for the game.

“I think I can honestly say that a lot of the reason Teddy got through that period were the visits from Red and his players, plus looking forward to the games on Sunday,” Sen. Kennedy said to me. “Red always tried to portray himself as this gruff, tough guy, but he was always great with kids.”

As he talked about those days, Kennedy’s voice broke a couple of times. Obviously remembering his son going through cancer was a difficult memory but there was a poignancy to his memories of what Red had done that was quite genuine. I’m glad that—thanks to Red—I had a chance to meet him and spend a little time with him.

Politics have probably never been more polarized in this country than they are now.

Democrats like me are still taking shots at Bush and Cheney and the Republicans were ripping Obama about 15 seconds after he finished his Inaugural Address. (In the case of Rush Limbaugh that’s literally true). It is worth noting then that Kennedy was probably involved in more bi-partisan legislation than any other member of Congress in spite of his (well-deserved) reputation as one of the senate’s leading liberals. If the right wing gives him credit for nothing else, it should give him credit for being one of the last important politicians to recognize that the opposition party was just that—the opposition—and not the enemy. The enemy flies planes into buildings.

There is a lot to remember about Ted Kennedy. Certainly, Chappaquiddick is part of that. So are his many fiery convention speeches through the years. What I will remember is what was (for me) a very early memory. As a 12-year-old, I stuffed envelopes in Bobby Kennedy’s campaign headquarters at 81st and Broadway during the 1968 election. I remember waking up that June morning and asking my father, who was shaving in the bathroom, who had won the California primary. That was when my dad told me that Bobby had won but had been shot in a kitchen and was in critical condition.

He died, of course, two days later and I still remember his younger brother’s eulogy. “A man who saw suffering and tried to end it. A man who saw war and tried to stop it…” Voice cracking. I got to hear his voice crack again 35 years later sitting in front of him and I flashed back to that eulogy and remembered him as a heartbroken little brother, burying an old brother as a public figure for a second time in less than five years.

Some will, of course, focus on Chappaquiddick, which can’t be ignored. Others will through the liberal word around as if it is a profanity of some kind. I hope that most will be smart enough to understand that a great man, who dealt with more tragedy in his life than most of us would see in 10 lifetimes, lost a courageous battle yesterday.

Last summer, there was a story in The New York Times about Kennedy returning to the floor of the senate after his surgery for brain cancer to cast a key health care vote. His return had been kept very quiet and he was very weak but when the doors opened and he came in—the floor was packed because of the vote—99 senators were on their feet in an instant, cheering. A number of Republicans said afterwards that even though they knew his presence signaled that they were going to lose the vote, they were happy and moved to see him.

That’s the sort of thing people should be remembering about Ted Kennedy today. And this is very much a day to think about his life and his legacy.

We can all turn our attention back to sports tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Announcing My 28th Book, a Long Sought-After and Respected Subject --- Dean Smith

Some time today, Little-Brown and Company, my non-fiction publisher (Random house publishes my kids mysteries) will put out a press release announcing my next book. It will be my 28th book and I can honestly say that I’m as fired up about this project as I’ve been since my first book—which did not merit a press release back in 1985.

That book, as most people know, was responsible for a lot of things in my life, including the name of this blog. But Bob Knight wasn’t the first coach about whom I wanted to write a book.

Dean Smith was.

Yes, I went to Duke and if you believe all the silly hype built up in recent years around that rivalry, people from Duke and people from North Carolina have to be physically restrained whenever they’re in the same room. I’ve never seen it that way. In fact, when I was a junior in college and Bill Foster was trying to rebuild the Duke program, I wrote a column in The Chronicle, the Duke student newspaper, saying if he was looking for a model, he need look no farther than 10 miles (it is TEN miles not eight as legend has it) down the road to Chapel Hill.

Soon after that, Duke played at Carolina. The Tar Heels won—they were 10-1 against Duke in my undergraduate days—and after the game I approached The Great Man (I remember the day vividly, it was his 45th birthday and everyone in Carmichael Auditorium sang ‘Happy Birthday,’ while he cowered in embarrassment) to ask him a question about Tate Armstrong’s chances to make The Olympic team he would coach that summer.

When I introduced myself, without batting an eye, he said, “I know you. I read your column the other day. I thought you were very fair to us—especially for a Duke student.”

I was, needless to say, stunned. Dean Smith had read something that I wrote? Later I learned that the Carolina basketball office had subscriptions to every ACC student newspaper, every paper that covered the ACC and every major newspaper in the country. One of the assistants was assigned to go through them and clip anything that he thought Smith should read or know about. Roy Williams had the job for several years. My column had made it into Smith’s briefcase at some point.

“I usually do the reading on airplanes,” he told me years later. “It kills the time and I might pick up something interesting."

By then I knew there was no attention to detail too small for him. When I went to The Washington Post after graduation we developed a good relationship although the running joke was that I was, “fair for a Duke graduate.” I would argue that I was fair—period.

Dean constantly chided me about my casual dress. “Why blue jeans all the time,” he said once. “You represent one of the great papers in the country. If you can’t afford a jacket and tie, I’ll buy you one. I can do it for you since you aren’t a player.”

I told him I could afford a jacket and tie, but appreciated the offer. I just liked to look non-threatening when interviewing athletes who were about my age. “Well,” he said, “I suppose I should be grateful, given where you went to college, that you don’t show up in sandals.”

THAT, he didn’t have to worry about.

In 1981, I wrote a lengthy two-part series in The Post about Smith. It took me several sessions just to get him to agree to be interviewed. “Write about the players,” he kept saying. No, I kept answering, I want to write about YOU. He finally gave in, agreeing to let me drive with him from Chapel Hill to Charlotte en route to the old North-South doubleheader. There were only two problems: he still smoked in those days and, in a closed car in February I almost choked to death. Then there was the trip back: I had to cover a Duke-Maryland game in Durham the next day so I was going to drive his car back to Chapel Hill and pick up my car there.

When we got to the hotel in Charlotte, Dean told me where the registration was in case I got stopped. “Dean, if I get stopped in this state driving your car, I’m going to jail,” I said.

He laughed. “Yeah, and with your luck it’ll be a State fan.”

I never went one mile over the speed limit on the way back. The interview went surprisingly well—when he was engaged and willing, no one was a better interview. It was while researching that piece that I became convinced that I HAD to do a book on Dean. He set me up to interview his pastor, Dr. Robert Seymour, at The Binkley Baptist Church. Dr. Seymour told me the story about Dean, still an assistant coach, walking into a segregated Chapel Hill restaurant in 1958 with a black member of the church and, for all intents and purposes, daring management not to serve them. They did. De-segregation began to take hold soon after that.

When I went back to Dean to ask him his memories of that night he shook his head. “I wish he hadn’t told you that story,” he said.

“Why?” I asked, very surprised. “You should be very proud of what you did.”

He looked me right in the eye and said: “You should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do it.”

I still remember the shiver that ran through me when he said it. A year later, Carolina finally won Dean’s first national title. I called him. “You’ve done it all now,” I said. “I’d really like to do that book we’ve talked about. (I had brought it up to him after The Post piece). He said he’d think about it, talk to his wife, Linnea. A week later he called back.

“I can’t do it,” he said. “I’m still an active coach and I’m just not ready to be as frank about some things as I know you’ll want me to be.”

I was disappointed, but thought that was a fair answer. I thanked him for thinking about it. “I feel badly,” he said. “Can I do anything—maybe get you some tickets?”

I didn’t need tickets.

For years, the idea that I should write the book stayed with me, even after I began writing books. Rick Brewer, who has worked with Dean since the mid-60s, and I would periodically talk about it. This year at The Final Four, Rick said to me, “You should take one more shot at it.”

So, in May I drove to Chapel Hill to see Dean. He’s 78 now and gets frustrated because his memory, once encyclopedic to put it mildly, isn’t what it used to be. “Sometimes it just makes me angry,” he said. But he still remembers a LOT. “I’m glad to see you still talk with your hands,” he said about five minutes after I sat down.

I brought up the book, reminding him we had first talked about it twenty-seven years ago. Again, he wanted to think about it. Almost as soon as I left the office I was tracking Roy Williams down on vacation, trying to enlist his support. When Roy called back he said, “this is a book that needs to be done. People just don’t know all this man did. I’ll talk to him.”

Fortunately, I didn’t need Roy to have that talk. Dean agreed to the book a couple days after I’d been in Chapel Hill. We had our first lengthy session last week. There’s a lot of work to do to get it out by March of 2011, but I’m truly excited.

While I was in Dean’s office last week, Lefty Driesell, Dean’s old rival and now friend, called. “You gonna let a Duke guy write a book on you?” Lefty (a Duke guy) said to Dean.

“I don’t think of him as a Duke guy,” Dean said to Lefty. “I just think of him as a pretty good guy.”

That may be the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about me.

Monday, August 24, 2009

John's Monday Washington Post Article...

Here is my column for the Washington Post today....covering the Calipari/Memphis situation and Plaxico Burress case------

It is almost eerie sometimes how major news stories break on the same day. Years ago, Rickey Henderson became Major League Baseball's all-time stolen base leader -- and modestly declared himself, "The greatest of all time." That night, Nolan Ryan pitched the seventh no-hitter of his career and most people around the country decided Henderson's feat was the second greatest of that day.

On June 25, Farrah Fawcett died after a long, sad battle with cancer. A few hours later, Michael Jackson died after a long, sad battle with life. Fawcett gets mentioned now as part of jokes told about Michael Jackson.

And then there was last Thursday. On the same day that the NCAA melodramatically stripped the Memphis men's basketball team of 38 victories during the 2007-08 season and its status as the runner-up in the NCAA tournament, former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress took a plea bargain after bringing a loaded gun into a New York nightclub last November and shooting himself in the leg.

Click here for the full story....Bad News Day

Emotional Weekend - Celebration of '69 Mets Brings Back Memories of Being a Young Fan

It was an emotional weekend for me. No, not because Ryan Moore won his first event on The PGA Tour or because the tour's 'playoffs' are about to begin. It wasn't Brett Favre appearing in a Minnesota Vikings uniform or even another weekend of Yankees-Red Sox.

I went back to my boyhood this weekend.

There is no sports memory I have that is more vivid than the 1969 New York Mets--aka The Miracle Mets. They were part of an extraordinary 16 month run in the history of New York sports--the Jets shocking upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in January of 1969, followed by the Mets World Series win in October of that year and, finally, the Knicks world title in May of 1970. All were remarkably dramatic. In fact, I can still remember the exact date each time won its title: January 12; October 16th; May 8th. Seriously, I did not look that up.

I remember Namath and the Jets because no one gave them a chance. I was a Jets fan as a kid because there was no way to get Giants tickets in Yankee Stadium and you could actually walk into the Jets offices at 57th and Madison on Monday and buy a standing room ticket for $3. Then you'd find an empty seat somewhere. I'd gotten into the habit of pacing in front of the TV whenever the Jets played for good luck. On the day of The Super Bowl I paced and paced as the Jets built a 16-0 lead. My dad came home from a concert early in the fourth quarter and actually sat down to watch.

"Stop pacing," he said. "You're making me dizzy."

It was 16-0. Okay, I sat down. Johnny Unitas came in for Earl Morrall and took the Colts straight down the field to make it 16-7.

"Okay, pace," my dad said.

I will skip the Mets for a moment. I was a huge Knicks fan. My friends and I used to go to Madison Square Garden in the middle of the night to line up to be sure to get playoff tickets. We always tried for either section 406 or 430--they were at halfcourt in the blue seats, the only tickets we could afford. I was there on May 8th, wondering like everyone else if Willis Reed could play game seven against the Lakers with the championship on the line. Wilt Chamberlain had gone off in game 6 in LA with Reed sidelined.

During warmups, I heard a huge cheer go up and looked down to see Cazzie Russell walking out. Russell always came out late for warmups and, from a distance, some people had mistaken him for Reed. Finally, Reed did come out. The place went nuts. He hit his first two shots of the game and then Walt Frazier took over. The Knicks won 113-99 and it wasn't that close. I still remember hearing the tape of Marv Albert counting down the final seconds while Dave DeBusschere simply stood holding the ball. "Pandemonium in the Garden!" he screamed when the buzzer sounded. He was right.

But there was nothing quite like the Mets. They were my first love in sports--a truly awful expansion team my friends laughed at me for adopting as my team at the age of six. I'm old enough to have seen them play in The Polo Grounds and I suffered through those first six truly awful seasons. I started riding the subway to Shea Stadium--I knew every stop on the No. 7 train by heart--when I was 11--and paid $1.30 to sit in the upper deck. I loved the Sunday doubleheaders best if only because the Mets often won the second game against the other team's backup players.

In that sixth season--1967--hope began to arrive. Tom Seaver was clearly a rising star. The next year Gil Hodges became the manager and Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan showed up. I remember Ryan pitching a one-hitter against the Phillies on a day he didn't have blisters and doing Kiner's Korner with his wife Ruth, who wore a mini-skirt on the show. Talk about first love.

And then came '69. I remember being discouraged on Opening Day when the Mets lost for the eighth straight year even though Seaver was pitching and the opponent was the expansion Montreal Expos. The final was 11-10. But sometime in late May they went on an 11 game winning streak. I remember Jack DiLauro coming up from the minor leagues and beating the Dodgers 1-0. Of course there were the two July series with the Cubs--including Seaver's imperfect game (I still hate Jimmy Qualls). I remember reading a story in which Buddy Harrelson, who was on reserve duty that week, was watching in a bar trying to convince people that he KNEW Seaver. Then the incredible rally from mid-August on. I was there for the black cat and the (Randy Hundley) rain dance and then on September 10th for a twi-night doubleheader with the Expos when the Mets went into first place for the first time.

It was a joyride from there. The clincher on September 24th--Joe Torre hit into a double-play to end the game at 9:07 p.m.--as Lindsey Nelson kept shouting--and then the sweep of the Braves and the amazing five game win over the unbeatable Orioles.

In all I saw 66 games in person. A few times we splurged for big games and bought seats in the mezzanine for $2.50 and my dad loaned me money for the postseason tickets. I remember everyone hugging one another when Cleon Jones made the last catch (on a ball hit by Davey Johnson who later managed the Mets only other World Series win) and it was one of those perfect moments in time.

Forty years later, the Mets celebrated that team again. Some of them are gone--McGraw, Agee, Clendenon and, of course, Hodges who had a heart attack less than three years later. Some others didn't make it back. But there was Seaver and Ryan and Koosman and Gentry and Harrelson and Ron Swoboda and Dr. Ron Taylor and Jerry Grote and Wayne Garrett and, of course Cleon, who may still be the best hitter the Mets ever had with apologies to Mike Piazza. Not to mention Ed Kranepool, who I remember seeing at the tail end of 1962 when he came up straight out of high school. In a God-awful season for the team, there was real joy in the new stadium. All of us old enough to remember had to get choked up as the players were introduced and the highlights montage was shown.

It would be very easy to feel old looking at all the over-60 Mets but I didn't feel that way. I felt warm and happy that it had all happened the way it did and that I had the chance to see as much of it as I did. When I got older and became a reporter, I more or less stopped rooting for teams and started rooting for good guys--regardless of who they played for. I couldn't stand the '92 Mets and I'm not so crazy about the current group, not because they've been injured or mediocre but because I'm not sure how much they care.

But the '69 team happened when I was still innocent--a year before I read 'Ball Four’ and my view of athletes changed forever. To me, they're all still great guys and always will be. Steroids can't change that; Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens can't change that--nothing can change that.

They gave me joy then and they still give me joy now. There aren't a whole lot of things in life about which your feelings do not change even a little bit in 40 years. The '69 Mets are an exception--and, for me, they always will be.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Crimes of Stupidity – I Have No Problem with Burress Outcome

So Plaxico Burress is going to jail, probably for at least 20 months.

Not to sound insensitive, but I'm fine with it. When the announcement of his plea bargain was announced yesterday there was a lot of yammering about how unfair it was because the crime he committed--carrying a gun that wasn't registered in New York into a club and then accidentally shooting himself in the leg with it--was one of stupidity, not one of malice.

That's not the issue here. Most crimes of malice carry heavier sentences--as they should--than crimes of stupidity. There are lots of crimes of stupidity. Driving drunk is a crime of stupidity. Doing drugs is a crime of stupidity. Certainly carrying a gun in your pants into a club jam-packed full of people is a crime of stupidity.

One excuse I heard yesterday was that he needed to carry the gun because he's a celebrity. OH PLEASE. Rule #1: If you are going to a place where you don't feel safe without a gun don't go. Rule #2: If you really believe you are such a big celebrity that you can't go anyplace and feel safe, hire bodyguards. The owner of The Washington Redskins, who most people wouldn't look at twice in public, has about eight of them.

Look, I have no disagreement with people who say New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was grandstanding when he insisted publicly that Burress would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law after the incident last November. Gee, a politician grandstanding--film at 11. But give Bloomberg this: he has been consistent about gun laws in the city. New York has some of the toughest gun laws in the country and people know it. If Burress didn't know it, well, you know the old saying about ignorance of the law.

I think what got people yesterday was that we're used to jocks with a lot of money finding a way to either get off or get off light when they commit a crime. Daunte Stallworth did about 15 minutes in jail for DUI manslaughter in large part because he paid the victim's family millions along with the fact that police reports indicate the victim jumped in front of the car and he stopped right away and turned himself in. But that's the more typical situation: jock does something horrible, hires expensive lawyers who make excuses, raise doubts and run rings around underpaid prosecutors.

Anyone remember the O.J. case? By the end of the trial, Johnny Cochrane and his dream team had people wondering if the prosecutors actually had law degrees. Jayson Williams has never gone to jail. Michael Vick did but that was because he dug himself a hole so deep by lying to anyone and everyone that even a top lawyer like Billy Martin couldn't dig him out.

Burress hired a big-time lawyer and I will bet serious money figured he'd get off with probation. But he had a problem: there just weren't any holes in this case: he was carrying the gun and he shot himself. Those were the facts and there was no getting around them. Plus, the law says if you are convicted by a jury you MUST serve at least three-and-a-half years in jail. Perry Mason couldn't have gotten Burress off which is why he took the plea.

There's no sense comparing the Burress case to the Stallworth case or any other case. Does two years--he'd get out in 20 months with good behavior--seem harsh for an act of stupidity? Perhaps. But let's remember how lucky Burress was: the gunshot could just as easily have hit someone else. You can say---correctly—“well, it didn't”. Right. That's why it's only 20 months and not more.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has apparently told Burress he won't face a further suspension when he returns for the 2011 season--assuming there's no work stoppage because the owners and players can't reach a contract agreement. You might wonder why Burress doesn't get a suspension while Vick did. The answer's simple: Vick lied to Goodell about what his involvement in dog-fighting. That's what his five week suspension is about. Burress didn't like in all likelihood because how could he possibly lie?

My friend Tony Kornheiser started a segment on his radio show a few years ago called, "jocks in the dock." It seemed as if there wasn't a single day when he didn't have a new story to recount about an athlete in trouble. One week it's Michael Phelps driving without a license--talk about stupidity, especially when the whole bong thing was just calming down--the next it Burress being sentenced and then another NFL player being arrested. It is dizzying.

Of course August really is the month when it is tough to find a lot to talk about in sports if someone isn't being arrested. There is The PGA Championship--which lasts four days--and there's baseball but it really doesn't get to be 'must-see' until September. So we're left with all the pre-season football speculation which I find about as interesting as reading a fashion magazine. My old pal Chris Mortensen, who is as good a football reporter as there is, spent something like a month on a bus going from one NFL training camp to another for the four letter network.

This morning, I happened to catch Mort on radio and the host asked him what his most vivid memory was of the bus trip. Mort had two answers: something about eating too much cheese someplace (I'm guessing in Wisconsin) and breaking records for eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the bus to avoid stopping in restaurants.

That about sums up how exciting it is to be around the NFL in August.

Hey, has Brett Favre retired again yet?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Hartford Whalers, the First Story I Wrote for SI; Answering a Few Questions

I was reading The Sporting News late last night and I came across one of those brief Q+A’s that everyone likes to run these days—even The New York Times which does one in the sports section every Sunday.

This one was with Peter Karamanos, who is the owner of The Carolina Hurricane. Reading it I couldn’t help but think about The Hartford Whalers, since it was Karamanos who pulled The Whale out of Hartford and moved it to Raleigh—after spending a couple of years in Greensboro waiting for the arena to be built.

The fact that Hartford no longer has its hockey team still makes me a bit melancholy. I read a story last year about the fact that there is still some kind of Hartford Whalers fan club and it reminded me of The Baltimore Colts marching band, which continued to play at The Preakness every year long after Robert Irsay had stolen the team and moved it to Indianapolis.

The people of Baltimore finally got a football team back in 1996 after a 12 year gap but I doubt Hartford will have a similar happy ending. The arena is still there—now called the XL Center I believe—and it is used for minor league hockey an University of Connecticut hockey games. Only real hockey fans will remember that Gordie Howe played his final games for The Whalers and that there really was a serious fan base before Karamanos snatched the team from the town.

My connection to the Whalers is simple: the first story I ever wrote in Sports Illustrated was on a Whalers player. Blaine Stoughton was a 50 goal scorer on three different occasions but, because he played in Hartford, he received very little attention. I was actually covering politics in 1982 when SI asked if I’d be interesting in doing some hockey pieces for them and I said sure. Off I went to Hartford to write about Stoughton.

I liked him. I really liked his wife Cindy (I think that’s the correct spelling but I can’t swear it because my copy of the story is buried in a box someplace) who Blaine had met when he was playing in the old WHA for the Cincinnati Stingers. She was a Playboy bunny and Stoughton and his two linemates all dating bunnies and became known—surprise—as “The Bunny Line.”

“One year in the playoffs all three of us went to a game in Indianapolis wearing our boyfriends’ uniform tops with names and numbers on the back,” Cindy told me. “We were jumping around and cheering, getting a lot of attention as you might expect. A lot of the fans starting yelling at us, ‘hey, f---- the Stingers!’ I looked back at them and said, ‘we do and it’s great!’

Funny story but not one you’d expect to get into Sports Illustrated, especially in 1982. But I had to at least give it a shot. So, I put it in the story and waited. Bill Colson, who would later edit the magazine, was editing the story. He called and said, “We all like that story so much we’re tracking Gil Rogin (then the managing editor) down on vacation to see if he’ll approve it. Rogin was sailing in the Bahamas or something like that and tough to find. But they found him and he approved it. I was quite proud.

For years after that whenever I ran into Bruce Berlet, who was the hockey writer for The Hartford Courant at the time, his opening comment to me was always, “F----the Stingers!”

And, I still have my Hartford Whalers coffee mug, purchased on that trip. It is one of the last vestiges of a lost franchise.


Every once in a while I’m going to try to respond to questions and comments that come in. What I’m NOT going to do on a regular basis is argue with those who disagree with me. As far as I’m concerned, you’re entitled to disagree all you want. Having said that, Vince wrote something the other day about my comment that Jack Nicklaus played against better players than Tiger Woods did. He said that I had written that Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson won, “something like 35 or 38 majors.” What I wrote was that they won 30. Just so there’s no doubt, here’s the breakdown: Player 9; Palmer 7; Trevino 6 and Watson 8. I’m not great at math but I’m pretty sure that’s 30. He also wrote that most of Nicklaus’s majors were not won during the prime of the others. Huh? I specifically cited Palmer beating Nicklaus at the Masters in ’64. That WAS Palmer’s last major but he was in contention often (blowing the Open in ’66 with a seven shot lead on Sunday) until the Open at Oakmont in ’73. Watson, as mentioned, beat Nicklaus head-to-head three famous times and Trevino twice. Vince concluded by saying that “Catherine,” should have hired reporters who did a better job on there research. I can only assume he was referring to Katherine Graham, the late, great Washington Post publisher whose track record on hiring editors—she didn’t hire reporters—was, I think, pretty good…

Someone also wrote in yesterday asking why the BB+T Classic, the charity tournament in Washington that Bob Novak and I have been involved in for 15 years can’t get an NCAA exemption, which would make it about a million times easier to get teams to commit to playing two games each year. That is a GREAT question. We have been asking the NCAA for a way to get an exemption for our visiting teams almost since day 1. The host teams, Maryland and George Washington, cannot be exempt because—except for teams in Alaska and Hawaii—the NCAA does not allow exemptions for teams that play in an event annually. We have received hundreds of excuses from the NCAA but never once has anyone stepped forward and said, “let’s see, you raise millions for charity as opposed to all these ESPN-run events we give exemptions to that exist strictly to make money for corporate entities, maybe we should do something here…”

Why would they want to do that? Why would they want to help kids who desperately need the help when they can stay busy helping people who put money in THEIR pockets?

Not that I’m upset about it or anything.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Remembering Bob Novak, a Friend Bonded by Two Passions: College Basketball and The Children’s Charities Foundation

ESPN was so over-the-top (surprise) with its coverage of Brett Favre yesterday that Brian Kenney—one of the good guys up there—jokingly said, “more coming up when we return to FavreCenter in a moment.” Wonder if he got a talking to for that.

But while ESPN and most of the sports work was obsessing about Favre’s latest return—by the way, isn’t it pretty clear that Favre flat out lied to the New York Jets when he told them he was definitely retired in the spring and then began negotiating with the Vikings about 15 minutes later?—there was a truly significant and sad story that broke yesterday.

Robert Novak died.

His death wasn’t surprising: he hadn’t been healthy since his diagnosis with brain cancer last year but it was nevertheless very sad for those of us who were fortunate enough to know him. No doubt it will surprise anyone who knows my politics to learn that Novak and I were friends but we were: bonded by two passions—college basketball and The Children’s Charities Foundation.

Novak was a sports fan but his true love was college hoops. And, even though he was an Illinois graduate, he became a full-throated Maryland fan when Lefty Driesell was the coach there. He never missed a home game and frequently traveled to road, games, often chartering a plane to get someplace just in time for tipoff. That was how I first met him—covering Maryland for The Washington Post when Lefty was in his hey-day in the early 1980s.

He was initially suspicious of me because I was a Duke graduate. “Elitist school for rich kids,” he liked to say. To which I would respond, “You’re right Bob, it’s a place where a lot of the Republicans you support send their kids. You have a lot of loyal readers there.”

It didn’t take long for him to out me as a liberal and when I covered the Maryland state legislature in the mid-80s, he frequently joked that it was the one legislature I could cover because it was about 85 percent Democrat. The funny thing was my best sources back then were the Republicans who, for some reason, were the jocks and knew me from the sports pages.

In 1994, Peter Teeley, who had been George Bush the first’s speechwriter and later ambassador to Canada, came up with the idea of a local college tournament in DC that would raise money for kids at risk. He had read a column I had written on the subject once so he approached me about joining the board and he approached Novak and his friend Al Hunt knowing that Novak was connected at Maryland and Hunt was connected at Georgetown.

To make a long story short, Gary Williams instantly agreed to take part and John Thompson instantly said no. To this day, Maryland is the centerpiece of an event that has raised more than $10 million for charity and Georgetown has never participated. While I had a close relationship with Williams and with some other coaches who agreed to come and play, it was always Novak who bridged the gap when Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow started making noise about Maryland not being able to give up home games to play in the event. Teeley would say, “Bob, it’s time to work your magic with Ms. Yow.” And he would.

Whenever I was with Bob, he wanted to debate basketball issues. He was a political reporter whose passion was sports. I wanted to debate politics. I was a sports reporter whose passion was politics. We argued, naturally, non-stop although we agreed on the disaster that was the Iraq war.

Novak was tough to argue with because he was smart, always had his facts and, naturally, had a lot of inside information I didn’t have. I did win one from him once and, to his credit, he always brought it up to me. In 2006, Ben Cardin, who had been speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates when I covered the legislature ran for Paul Sarbanes senate seat. Cardin and I had remained friends after I got out of politics and I actually spoke at a campaign rally on his behalf.

Two weeks before the election, Novak came up to me at a Children’s Charities board meeting and said, “Your guy Cardin is going down. (Michael) Steele has all the momentum.”

Novak saying this made me nervous but I stuck my chin out and said, “no way. Ben will win easily.” We made a friendly bet: if Steele won I had to say something on the radio about Bob being right and me being wrong. If Cardin won, he had to say something nice about Duke somewhere in public.

As luck would have it, Maryland opened its season on election night and we were both at the game. As I walked into The Comcast Center I called a friend of mine who had access to exit polling. “Ben’s winning easily,” he said as I breathed a sigh of relief. “Looks like he’ll get at least 55 percent of the vote.”

As soon as I saw Novak I beelined over to him and reported what I knew. “No way,” he said, grabbing his cell phone. He called someone demanding exit polling from Maryland. Whomever he called didn’t have it. “How in the world can a SPORTSWRITER know this stuff and we don’t!” he yelled.

Before the game was over, he walked over to me, put his hand out and said, “Congratulations. One for your guys.”

I always took great pleasure in telling my Republican friends that their hero Robert Novak was a registered Democrat—which he was. Living in Washington, D.C. there was no point registering as a Republican because all elections are decided in the Democratic primary.

“I registered Democrat so I could vote against Marion Barry,” he liked to say.

Hard to argue with that.

He was a man of great passion on all subjects His work for The Children’s Charities Foundation was hugely important and was critical in helping raise millions of dollars for kids in desperate need of help. He was a great friend to many people, someone with a very big heart that he didn’t like people to know about because it might affect his, “Prince of Darkness,” image.

When I think of him many memories will flood back but none more vivid than the night Maryland won the national championship in Atlanta in 2002. He had tears in his eyes when I saw him after the game. “I’m so happy for Gary,” he said.

I know for a fact that one of the people Gary was happy for that night was Bob. They both deserved it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Back to Sedgefield, Original Host of Where I First Covered the PGA Tour Invokes Memories

Sometime this afternoon I will arrive at Sedgefield Country Club and I suspect a lot of memories will come flooding back to me. Sedgefield is the site for The Wyndham Classic---which to me will always be The Greater Greensboro Open (GGO). The GGO at Sedgefield was the first PGA Tour event I ever attended or covered. I was a Duke junior and I applied for credentials to the event figuring the worst that could happen was that I'd get turned down. The pass, which looked like gold as far as I was concerned, arrived in the mail about two weeks before the tournament--which was held in April back then.

I drove down on Saturday morning and spent a few holes following Arnie's Army, then picked up the tournament leader, Al Geiberger. My goal though was to interview Doug Sanders because I'd read he was a real character and I knew was a very good player. People forget that Sanders won 21 times on The PGA Tour although his career and life were changed forever when he missed a three-foot putt on the 18th green at St. Andrews that would have won the 1970 British Open. He lost in a playoff the next day to Jack Nicklaus.

I walked back to the clubhouse as Sanders was finishing but, being new to how golf worked, somehow lost him as he came off the 18th green. I walked into the locker room--stunned that no one tried to stop me--and found Sanders standing at the bar in the grill with several people. Gingerly I introduced myself and asked if it might be possible to talk.

"Who do you work for?" Sanders asked, sounding incredulous.

"The Chronicle," I said (we never called it The Duke Chronicle, the proper name was just The Chronicle). "It's the student newspaper at Duke."

I was fairly convinced he was going to laugh at the thought of talking to me and I was going to find myself back outside trying to think of another column idea in about five minutes.

"Would you like a beer," he said. "Pull up a seat. We can talk here."

So we did. He was funny and honest and didn't bridle at all when I brought up the putt at The British. "Don't think about it much," he said. "No more than three, four times a day."

That was my first foray into golf writing. A year later I went back to The GGO and interviewed a player named Gary Groh. He had won The Hawaiian Open earlier that year and Bob Green, the veteran golf writer for The AP had written, "Arnie lost again," as his lead. Groh had beaten Arnold Palmer by two shots and Green knew the story was more about Palmer losing--just like Sunday when Y.E. Yang beat Tiger Woods--than it was about Gary Groh winning.

"I made $40,000 for winning that tournament," Groh said, sitting at almost the same spot at the bar where I'd sat with Sanders a year earlier. We were drinking sodas, not beer. "If not for Arnold Palmer I probably wouldn't have won half that much. I have no problem with him being the story. He IS the story."

The interesting thing is I liked both Sanders and Groh even though they could not have been more different. I also enjoyed the fact that, with my media credential, I could go almost anywhere on the grounds without being hassled by anyone. I didn't even realize at the time that I could request an armband in the media room that would have allowed me to walk inside the ropes. Those GGO experiences stayed with me after I went to The Washington Post and I always wanted the chance to cover more golf. I didn't get many opportunities early on but eventually I did and found that my initial instinct--that golfers were good guys to deal with--had been correct.

The GGO left Sedgefield a few years after I graduated and moved to Forest Oaks Country Club. By the time I began covering golf on a regular basis that's where it was held. But it's moved back to Sedgefield now--and to this stifling August date--and today I'll be there for the first time in (gasp!) 32 years. I wonder if I'll remember the place at all.

I'm going there to do my last long interview for the book I'm doing on the winners of the '03 major championships. Interestingly, '03 was a year not unlike this year. Tiger Woods didn't win any of the majors. The four winners--Mike Weir, Jim Furyk, Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel--were all first time major champions and in the case of the latter two, first time tournament winners. Curtis, like Y.E. Yang, had been at Q-School the previous September. The only real difference is that Cabrera won his second major when he won The Masters this year. The book is about sudden fame and how it changes your life--for good and bad.

I'm supposed to talk down here with Shaun Micheel, who has been through major shoulder surgery and is dealing with his mom's cancer right now. As of this moment, Micheel isn't even in the field--third alternate--and is fighting to keep his exempt status on the tour for next year. Golf is really a hard game--even for major champions, even, as we saw on Sunday, for Tiger Woods.

Tonight, before I leave the clubhouse, I'm going to walk down to the grill room--which probably doesn't look at all like it did in 1976. But I'm going to stop in there anyway and have a beer and drink a toast to Doug Sanders.

Monday, August 17, 2009

John's Monday Washington Post Article...

Here is my column for the Washington Post today......

The next eight months will not be a lot of fun for Tiger Woods. Until the Masters next April, he is going to be subjected to questions about his failure to win a major championship in 2009. Every time he turns on the Golf Channel -- which he does a lot -- he's going to see some kind of panel wondering if he's lost a little bit of his edge because of fatherhood and knee troubles. His swing and his putting stroke will be replayed in super slow motion about a zillion times.

Nothing's Wrong With Tiger; Everything's Fine With Golf

The Answer: Ed Fiori AND Y.E. Yang

So now the answer is Ed Fiori AND Y.E. Yang.

The question is: name all the players who have come from behind no a Sunday in a PGA Tour event to beat Tiger Woods.

Until Sunday, Fiori wore that title the way Sir Nick Faldo wear his knighthood. Fiori hung around on tour for a lot of years but nothing he ever did came close to the fall day in 1996 when he beat the then 20-year-old phenom to win what was then known (I think) as The Hardees Classic. In any event it was at Quad Cities, it was Woods’ third tournament as a pro and those who were there say Tiger made an 8 early and went into an angry tailspin and never recovered.

There were, by the way, quite a few media present. I still remember being at the second President’s Cup that weekend and watching guys making plane reservations on Saturday when Woods took the lead. You could see the PGA Tour staffers looking pale because people were leaving their almost-new event to go see the kid perhaps win for the first time.

After The Grip (Fiori’s nickname) won that day, Tiger led tournaments after 54 holes 36 times over the next 13 years. And he never lost once. Until Sunday.

While all the people you might have thought could challenge him were doing disappearing acts all over Hazeltine National Golf Club, there was Yang hanging with him. To be honest, the thought that Tiger might lose never crossed my mind until Yang chipped in for eagle at the 14th hole. Even then the thought was a brief one. We’d all seen this show before, right? Bob May at The PGA in 2000; Rocco Mediate at The Open last year. Every once in a while a not-so-famous player with nothing to lose would not be intimidated by Tiger and it still wouldn’t matter: if the opponent didn’t find a way to lose, Tiger would find a way to win.

Only this time he didn’t. When Yang three-putted 17, I thought he had come out of his trance and would now bogey 18 (or Tiger would birdie it) and Tiger would win in the playoff. I even said to my brother, who had been in the car all afternoon and was almost home, “you’ll be able to watch the playoff.”

Not so much. Yang hit one of those second shots that will be replayed forever, forcing Tiger to fire at the flag—he missed the green-and, amazingly, it was over before Tiger holed out. Did anyone else notice Stevie Williams nowhere in sight during the handshakes? Can’t figure out if he stalked off ala LeBron or if Tiger turned to him as he was lining up the last putt and said, “you’re fired.”

Hey, I can dream can’t I?

In a way this scenario was perfect for golf. CBS’s ratings for Saturday were up—according to CBS—390 percent from last year. Of course that stat is deceiving because it rained last year on Saturday. But I guarantee, with Tiger in the last group, they’re going to be way up for Sunday too. Combine that with an ending that was DIFFERENT than what we’re used to and it was all good.

Except for Tiger. And for The Grip.

This will now go down as The Year That Wasn’t in golf. Kenny Perry didn’t become the oldest man in history to win a major at The Masters. Instead Angel Cabrera won. Phil Mickelson had a chance to finally win the U.S. Open with his wife facing cancer surgery in two weeks. Instead, Lucas Glover won. We all know how historic a Tom Watson win at The British Open would have been. Stewart Cink has the claret jug. And now Y.E. Yang moves into history not only alongside Fiori but next to Jack Fleck, the club pro who stunned Ben Hogan to win a playoff at the 1955 U.S. Open.

Yang is clearly a smart man. When someone asked if he would like to go head-to-head with Tiger again he shook his head and said (through an interpreter). “No. No rematch, no-redo. I will take this one. It’s enough.”

Reminded me of the last round scene in Rocky 1 when Apollo Creed says, “Ain’t gonna be no rematch,” and Rocky answers, “Don’t want one.”

There will be a lot made of Tiger not winning a major in 2009. Certainly it makes the year disappointing for him, even though he’ll probably roar through the FedEx Cup playoff events and end up with seven or eight wins and another Player-of-the-Year Award.

But anyone who reads anything more into this than the fact that he’s occasionally human is being ridiculous. He is still the co-most-dominant athlete in the world (Michael Phelps) and this simply delays the inevitable slightly, that being him passing Nicklaus’s all-time record of 18 for professional major wins.

Let me also say this: People think I’m hard on Tiger and, sometimes I am. During one of our very few one-on-one talks years ago I told him that I tend to be harder on people I think are smart because they should know better and I put him at the top of that category. He handled a very tough day well yesterday. I didn’t see a club slam (lots of angry muttering, but who could blame him?) and he was gracious in defeat—and let’s remember he’s NEVER been through a loss like this one.

So good for him.

And good for Yang. He doesn’t want a rematch.

I don’t blame him.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Access to College Practices; Follow-Up Note on PGA Championship, Tiger

The biggest story in sports today is, of course, Michael Vick signing with the Philadelphia Eagles. I certainly get why it is a big story but, to be honest, I’m sort of one with it. I really don’t care how much they use him or whether they put in the ‘wildcat,’ to get him some snaps behind Donovan McNabb.

Like a lot of people I’ve said what I have to say about him. If he gets back on the field and is productive and stays out of trouble, good for him. He’s a relatively low-risk signing for the Eagles because they have an established quarterback who isn’t going to be worried about losing his job to Vick. If he doesn’t behave or doesn’t perform, they can just cut him and say, ‘oh well we tried.’

I’m actually more interested today in a report someone sent me from that lists the access policies college football teams have to their practices. I know that this is something fans really don’t care about and, to be honest, I don’t care that much either. It’s not as if being unable to watch Nick Saban’s practices has any affect on my life.

In fact, as I wrote recently about an incident years ago with the Redskins, I’m just as happy most times to not watch practice. Years ago, shortly after I had made the decision to give up covering politics to cover sports again, I was up at Holy Cross writing a story about a coach named Rick Carter.

To be fair, the story was my idea. I was going up to cover the Hall of Fame tip-off game in Springfield between North Carolina State and Houston and I suggested to my boss that I stop en route to see Carter. He was, at the time, a hot young coach who people thought might someday coach the Redskins since he was a friend/protégé of then Redskins GM Bobby Beathard.

Carter seemed like a very good guy and, after we had talked awhile, invited me to watch practice and then finish our interview afterwards. That sounds good to me. Holy Cross’s practice field is right at the top of the campus, essentially on top of a mountain. It was mid-November and the sun set about 30 minutes in to the practice. It then started to snow. I honestly can’t remember ever being colder but I couldn’t leave - I’d been INVITED by the guy I was writing about to watch.

All I could think standing there was: “I could be in a bar in Annapolis right now having a drink with a politician. Instead I’m standing here freeing to death. WHAT was I thinking?”

I made it through practice and finished the interview. Of course I couldn’t know that behind his friendly smile, Carter was a very troubled man. Not long after I wrote the story he had a chance to get the North Carolina State job but, as I recall, Holy Cross wouldn’t let him interview. The program slipped a little bit and a couple years later, Carter committed suicide.

If you are a beat writer—which I haven’t been for a long time now—you need access to practice. That’s because you have editors breathing down your neck wanting to know how a quarterback looked or if someone hobbled off the field and went straight to the training room.

What’s more striking about it all is the continuing—and escalating—paranoia—of coaches. If someone is putting in a trick play for a specific game and doesn’t want it on tape or reported in a newspaper or online, I get that. But generally speaking there are no secrets in football—or any sport really—anymore. Do you think Ohio State is going to be surprised on September 5th when Navy comes out and runs the triple option?

It’s interesting to note that Pete Carroll at Southern California, who has been as successful as anyone in the game for the past 10 years, runs what are essentially open practices. One might think—MIGHT think—that other coaches would look at that and say, ‘well, somehow the Trojans have overcome the presence of the media at their workouts.’ Having really good players tends to be more important than closing practices.

I couldn’t help but get a laugh when I noticed that Duke—my alma mater—allows TV crews to tape ‘B role,’—I think that means they can’t show live plays, just show players stretching and talking and warming up—for the first 20 minutes of practice.

Duke won four games last year and people acted as if David Cutcliffe was Bear Bryant reincarnated. Certainly the four wins were a major improvement over the four wins in four years prior to 2008 but let’s not get carried away here. Right now, Duke should be sending a stretch limo to the home of anyone who wants to publicize the program in any way. It basically takes a court order these days to get into one of Mike Krzyzewski’s practices—unless you’ve known him for 100 years as some of us have—but he’s won THREE national championships. Let’s see four WINS vs. three NATIONAL TITLES. Yeah, I’d say their access standards should be about the same.

One other note before we all go off to watch Tiger Woods win The PGA this weekend: I wrote the other day that the reason Tiger reacted badly to being put on the clock is that last Sunday in Akron is that he doesn’t like anyone telling him what to do. Someone put up an angry post demanding to know how I knew Tiger didn’t like being told what to do. The answer’s simple: I’ve watched him in action for 13 years now. He’s a control freak—and I say that as a complete control freak myself—and it’s part of what makes him great. Why do you think he’s fired caddies, agents and plenty of others in the past? Why don’t you think his current caddy plays the role of attack dog for him? Since his dad was brought up, the fact is Tiger, who loved his dad without any doubt, asked his dad to back off and give him some space to make his own decisions after he turned pro.

I don’t dislike Tiger and my respect for him as an athlete knows no bounds, but unlike a lot of people who cover him I’m not going to roll over and write and say that he’s always right so he’ll call me ‘Johnny,’ in press conferences (he tends to add a ‘y’ to the names of people he likes).

He was wrong last Sunday. The pace of play he and Padraig Harrington were moving at all day was ridiculous. Athletes ask officials to be one thing in sports: consistent. That’s what John Paramour was doing—being consistent. Tiger didn’t like that. Doesn’t make him a bad guy, just means he was wrong.

He’s also the greatest player in the history of golf.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pitino Talk....

I was traveling most of the day Wednesday so I only heard snippets of the Rick Pitino story throughout the day. Some of the details made me wince. Others were just, well, shocking--if in fact they are true. None of us has the right to sit in moral judgment of others but it just strikes me as downright STUPID--especially as a major celebrity to end up having sex with someone you just met on the table of a restaurant. What's remarkable is that such a story stayed secret this long.

Hearing the lurid details, I thought about a number of things, one a line I heard years ago from a prominent basketball coach who was describing some of his own escapades. "The problem with drinking," he said, "is that it makes you think you’re invisible."

I also remembered another coach who often explained to other coaches that his policy was to walk into a bar and look for the most unattractive woman he could find. His logic was simple: “It’s easier that way."

Look, it's sad but true that basketball coaches, like men--and, let's face it women (this woman in the Pitino story sounds like a real charmer)--do things like this every day. That's not a defense of Pitino, I'm not a believer in the, "everybody does it so it's okay," defense but we all know people who do things late at night and then wake up the next morning saying, "Oh My God, what have I done?" That doesn't mean, however, that they don't do it again.

We all know divorce is the American Way. I speak first hand. On the PGA Tour, divorce is so frequent that second wives are called, "mulligans."

This, however, is the kind of story that is going to be hard to escape.

Whether Pitino can survive this is hard to say. One thing is for sure: if he was just an average coach or a good coach, he'd be gone this morning. But he's a Hall of Fame coach who won 31 games last year and has taken three different schools to five Final Fours and won a national championship at Kentucky in 1996. That means Louisville isn't going to be eager to get rid of him. Winners are frequently far less guilty than non-winners. Already I have read one column this morning saying that this shouldn't hurt Pitino's recruiting. I'm not sure what's worse, the fact that the question is raised or that it's going to be an important factor in whether he survives.

My own experiences with Pitino have been all over the map. I first met him when he was coaching at Boston University and, like everyone in basketball, knew this was a coach on his way up. I remember his run to The Final Four at Providence which, tragically, coincided with the death of his infant son. We fell out--big time--when he was at Kentucky. I've never been a big fan of Kentucky basketball as an entity because I don't like the idea of, "basketball as religion," the way it is embraced there.

That wasn't what really turned me on Pitino. It was an incident in 1994 when, after a second round loss to Marquette in the NCAA Tournament--a game in which Rick stubbornly refused to back off his press against a point guard who was shredding it--he sat next to his three seniors at the postgame press conference and said of a team that had won 28 games, "this Kentucky team lacked leadership, chemistry and drive."

In other words, "I coached good--they played bad."

I can't stand coaches who do that and I wrote that and said that even as Rick did a stunning job the next few years at Kentucky. Still, I was pretty tough on him. After North Carolina beat Kentucky in the 1995 regional final I wrote, "The numbers for Rick Pitino remain the same: two autobiographies, no championships."

Accurate, but pretty mean.

A year later when Kentucky won the title, someone sent me a Pitino interview in a Kentucky basketball magazine in which he was breathlessly asked if he was going to write another book. "I said I wasn't going to write one until we won a title," he answered. "Because I wasn't going to give guys like John Feinstein the chance to rip me again. Now, I'm going to write one."

I dropped him a note saying, "NOW you should write one." You'll be shocked to learn he didn't write back.

Then he went to the Celtics and demanded the title of team president even though Red Auerbach had been team president forever. Red had no intention of interfering with Rick--he was retired by then and was there as a sounding board for anyone who came to him, but he wasn't going to tell anyone in Boston what to do--but Rick had to have the title. Needless to say I came down hard on him for that and his subsequent failures with the Celtics.

It was Ralph Willard who played peacemaker between us. I got to know Ralph well while researching, "The Last Amateurs," in '1999-2000. He had come to Holy Cross after coaching at Western Kentucky and Pittsburgh but was close to Rick--they are both from Long Island and Ralph worked with Rick in New York and then for him at Kentucky.

"You guys don't get along because you're exactly alike," Ralph told me. "You're both ball-busters."

One afternoon during a summer camp Ralph was sitting with Rick and waved me over to sit with them. I did, for about an hour. Pitino was at Louisville by then. He was willing to let bygones be bygones--I'd certainly ripped him a hell of a lot more than he'd ripped me--and we went from there. He even came and played in 'The Bruce Edwards Celebrity Pro-Am,' a couple years ago, which was a really nice thing for him to do.

Let me say this: I'd have felt badly about this if we HADN'T smoked the peace pipe. This is a sad state of affairs for a great coach who I know has impacted a lot of people's lives in a positive way. Of course what's really sad is that his future won't ultimately be decided by adding up how much good he's done, how much charity work he's been involved with (a LOT) or any testimonials from coaches or past players about his character.

It will be decided by whether the school thinks he can still win basketball games. That doesn't make Louisville any different from anyone else in Division 1 basketball.

And that really IS a shame.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Roundup from Yesterday and Why Tiger Is Wrong

Wow, some days are just longer than others. I’m in Vermont now because my son Danny finishes his summer camp today. I drove up from New York yesterday—six solid hours, including a monsoon the instant I crossed into Vermont—after doing my TV satellite tour for, “Change-Up—Mystery at The World Series,” my new kids book.

The tour went really well. There were no cancellations—which often happen—and everyone seemed happy to talk about the book. Or at least willing to talk about it which is all that matters. I even got to see some early reviews of the book which were very good. For the record: any author who tells you he or she doesn’t read reviews is a liar. It reminds me of something Ivan Lendl said to me years ago: “I never read what you write but it’s all terrible.”

We actually sort of made peace late in his career but that’s another story.

The only problem Tuesday came at the start of the day. I have this aversion to car services. Maybe I’m just my father’s son—my dad grew up in Brooklyn during the depression and couldn’t stand anything that even resembled wasting money. Literally on his death bed he screamed at me for setting a glass of water down on a night table because he thought it might make a mark and thus need polishing.

I’m not that way but when someone says, “we’ll send a car for you when the TV studio is nine blocks from my hotel I just can’t see it. I always walk in New York, it’s usually faster than driving anyway and, since my heart surgery I’m supposed to walk every day anyway.

Except today wasn’t the day to walk. It was 90 degrees and humid even at 8 a.m. and I was SOAKED by the time I got to the studio. The poor make-up woman had to literally blow dry my shirt before I could do the first interview. I could have used a shower but there was no time. (There was a shower but apparently Lisa Kudrow who was in the studio for some reason was using it. Seriously).

While I was doing the interviews—there were 18 in all—I had some time to read the newspaper. I noticed an item that said Tiger Woods had been fined by The PGA Tour for publicly criticizing rules official John Paramour for putting he and Padraig Harrington on the clock on the 16th hole on Sunday. In fact, Tiger basically blamed Paramour for Harrington’s triple bogey eight on the hole.

Let me say a couple of things here. First, John Paramour is a friend of mine. It’s my belief that golf’s rules officials are the most underpaid and underrated officials in sports. Their typical day during a tournament is about 14 hours long and they have to do everything from setting up the golf course, to making all the volunteers feel important, to dealing with the players—and their wives—to make rulings and trying as hard as they can to keep the pace of play reasonable.

Paramour has been the lead official on The European Tour for years. He is as respected as anyone in golf and he is one of the truly good men in sports. He loves the game—cherishes it—and would no more put the two leaders on the clock than he would cut off his arm unless HE HAD NO CHOICE.

In this case, he had no choice. To begin with both Harrington and Woods are very slow players on a tour filled with slow players. Woods has improved but he can still be brutal. Harrington too.

The two of them had been warned on the front nine. They had caught up for a while on the back nine because J.B. Holmes slowed everyone down when he had a disaster on 16 himself. Then they dropped behind again and when they got to 16 which is 667 yards long (!!!) the hole had been open for two minutes. Mike Weir, who is on the verge of a fine for repeated slow play this year, had already been on the clock. So had Zach Johnson, who is on the tour’s policy board. If Paramour had let Woods and Harrington skate, other players would have—justifiably—screamed.

Tiger doesn’t like ANYONE telling him anything at anytime. “You’re on the clock,” no doubt made him angry. So, he ripped Paramour when it was over, knowing most people in the public, not understanding the rules, would probably side with him because, well, he’s Tiger Woods.

Then came the AP story that he’d been fined for ripping Paramour. Soon after that came Tiger saying he hadn’t been fined.

This is yet another example of the tour’s RIDICULOUS secrecy on fines. Every other sport in the world announces fines because the money is meaningless. The only deterrent is the embarrassment. Woods is the most fined player in the history of the tour because of all of his various outbursts: slamming clubs, profanity, his caddy’s often ludicrous behavior.

But, since the fines are never announced, they don’t affect his image or his marketing. He doesn’t like the fines—complains at times that they’re unfair because, unlike other players he always has cameras and microphones following him—but has done nothing through the years to control his temper.

Now, he says he wasn’t fined. Someone inside the tour said Monday he was. Doug Ferguson at the AP does NOT get stuff like this wrong, I can promise you that.

So, because of the tour’s Dick Cheney-like belief in secrecy, we don’t know what happened.

Here are the possibilities; Commissioner Tim Finchem got cold feet and withdrew the fine. OR: Tiger has not yet received the paperwork from the tour so he was technically correct on Tuesday when he said he hadn’t been fined. I’m inclined to think the former but we just don’t know—and we should know.

Paramour did the right thing. The tour, if it did fine Tiger, did the right thing. In fact, Tiger owes Paramour an apology which will happen the same day he calls me and says, “Hey John, I’m ready to do my book and tell people what I really think and I want YOU to write it.”

If Finchem really cares about pace of play AND about the behavior of his players he will change the fine policy. Announce every one of them. I will bet serious money you’ll see a lot less club slamming if he ever does that.

But he won’t do it in part because he somehow thinks he’s protecting the “image of the game,” (he told me that once) and because he knows Tiger’s bigger than the game. (He never told me that but we all know it’s true).

I will leave you today with one question, which I know is rhetorical but I can’t resist: Throughout Vermont there are signs that say, “Moose Crossing,”—they are everywhere. My question is this: how do the moose know where they are supposed to cross?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Today is a Big Day; Stories of Past Book Tours

This is a pretty big day for me. Today is the official publication date for my 25th book. I’m actually kind of proud of that. The book is my fourth kids book—known in the trade as ‘Young Adult,’—called, “Change-Up—Mystery at The World Series.” It’s a continuation of the series I started four years ago with two teen-age heroes, Stevie Thomas and Susan Carol Anderson. They were 13-year-old aspiring reporters in the first book, “Last Shot,”—which was set at The Final Four.

Now they’re 14 and they’ve cracked mysteries at The Final Four, The U.S. Open tennis tournament and The Super Bowl. This one is a little different. They know something isn’t right about the seemingly made-for Hollywood story of a career minor leaguer who suddenly emerges as a star at The World Series, but they aren’t quite sure what it is or if there’s really a story to be told.

I have great fun writing these mysteries and I’m extremely happy that they’ve done so well and been so well received because my son Danny, who is now 15 and my daughter Brigid, who’s 11, have helped me with some of the research and writing—partly by being themselves but also by letting me know what makes sense for 14-year-olds and what doesn’t. Danny has frequently said to me after reading some of the dialogue, “dad, kids don’t talk that way.” And Brigid has pointed out that people shouldn’t be so surprised nowadays that a girl knows as much about sports as Susan Carol does.

The thing about writing books is that you have to promote them and that is frequently the least fun part about the process. I’ve often joked that someday I’m going to write a book about book tours and then refuse to go on a tour to promote it.

Of course it’s a lot easier logistically now than it was when “A Season on the Brink,” came out in 1986. Back then, if you wanted to be on TV someplace, you had to be in the city in order to get on. Believe it or not there were NO all sports radio stations—WFAN in New York was the first in 1987—so even radio opportunities were limited.

My first book tour was supposed to be two days long—exclusively in Indiana. I remember one of my first TV interviews in Indiana. It was one of those noon news deals and the first thing the anchor who was supposed to do the interview did was hit on me—for books.

“I need extras for my nephews,” she said. “Did you bring extras?”

Fortunately, I hadn’t. First lesson of book tours: Always bring one book—so you can get the cover on camera if they don’t have one in the studio—but never more than one book. Let the anchors BUY books for their nephews.

This same anchor told me she’d read the book. Then her first question—remember this was live—was, “Have you ever met Bob Knight?”

“Well yes, I spent an entire season with him.”

“Oh yes, of course. Did he know you were there?”

I couldn’t resist. “I weigh close to 200 pounds. It would have been hard for me to hide for an entire season.”

I don’t think she liked me after that.

Nowadays tours are much easier thanks to satellite TV and radio. This morning, I will go into a New York studio and do 16 TV interviews. For non-fiction books the TV satellite tours are usually 25 to 30 interviews because they tend to be more on the news. Obviously when “Are You Kidding Me,” came out in June there were lots of people who wanted to talk to Rocco Mediate and to me about last year’s U.S Open and this year’s too.

The challenge sometimes is keeping people on topic. I’m sure I’m going to get plenty of steroid questions this morning, especially since the Red Sox are one of the teams in my fictional World Series. (To prove it really IS fiction I made The Washington Nationals the other team).

When the steroid questions come I’ll just say something like, “you know it’s an issue that isn’t going away soon, but I’d like to think we can still find some innocence in the playing of a World Series—even a fictional one like the one in “Change-Up.” (throw in the title whenever possible).

Of course inevitably there’s one interviewer who, even though the publisher is paying for the satellite time and they’ve been told in advance that the interview should stick to the book, will just ignore all that. I remember when, “The Last Amateurs,” my book on The Patriot League came out a guy in Providence started the interview this way: “I’m not really interested in The Patriot League but I’d like to know what you think about the Friars.”

If we’d been live, I’d have finessed the answer, saying something like, “Well you know Holy Cross, which is in The Patriot League opened the season when I was working on ‘The Last Amateurs,’ by beating Providence.” Since the interview as taped I just said, “I’m not interesting in Providence basketball this morning so you can ask me about The Patriot League or we can just say goodbye right now.”

When “A Good Walk Spoiled,” came out one interviewer got very indignant about the title. “You stole that from Mark Twain,” he said. “Don’t you think people who actually read books will figure that out?”

To which I answered, “Well, I guess you didn’t read THIS book because the first line of the introduction says, “It was Mark Twain who famously said, “Golf is a Good Walk Spoiled…”

We’ll see how it goes this morning. I love baseball and this book was lots of fun because, as always, I included many of my friends—using their real names—throughout. Tony Kornheiser, of course, makes an appearance if only so he can scream and yell at me about it.

In ‘Last Shot,’ one of my friends who made an appearance was Bill Hancock, who in spite of working for both the NCAA and now the BCS, is one of the best people I’ve ever known. When I told Bill he was in the book he laughed and said, “Will I recognize myself when I read it?
“I hope so,” I said. “Since the character’s name is Bill Hancock.”

Bill looked stunned for a second. Then he said, “When you said I was in the book I didn’t realize you meant I was IN the book.”

I’ll report back tomorrow on today’s silliest question.

Monday, August 10, 2009

John's Monday Washington Post Article...

Here's my column for the Washington Post today....

Every time another baseball player is unmasked as a steroid user, three things are guaranteed to happen:
  • the player will say he is shocked -- shocked -- to learn he has ingested a banned substance;
  • the players' union will get in a snit about the test results being leaked;
  • most people in baseball, fans and media and officials alike, will roll their eyes and say, "Please make this story go away."

Click here for the rest of the story - First Step for Baseball: Admit You Have a Problem

Why Don’t Golf Fans Root for Underdogs? Harrington is my Type of Guy, Even Though He Isn’t ‘David’

It was Frank Chirkinian, the man who basically invented the art of producing golf on TV (among other things he came up with the idea of showing a players score relative to par, rather than his total score) who years ago made a very smart and insightful comment about why the sport is different than others.

"For some reason, golf fans don't want the underdog to win," he said. "They don't mind if he contends, he can even lead after 54 holes, but on Sunday afternoon they want the stars to win--the bigger the star the harder they pull for him. In other sports, people tend to root for the underdog."

Chirkinian made the comment to me in 1994. He was talking soon after John Daly had won in Atlanta, beating my friend Brian Henninger down the stretch. Henninger might as well have been invisible that day. Chirkinian was baffled. "Skinny little kid just trying to get a chance to play on tour against a millionaire who has been given a dozen chances by the public already," he said. "Nothing against Daly. He's great for us. But I don't get it."

I don't either. Chirkinian was right then and he's right now. The only player golf fans MIGHT pull for in a battle against Tiger Woods is Phil Mickelson. When Mike Weir, who was then a skinny kid trying to find his way on tour, was paired with Woods in the last round at the 1999 PGA Championship, he felt invisible too.

Almost 30 years ago, a couple months after beating Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon, John McEnroe played his first match at the U.S. Open against a qualifier who was ranked, I think, 187th in the world. He was South American and I don't remember his name but he won the first set. The stadium went nuts.

"An hour ago no one in the place had even heard of the guy, now they're cheering for him like he's a relative," McEnroe said after winning the next three sets. "I like underdogs too, I'm a Mets fan, but that was ridiculous."

You can say some of it was anti-McEnroe sentiment but it really was more pro-underdog sentiment. When Andy Roddick pushed Roger Federer to five sets at Wimbledon last month, most folks were for Roddick--and Federer is one of the most popular champions in tennis history. The reason was simple: Federer's won Wimbledon five times (now six) Roddick none. Give the 'little guy,' his day in the sun.

The invisible thing happened again on Sunday at Firestone. Padraig Harrington winning the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational would have been a lot better story than Woods winning it AGAIN (seven times now). Harrington won two majors last year when Woods was hurt and he's won three altogether. He's struggled this year trying to change his swing--something Woods had gone through a couple of times himself. He also happens to be one of the nicest men you'll ever come across in any walk of life.

The fact that Woods threw a 30 at him on the front line and Harrington didn't blink and came back to lead should have made him a more compelling story. You would think people would like to see the man bites dog story (or Tiger loses lead, which is the same thing) every once in a while. And yet, it was all about Tiger for the fans. I get CBS wanting him to be there, he doubles, maybe triples their ratings. I even get fans pulling for Mickelson after what he's been through this summer with cancer scares involving both his wife and his mother.

Is it because Woods is American and Harrington is Irish? Don't think so, this isn't The Ryder Cup is it? And I suspect it would have been roughly the same if, say, Steve Stricker would have been one shot up with three holes to play. Maybe the only time a crowd wasn't 99 percent for Woods was at the '08 U.S. Open where--finally--on Monday some fans came around to the idea that a 45-year-old with a history of back troubles winning his first and only major MIGHT be a better story than a multi-millionaire with a golden life winning his 14th. Even then, the crowd was split.

It isn't because Woods exudes warmth--he doesn’t, photogenic smile or no photogenic smile. It's because he WINS and golf fans like guys who WIN even more than fans in other sports do. It's as if all golf fans were born to be Yankee fans; Notre Dame football fans or Dallas Cowboys fans

The worst--to me--are Notre Dame fans who didn't even go to Notre Dame. Do they think all the players are Irish or something? Years ago, when I was researching "A Civil War," I was on the Navy sideline at Notre Dame Stadium. The game had been close for three quarters before Notre Dame--aided by a couple of those mystery calls that often happen in that place (do NOT get me started on the '99 game) pulled away. In the final couple of minutes, Navy was trying to drive for a consolation touchdown when Ben Fay, the Mids quarterback, was sacked.

Two security guys, allegedly there to protect the Mids from the fans behind us, who started jumping up and down and high-fiving one another and yelling at Fay as he went down. I'd had enough.

"Hey, are you guys here for security?" I said.

"Yes we are," one of them said.

"Then shut up and do your job," I said. "If you want to be fans, go sit in the stands."

One of them took a step towards me. "Who are you?" he said.

Before I could answer--I was planning to say I was the Secretary of the Navy--Kent Owens, who was then Navy's officer representative, grabbed me and pulled me away. "They have guns John," he said. "Calm down."

I did. The security people kept quiet the last two minutes.

Anyway, the point is I simply don't get people who revel in Goliath winning and, as Chirkinian pointed out all those years ago, it happens in golf more than any other sport.

So, while all the TV guys and the fans are pulling this week for Tiger--or Phil (on TV, neither one of them has a last name) I'll be hoping someone like Rich Beem wins The PGA. Or Padraig Harrington. He's not exactly David, but he is my kind of guy.