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.


Dana King said...

Thank you for this. I'm a long time Novak hater, but this makes me at least re-examine how I feel about him as a person.

A George Mason fan said...


You mention Mr. Novak was key in keeping Maryland from leaving the BB&T even though the AD didn't want to give up a home game.

When the BB&T went from two days to one, us in the public were told it was because of that reason- teams didn't want to give up two games. What would the BB&T have to do to become an "exempt" event?