Friday, September 11, 2009

8 Years Ago Seems Like Yesterday; Army Hall of Fame Induction Dinner Tonight

There is a story on the front page of this morning's Washington Post about kids who are now fifth, sixth and seventh graders who are learning about the events of 9-11 from history books. When I saw the headline I was briefly stunned, because like most people, I'm sure, I remember the events of that day as if they took place yesterday. But eight years is a long time in the life of a child. My daughter Brigid, who is 11, claims to remember 9-11, but I think she remembers more of what she's read than what she saw or heard. Danny, my 15-year-old, does remember it. In fact, one of my most chilling moments--among many--was going to school to pick him up and hearing him say, "dad, are they going to try to fly a plane into our house?"

One thing that came out of 9-11 was a toning down, at least for a while, of political vitriol. Most of us can still remember the sight of members of Congress--Democrat and Republican--standing on the steps of the capitol that night singing, 'God Bless America.' For once, the country banded together because never had evil been more clearly defined for us. It wasn't a liberal; it wasn't a conservative, it was crazed zealots who steered airplanes into buildings and those who danced in the streets to celebrate.

Now, that's all gone. (Those of you who don't like reading me on the subject of politics should skip the next couple of paragraphs). The scene the other night in The House of Representatives when Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted, "you lie," at President Obama during his health care speech--and, even worse some of the reaction to it--shows just how far we have slid backwards in eight years. Let's not even debate here (because this really ISN'T a political blog) about whether illegal aliens would be included in the bill even though people on both sides of the aisle reading the bill on Thursday said they clearly would not.

The point is this: under no circumstances do you heckle The President of the United States. The guy who threw the shoes at President Bush went to jail--which is fine with me because he tried to assault him. Wilson shouldn't go to jail, but he should resign. Imagine, for a moment, if, say Barney Frank, had screamed at Bush during a speech to Congress what the reaction on the right would have been. Instead, there were still Republicans trying to claim that Wilson's facts were right--as if that would be a defense--and then the insane right wing pundits were saying he should not have apologized.

Sorry folks. You can completely disagree with any president on any issue. But there is such a thing as respect for the office and decorum. Several years ago, at the height of the Iraq war I was invited to a breakfast at The White House as part of the National Literary Festival. I sent regrets for this reason: I could not, at that moment, bring myself to shake hands with President Bush because I believed he was needlessly putting thousands of young Americans in harm's way and I was very angry about it. I had friends in Iraq and had known several people who had died or been wounded there. But I would NEVER accept the invitation and then be rude to The President in The White House. If I went, I would shake his hand and say, "Mr. President, thank you for the invitation. It is always an honor to be inside The White House."

If Wilson was so emotional on this issue, he should have stayed away from the speech. What's more, his apology was a non-apology. Even after making it he was still insisting he was right about the bill.

(Okay ditto-heads et al it is now safe to return to the blog).

As luck would have it, I will be at West Point tonight, certainly a place that is appropriate on this anniversary. Army is having its annual Hall of Fame induction dinner tonight and I was asked to MC, largely because the best-known of the eight inductees is Mike Krzyzewski. I'm old enough that I saw Krzyzewski PLAY at Army, on Bob Knight-coached NIT teams. In 1969, Army played South Carolina in the NIT quarterfinals. South Carolina had been ranked in the top ten most of the year but had lost the ACC Tournament and since only the tournament champion made the NCAA Tournament back then, the Gamecocks came to New York. Krzyzewski shut down John Roche and Army won the game. Years later, Bobby Cremins told me a story about that night.

"We were down and had to come out of our zone and go man-to-man," he said. "As we came out of the huddle Frank (McGuire) said, 'Bobby, who've you got?' I said, 'I got the kid with the big nose whose name I can't pronounce.'"

I first met Krzyzewski my senior year in college when Duke played Connecticut (not a power back then) in Madison Square Garden. I flew to New York a day early with Coach Bill Foster and Duke's star guard, Tate Armstrong. We attended what was then the weekly New York coaches luncheon at Mama Leone's where Foster--who had coached at Rutgers--spoke to a lot of old friends. By then, Krzyzewski was coaching at Army and Jim Valvano--who had played for Foster at Rutgers--was at Iona. After lunch, Foster introduced me to both of them.

"John does a great Dean Smith impression," Foster said. (Actually to quote Dean's long-time SID Rick Brewer, EVERYONE did a Dean impression in those days). It didn't take a lot of coaxing before I did it, referring often to the importance of seniors.

Krzyzewski and Valvano both laughed, little knowing how important Smith would become in their lives a few years later. Of course I had no idea how important Krzyzewski and Valvano would become in my life.

The funny thing is there seems to be a rule that, because I went to Duke, I'm not supposed to say or write anything good about Krzyzewski because I'm doing it just because I'm a "Dukie." Anyone who knows me at all knows I'm hardly considered a loyal son by Duke people and most people know just how much respect and affection I have for Dean Smith. But just as people in politics like to put simplistic labels on people, those in sports do the same. Heck, if you pick up a Duke media guide on the distinguished graduates page under "journalism," they list some woman who was on 'Survivor." I don't make the cut. Maybe calling the last two presidents a liar (Nan Keohane) and a weakling (Richard Brodhead) has something to do with it.

I don't need to defend Krzyzewski's coaching record on any level so I will leave you with one story about Krzyzewski the person and if telling it makes me a "Dukie," so be it. Three years ago, my father died two nights before Duke played North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The funeral was on the day of that game. Duke won in the final minute. Needless to say I didn't get to watch.

The next morning my phone rang and I heard Krzyzewski's familiar nasal voice. Almost always he will open a conversation with some kind of joke or putdown. He once returned a call I'd made to him on New Year's Day and said, "how does it feel knowing the highlight of your year (his calling) has come and gone and the year isn't even 24 hours old yet?"

This time he just said, "how are you holding up?" I told him I was okay, my dad had been almost 85 and he'd lived an amazing life.

"I want to tell you something," Krzyzewski said. "Last night, during our last time out, I stepped away from the huddle for a second and looked up and just said, 'Martin, this one's for you.'"

The last college basketball team my dad ever cared about was CCNY--where he graduated in 1941. Even so, I got pretty choked up at the thought and the sentiment.

That's why, Dukie or not, I'm honored to be part of the ceremony tonight. And I know that all of us in the room, Democrats and Republicans, will take a long moment to honor those who were killed eight years ago today. I can only hope that most of us will remember how that day felt when this day is over.


Anonymous said...

Great K story, John. For those of us who are fortunate to know him, not surprising at all.

And just because we went to Duke, we are nevertheless still able to recognize excellence and compassion!

geoff mason

pt wiley said...

With due respect to those who disdain your political bent, there are many of us who greatly appreciate it.

Among the many qualities which attract me to your work, there is none greater than the insights they offer on the politics of their subjects and of those in their orbit.

By all means, please, keep it up!

Vince Spence said...

Stationed in Columbia, S.C. during 1969-1970 before I shipped to S.E. Asia, I became a huge fan. They had their New York contingent and unlike almost anyplace in America, ALL Gamecock basketball games were televised.

I do not remember MK from then, but he, Dean Smith, Norm Sloan, Lefty and a bunch of other ACC coaches have made their conference proud.

What took West Point this long for this induction to happen?

Gunnar said...

As a Republican, I thought Joe Wilson was absolutely out of line. Congratulations to Coach K.

Anonymous said...

From this K story, to the Dean inside look, you start to remember that coaches are indeed people, and while their loyalties are to their respective schools, those rivalries have a time and a place. I'm sure there are some legendary Cremins, Valvano, K, Dean stories over the years. It'd be great to hear some.

KEVINKAZ said...

John, it was great to see you at
West Point. You were wonderful as the MC, giving equal attention and accolades to all of the inductees. It was a special weekend for Coach and we all know how much he appreciated you being a part of it.

Glad you are feeling better and hope you get back to, "swimming shape" soon.