Thursday, September 24, 2009

The McEnroe Column that Ended with Me Being ‘Junior’; What Do You Want to See Written About?

My friend Tony Kornheiser is back on the radio which is a good thing for several reasons. First, there's something worth listening to in the morning when I'm the car in DC besides the incessant droning on about the Redskins. Second, I always enjoy going on with him once a week because the segments are usually different than your typical sports talk radio interviews. My regular spot, if anyone's interested, will be 11:05 on Thursday mornings.

This morning I had breakfast with Larry Dorman, the truly gifted golf writer for The New York Times--also a friend of Tony's--and we were discussing the nickname Tony hung on me almost 30 years ago: Junior. As luck would have it, Larry had just watched the tennis match that spawned the nickname (I get asked how it came about frequently) the 1980 U.S. Open final between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. Larry had been amazed at how different tennis was in the wood racquet era. He asked if I had seen that match.

Actually, it was the first U.S. Open I covered and the first time I met McEnroe. What I remember about the match is that McEnroe won the first two sets, Borg the next two. When Borg won the fourth set, the entire crowd in Louis Armstrong Stadium was on its feet screaming for Borg. "I'm in my hometown and 20,000 people are cheering against me for a guy from Sweden," McEnroe said later "It was not a good feeling."

McEnroe somehow regrouped and won the fifth set and the match. As it turned out, Borg would never beat him again in a tournament that mattered. My assignment that evening was to write a sidebar since Barry Lorge, then The Post's tennis writer, was doing the lead. Since I had some extra time I followed McEnroe back to the locker room. In those days, you could actually go in the locker room at the Open. Most of the other guys had gone upstairs to write and when I walked in McEnroe was sitting in front of his locker all by himself. I introduced myself and asked him how he had felt at the end of the fourth set.

He started talking. Then he kept talking. No one was a better talker once he got started than McEnroe. He talked about how much it hurt to be the bad guy, but he understood why people felt the way they did. He talked about how he was NOT going to lose to Borg again in five sets and how his feeling when the match was over was relief, not joy. When He finished, I raced back upstairs and wrote 35 inches. I was budgeted for 16. I pleaded with the editors to at least read what McEnroe had said before chopping the story to pieces.

For once, they did. Not only did they run the whole story, they put it on the sports front--very rare for a sidebar. The next day when I was back in the office a number of people were asking me how in the world I'd gotten McEnroe to talk that way. The answer was pretty simple: I was there. It wasn't exactly a brilliant line of questioning.

Kornheiser had come to The Post a year earlier and was working then for both sports and style. I was in awe of him then because I thought he was the best sports feature writer this side of Frank Deford in the world. Now, he walked into the conversation and heard people asking how I'd gotten McEnroe to talk.

"What's the big deal?" he said. "They're the same person. It was Junior talking to Junior."

McEnroe's nickname was Junior because he was John Patrick McEnroe Jr. and because he had arrived on the tennis scene as the enfant terrible at Wimbledon in 1977. We did have a good deal in common: both from New York, both left-handed, both temperamental (hard to believe, huh?) and one of us was a good tennis player.

Since I was the kid in the Post sports department at the time and DID have a temper and now (supposedly) a relationship with McEnroe, the nickname stuck. I didn't mind it back then. But that was a long, long time ago. I have asked Tony repeatedly to not use it on the radio for at least five years and he ignores me. I've given up. I do roll my eyes when strangers walk up and address me that way. I never call people I don't know by a nickname. When someone comes up and says, "Hey Junior!" I just say, "it's John," and usually keep on going. Most of the time they're well-intended and I know that but I'm over 50 for crying out loud and my son will be driving in a few months.

I'm not sure anyone even calls McEnroe by the nickname anymore.

Let me close with one more McEnroe story. Toward the end of his career I was doing a magazine piece on him and flew to Los Angeles to spend a day with him. This is when he was still married to Tatum O'Neil. We were sitting at the kitchen table in his house and I asked him if head any regrets about how his career had turned out.

He nodded his head. "I shouldn't have spent so much time arguing with the umpires and linesmen," he said. "I hurt myself with that in a lot of different ways, probably cost myself some matches because I got distracted or out of a rhythm and lost my focus." He mentioned The French Open final in 1984 when he had been up two sets on Ivan Lendl and started bickering with the officials and ended up losing in five sets. He also brought up the match in Australia where he had gotten himself defaulted when it looked as if he was playing better than anyone in the field.

After he had talked for awhile--he ALWAYS talked for awhile--I nodded my head and said, "yeah and the fact is, they probably had the calls right more often than not.”

"NO THEY DIDN'T!" He jumped to his feet. "THEY DID NOT GET THE CALLS RIGHT. THEY WERE WRONG! MY EYES WERE BETTER THAN THEIRS!" He sat down. "I just shouldn't have wasted all that energy on them."

You had to love the guy.


After the great response the other day when I raised the question about what people would like to see on the blog, I've decided to throw out an occasional question for people to digest and also to ask all of you to throw questions at me from time to time. I will answer them whenever I can. Here's today's question: Putting aside your natural biases what is a topic or a person in sports that you would like to see a book on that you think hasn't been written yet? Mine, as I think people now know, was Dean Smith and I'm thrilled to get the chance to write about him. But I'd love to hear other thoughts and ideas.


Michael Dinga said...

Juni--er, I mean, Mr. Feinstein:

As an alumnus of Penn State University, there is a clear choice for me: I do not believe a true book about the life and times of Joseph Vincent Paterno has been penned to date. This is a book that NEEDS to be written, for all of the things that JoePa has done both on and off the college football field. Besides, with 1 in 100 college graduates in the U.S. having a Penn State degree, you are almost guaranteed a top-seller. Thank you.

Michael Dinga
Louisville, KY

Gunnar said...

Money in college sports. I love the Tark quotes, very funny.

Anonymous said...


I'm curious if you think McEnroe's career would have been different if there had been a challenge system back then. Maybe he would have "lost it" less because he had a recourse, at least on some calls. Would the impact on his career have been notable? Or insignificant?

As far as books I'd love to read, I have a few ideas:
1) John Thompson. I'm not overly fond of him, but I think he is a very important figure in modern college basketball history.
2) The Ryder Cup. After the NCAA BB Tournament, its my favorite sporting event of all. A book on it in the style of "Open" would be phenomenal.
3) Baylor basketball and its resurrection under Scott Drew. Some kind of analysis and story about the debacle under Dave Bliss and how it has 'risen from the ashes'. Seems like a great story.

alex said...

It might be too late, but how about a book on the 1984 mens olympic basketball team...I suppose you might not get full access to Knight ;), but I would love to know the insides on how that team came fave player alltime is Leon Wood...

Alex Moore

Dana King said...

I like the Paterno idea. Great as he's been for the game, he has over the years tended to act unaccountable at times, and he did ruin one of the greatest college football rivalries, Pitt-Penn State.

Hockey is also badly underrepresented in libraries. I don't know if you have any interest in it, (I do know it's not as popular as the Big 3 team sports), but few fans know much about the workings of the sport or a team through a season. You've written excellent books on other sports from both perspectives.

Shaun E in PC said...

Coach Randy Shannon. His life and how he has turned around (quietly) Thug U into the U.

Rich said...

John, Tony's show is how I first became familiar with your work. The first book I bought of yours was 'Next Man Up' which I very much enjoyed. Whenever I go back to re-read it I find myself looking up some of the players mentioned and seeing how their careers have progressed (not too hard with Ed Reed). It made how things ended up playing out with Mike Nolan, Kyle Boller, Steve McNair (sadly), and even Brian Billick himself more interesting/relevant to me.

I'd of course love to see a similar book about other teams (particularly the Bears) but I think you had sort of a dream scenario in terms of the willingness of Coach Billick and Steve Bisciotti to give you that kind of access.

After enjoying 'Next Man Up' I was driven to pick up your other works, particularly (of course) 'A Season on the Brink' which gave me a new perspective on Coach Knight.

I've always enjoyed you on the radio and look forward to your future appearances.

Laura's Husband said...

How bout a book that looks at different athletes, in different sports, at the same major university. Dedicate separate chapters in the book to different sports...for example, describe the life of a swimmer in one chapter, a football player in another, a gymnast, a basketball player, a wrestler, etc., etc., etc. Show how the lives of all these athletes are similar - scholarships, tutors, work ethic...and how they are still very different - popularity of their sport, on campus fame, the degree to which the university and alumni pamper them. They all share the experience of being a (fill in school nickname here) and yet the experience is still very different. And the title of the book would be; THE FULL RIDE

Anonymous said...

Laura: Your husband's idea for a book is a great one. Do it, Junior..

Matt Dick said...

I have always felt that Super Bowl XXIII was one of the most under-reported scandals of all time. The NFL allowed the Cincinnati Bengals to use the league's first hurry-up offense as late as the AFC championship before they made it against the rules. They reinstated it as of the next regular season.

This meant that the hurry-up offense was made illegal for a single game in NFL history: Super Bowl XXIII, when one team was forced to use an offense with which it was unfamiliar. It was so unfair that 20 years later I still occasionally wonder if the NFL was trying to put the 49ers at an advantage.

I am equally amazed that more is not made of this, because even if it wasn't nefarious, it was still a scandal that very likely cost the superior team the game.

Matt Dick said...

Also, Monica Seles. I don't know if there is a whole book there, but I never saw an athlete more dominant.

Monica Seles won matches before they started by simply being so scary to play. Mike Tyson's early dominance was similar, but Seles was ever so much more so. It's a cliche by now to lament her loss, but how can we not?

Anonymous said...

Sonny Jurgenson's career, especially his trade from the Eagles to the Skins for Norman Sneed after Sonny was alleged to have impregnated a woman not his wife in the Philadelphia area. His successes in DC, espcially with Vince Lombardi in his final year of coaching (and his life) and his great success as a broadcaster and local bonvivant and friend of Redskins Owner Synder.

Anonymous said...

I'd vote for Jim Larranaga. He has interesting storylines that include Providence, UVA, the Final Four season, mid-major basketball, his coaching philosophy, and others.

The best part about it is that it might turn into a current events story. Larranaga is just starting to receive the recruiting benefits of the 2006 dream season. The next four years have potential to get better for Mason hoops.

Anonymous said...

Do a minor sport athlete or team -somebody that really never gets covered anyplace else. A cross country runner, or a club rugby team. no scholarship, yet they work as hard and care as deeply as the football and hoops guys that are on TV every week. Thier story's are compelling, and you would be great at telling them.

Anonymous said...

Junior (just kidding)- write a book about Chuck Noll, one of the most underappreciated, most sucessful, well rounded, bright coaches of our time. His quotes alone would fill up a chapter "we have problems (after a loss) and they are many"- Trip R

Jay said...

I'd love to see a book about Jerry Tarkanian.