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.