Thursday, October 15, 2009

Stories of Press Box Decorum; Favorite Dinner Guests

The other day, after I joked about reminding Furman Bisher that there was, "no cheering in the press box," a number of people wrote asking how strictly that directive was adhered to and if I had stories about moments when it was not.

Overall, I would say there are few breaches of decorum--certainly not many at all like the one that made the rounds on YouTube a couple weeks ago showing former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert going nuts after his former team recovered a fumble in the end zone--are pretty rare. But they do happen.

My most embarrassing breach of course was in 2005 when Navy played at Duke and I reacted to a string of terrible calls against Navy by saying "f----- referees!" The weird thing about it was when I said it I actually looked around the radio booth to see who had said it. When I saw everyone staring at me I realized I was in trouble. There's no excuse for that kind of thing and I was lucky the Navy people stuck by me.

Of course an enclosed radio booth is different than the press box itself. No one at Duke that day was aware of what had happened until I came out of the booth to tell Eric Ruden, who is in charge of the radio network, what I'd done. I'll always be grateful to him and to Chet Gladchuk, the Navy AD for the way they dealt with the incident. When I asked Eric to let Chet know what had happened because I was willing to resign on-air if he wanted me to, Eric came back and said, "Chet said to tell you he said the same thing on the play."

To which I replied, "Yeah, but he didn't say it on the air." The next week when Chet and Eric got phone calls from the media wanting to know if I would be punished in some way their answer was the same: "John made a mistake, he apologized for it instantly and he feels bad about it. It's over as far as we're concerned."

To this day people still ask me, "did you get through the broadcast Saturday without an f-bomb?" Hey, I made the mistake, I have to live with it and the stale jokes that come with it. Eric once pointed out to me that about 10 times more people knew I'd been doing the games for nine seasons (now 13) after the incident than before the incident.

Inside the press box or on press row at basketball games you rarely see breaches to etiquette. We all have biases and some are more obvious about them than others. There are also times when guys just get caught up in the emotions of a game. Bob Ryan, the great Boston Globe columnist tells a story about the famous Duke-Kentucky game in 1992 when Christian Laettner made the shot at the buzzer in overtime and he was so stunned and amazed that he leaped to his feet. "I thought, "Oh My God, what am I doing I look like a fan," he said later. "Then I looked around and saw that everyone else was standing too. We were just overwhelmed by the whole game and what we'd seen."

I wasn't in Philadelphia that night. I was in Tampa, Florida watching the game in a hotel room with Tim Kurkijian, then of Sports Illustrated, now of ESPN. In spite of that fact, I got a call on Monday from a Charlotte radio station wanting to know if I would come on the air to discuss the fact that I had been seen leaping the press table to run on the court and hug Laettner. I suggested they call Tim to verify where I was at that moment and told them I did not have the ability to beam myself from Tampa to Philadelphia. I later found out that the rumor had been started by a guy I'd known early in my journalism career who blew up his own career and was very bitter about anyone who'd had more success than he had.

There are also times when people assume biases. When Mike Kryzewski was still trying to build his program at Duke, the one local journalist who stuck with him during the first three seasons was Keith Drum, who was sports editor of The Durham Morning Herald. Because Keith--who is now a scout for the Sacramento Kings---was supportive of Krzyzewski many North Carolina people, including Dean Smith, began to label him, "a Duke guy." As it happens, Keither went to North Carolina, but that didn't matter. In 1984, Duke beat Carolina in the ACC Tournament semifinals, one of Krzyzewski's first really important wins since that Carolina team included Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty and Kenny Smith--among others.

Keith and I have been friends since I was in college. We walked down the steps that led to the locker room area and there was Dean, smoking a postgame cigarette. (He gave up smoking a few years later). As soon as he saw us, he made a beeline for Keith, hand out and said, "congratulations, YOUR team played very well."

Keith and I thought that was pretty funny, congratulating the guy who went to Carolina on a Duke victory while the Duke graduate stood there watching (with a huge smile on his face because it WAS pretty funny). I still tease Keith about that to this day,

Actually I lied when I said my only breach of decorum was the Navy-Duke football game. In 1978, Duke played Kentucky in the national championship game. It was my first Final Four. I was a year out of college and knew the players and coaches well. Needless to say I was pulling for Duke. Early in the second half Jim Bain, one of the referees, missed a traveling call. Bill Foster, the Duke coach, got off the bench and, from across the court, made the traveling signal and then held his hands out, palm up, as if to say, "where was the call."

Bain gave him a technical foul on the spot. Al McGuire and Billy Packer, working their first Final Four together for NBC, were stunned by both calls. "That's taking one mistake and turning it into two," McGuire said at the time. I might be wrong, but I don't remember another coach getting teed up in a championship game since then. Good refs give coaches a lot of rope under that kind of pressure and--most of the time--the refs working the final are good ones.

Many Kentucky fans think I blame Bain for Duke losing the game. I don't. Kentucky was the better team and was almost certainly going to win that night whether Bain got the travel right or didn't lose his temper. But those two calls certainly didn't help Duke's cause.

Two years later, I was covering a Virginia-Ohio State game in Columbus. It was Ralph Sampson's freshman year. Jim Bain had the game. During a time out, I found him standing right in front of me. "Hey Jim" I called out. He turned around and said, "what?”

"Remember the Duke-Kentucky championship game two years ago?" He nodded. "That technical on Foster, WORST call I've ever seen."

Bain just stared at me for a second and then said something profane. I was about to respond when the late Barney Cooke, who was then Virginia's SID, grabbed my shoulder and said, "don't say another word." Barney was right of course. I shouldn't have said anything in the first place. But it DID make me feel better. And no one can say that I was cheering in the press box--or on press row--that day.


Just for the record, last night was one of those that's special to me. Three or four times a year I have dinner with three men I got to know well covering Maryland politics: one is Harry Hughes, who as the governor when I covered the state house, one of the best men I've ever had the chance to know. (And it isn't just because he's a Democrat. He's simply a wonderful man, liked and respected by Democrats and Republicans alike). The others in the group are Steve Sachs, the former state attorney general and Tim Maloney, who served five terms in The House of Delegates (he was 22 when he was elected) who left to become a wealthy lawyer.

We usually go down to Easton, on the Maryland eastern shore, because that's where Governor Hughes lives and have a great time talking about today's politics and reliving old stories.

A couple of years ago, I walked into the restaurant where we were meeting to see if Governor Hughes had arrived yet. Traffic had been surprisingly light on The Bay Bridge so we were a few minutes early. I was looking around the bar area when I heard a voice say, "what the hell are you doing down here?"

I turned around and there was Bob Pascal, who had been Governor Hughes' Republican opponent in 1982. I covered that election, which Hughes won in a runaway. Throughout the summer, Pascal kept saying to me, "When I get on the tube (TV advertising) Harry's going to hear my footsteps. He got on the tube and ended up with 37 percent of the vote. I told Pascal why I was there--we were celebrating Gov. Hughes birthday that night--and he laughed and said, "I always knew you were a Democrat." (True, he did, because I told him up front but also told him that some of my best sources in the legislature were Republicans, which was also true).

"Tell you what," Pascal said. "Because I'm a good guy, I'm going to buy Harry a bottle of wine for his birthday."

Sure enough, the governor showed up a few minutes later and we all sat down. I was telling him the story when Pascal walked up behind him. Hearing the footsteps, he turned around.

I couldn't resist. "Bob," I said. "It finally happened! Harry heard your footsteps! It only took 25 years but he DID hear your footsteps!."

Some things, I swear, you just can't make up.


JJ said...

Great stories about cheering in the press box. Sid Hartman, a legend in MN sportwriting, used to get accused of that. Is there any similar breach on the PGA tour, or the ATP tour?

dcsooner said...

So which is the worse referee: Jim Bain or Ed Hightower?

Anonymous said...

Teddy Valentine?

Bennettar said...

As a sports fan, I often find myself thinking that sports reporters are so lucky that they get great seats to every major sporting event in this country. The thought of being completely emotionless throughout the games makes me wonder if the experience is less enjoyable compared to the typical fan's experience.

I wish the TV announcers for the Chicago baseball teams followed this etiquette during their broadcasts. I don't see much fault in a writer having some sort of allegiance - especially if they are following a particular team for an entire season. On-air personalities should attempt to hide their inner fan and deliver an unbiased account of the game.

That being said, it is refreshing to hear that there are moments such as the Laettner game that transcend etiquette and bring out the awe-struck bystander in everyone.

Laura's Husband said...

What is it about basketball refs that makes everyone think they can give them a hard time? always appears that coaches do it throughout the entire game. Years ago I was sitting on press row (court side) at an AU game. I was sitting next to the coaches of AU's next opponent - that game would be played the very next day. Those coaches rode the refs the entire game and THEIR TEAM WASN'T EVEN PLAYING!...what's up with that?

Anonymous said...

There are a lot of Iowa fans that would tell you how bad a ref Jim Bain was in the 70's. I think it got to a point that he didn't even referee any Iowa games due to the heat he got from Lute Olson.

Freddy said...

Laura's Husband (and anyone) - first of all, I think refs get too much abuse. But, is it that basketball refs get a harder time than all others, or is it just because the camera is always fixated on them (and quite frankly, when its not you can still see them in most cases)?

I've been to many a college football game, and I can't imagine what kind of abuse the sideline refs get from the head and assistant coaches. They don't EVER get away from them.

Vince Spence said...

My father-in-law was the 'other' Harry that ran against Harry Hughes and O.C. mayor Harry Kelley in 1982. Harry 'Softshoes' McGuirk. You two would've liked each other.

He might have been in top 2-3 smartest people walking the planet back then.

thedean said...

Being a "homer" is another time honored tradition in broadcasting especially in baseball. You name the team their is a "homer" doing the broadcast. I have no problems with it. They live with them for 162 games you get attached.

Vince Spence said...


A homer on the PGA tour telecasts?

Johnny Miller lavishes excessive praise upon himself while broadcasting. I honestly he thinks he could lace up his spikes and beat Tiger 5&4 anywhere in the world.