I have written before about how much I detest baseball’s All Star break because it means three days with no baseball—unless you like watching an exhibition game in July—forcing me to watch even more ‘West Wing,’ on DVD than I normally do until the real games start again on Thursday.
Christmas week isn’t much better. Last night there were some good college basketball games to watch and what looked like a good bowl game (Brigham Young-Oregon State which turned out to be pretty much a snooze) but the closer you get to Christmas Day the more your choices dwindle. By Christmas Eve you’re down to one pretty lousy bowl game (I’m just not that psyched for Nevada-SMU) and then on Christmas Day there’s one NFL game—at night—and all those NBA games that, sorry, I just can’t bring myself to care about. Check back with me when the playoffs start. Actually check back with me when The Finals start. Maybe.
There’s also the family issue. People expect you to hang out with kids and in-laws and brothers and sisters. It isn’t that I don’t like any of these people—I love many of them—it’s just that after a while you’d rather watch a ballgame than talk about how cute someone’s dog is or hear about how funny your nephew can be. The other problem for me is I can’t claim on Christmas Eve that I really need to watch that Nevada-SMU game for work.
Christmas has always been an interesting part of my life. Clearly, I’m Jewish. My dad was raised orthodox and completely rejected all religion as an adult. My mom had no religious training at all and thought Christmas was a better holiday for kids than Chanukah (my daughter Brigid might argue differently since she still clings to the idea that she’s owed eight gifts) so we always had a Christmas tree and always celebrated Christmas—albeit in a secular way.
Without sounding glib I can honestly say that the births of Lefty Driesell and my agent, Esther Newburg, on Christmas Day have had more meaning in my life than the birth of Jesus Christ. My friend Ken Denlinger once described Lefty as “God’s unique Christmas present to the world in 1931.”
One of my more vivid Christmas memories involves Lefty. I had traveled to Hawaii with Maryland in December of 1984 for what was then The Rainbow Classic. This was before ESPN had created all these strictly-for-TV events at Thanksgiving and The Rainbow, which started back in 1964, was THE holiday tournament: eight quality teams every year. The schedule called for two games Christmas night; two games the next day and then four games on the 27th and the 28th since everyone played three games.
Maryland was playing Iowa on Christmas night. On Christmas Eve morning, I went with Maryland to practice at the old Blaisdell Arena, an aging mini-dome that seated about 8,000 people. Blaisdell had a certain character to it. You had to walk across little bridges to get inside because the building was surrounded by what would best be described as a moat. There was absolutely no parking for the building but if you knew what you were doing you parked at the bank right across the street.
After practice I went back to the hotel and had lunch with Lefty to get some pre-tournament quotes for my advance the next day. As we were finishing, a Maryland booster who had made the trip approached Lefty.
“Coach we were wondering about some free time for the kids tomorrow after morning shootaround,” he said.
“Free time,” Lefty said. “What for?”
“Well, we wanted to have a little Christmas party for them…”
“Christmas!” Lefty thundered. “Christmas! I didn’t come here to have a Christmas party I came here to win games!”
Take that Bah and Humbug.
Maryland won two games—beating Iowa and Hawaii before losing at the buzzer to Georgia Tech in the finals. Because the championship game was on TV back east it started at 6 o’clock local time. Tommy Stinson of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and I walked into Blaisdell at about 5:59 that night because we were sitting by the hotel pool listening to Al McGuire tell stories and we lost track of the time.
I’ve never really minded working on holidays—again it isn’t because I don’t love my family—it’s just, well, what I do. I’m used to working on weekends when others aren’t working so working on a holiday doesn’t feel strange to me. Of course when I still worked at The Washington Post, I frequently got into battles with George Solomon who would—understandably—assign the Jewish members of the staff to work Christmas Day. I didn’t mind working if I was on the road someplace (especially if it was in Hawaii) but I certainly didn’t want to come into the office to write some kind of advance on the college basketball games being played the next day or get sent out to Redskins Park to hear Joe Gibbs talk about how that Sunday’s opponent was the greatest team in football history.
So, every year I’d check the schedule and there I’d be, penciled in for Christmas Day. I’d go see George.
“I can’t work on Christmas,” I’d say.
George—who, to be fair, always put himself on the schedule on Christmas—would look at me and say, “what are you talking about?”
“My family celebrates Christmas. My mother will be upset if I’m not there to open presents in the morning.”
“What do you mean your family celebrates Christmas?”
George literally didn’t believe me at first. Then, when he did believe me, he decided he had to teach me how to be a real Jew. One year he insisted that I come to break-fast at his house on Yom Kippur. I showed up (having not fasted) and wasn’t eating anything because, to be honest, other than soft kosher salami, I’m just not into that sort of food at all.
George’s wife Hazel, one of the world’s nicest and most patient people, came up to me looking puzzled and said, “John, you’re not eating.”
Without thinking about what day it was I gave Hazel the answer I always used if I was at someone’s house and didn’t like the food being served: “Hazel, I’m sorry, I had a really big lunch very late.”
Whoops. She looked at me as if I was insane and went off to—probably—tell George he needed to fire me. George STILL hasn’t let me off the hook on that one.
Anyway, the bottom line is, I like the holidays. I like the warmth and I really like the music and I especially like the corny movies. 1. “It’s A Wonderful Life.” 2. “White Christmas.” 3. “Miracle on 34th Street” (the original) watched it last night. 4. “Rudolph.” (Burl Ives second greatest performance right behind, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,”—talk about range). 5. “Elf.”
I enjoy seeing relatives and friends I don’t often get to see. But I’m also really happy on the morning of the 26th because there are LOTS of games to choose from, places to go and people to see—and write about.
So, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Kwanzaa and, of course a Happy Festivus (for the rest of us). If something actually happens today, I’ll write a blog tomorrow if only to keep a little bit busy. If it is as quiet as I suspect it will be, I’ll be back Monday after everyone has, I hope, a great holiday.
There will be, no doubt, lots to write about Monday. Thank God for that.