Let me begin today by trying to explain how in the world I left Jackie Robinson off the most important athletes list yesterday—before realizing on my way to lunch, ‘Oh My God I Left Jackie Robinson out!’ Here’s my explanation: I have none. Sometimes you just mind-block. Usually I do it at the grocery store—‘what the heck did my kids tell me to get?’—or on Christmas shopping—“Is today the 16th, jeez maybe I ought to do something about gifts.”
This one I just screwed up. Curt Flood and Jesse Owens should have been on there too and I somehow mentioned Muhammad Ali as an example of someone whose influence went well beyond his ability to box and then left HIM off the list. That may have something to do with the fact that I almost never think about boxing anymore. Ali was just about the last boxer I really cared about because even though I covered Sugar Ray Leonard a little bit I never really bought into his act.
The other person who was mentioned by posters yesterday who I don’t consider an automatic but deserves serious consideration is Bobby Orr because he did change the way defensemen played hockey. The notion of a defenseman scoring 20 goals, much less leading the league in scoring was unheard of before Orr.
I’m not going to go through the entire list today, maybe I’ll just do one guy at a time over the next few weeks so that I can go into a little more detail than a sentence or two on each. What is interesting, as some people pointed out, is that I had 20 people even with the omissions which means there are about 25 who seemingly HAVE to be on the list. To try to pare that list to say, 10, would be virtually impossible. And all of us can think of others who deserve consideration: Did Cal Ripken save baseball in 1995? Should all the steroid stars—Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Clemens et al—be mentioned because they certainly changed the way their sport was viewed. Althea Gibson? John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors—both of whom certainly changed tennis?
Plus, I didn’t even try to include coaches or managers on the list and trying to pick just ten of THEM would be almost impossible. Let’s just say you were doing Mount Rushmore for those guys: John Wooden, right? Vince Lombardi? Red Auerbach? Scotty Bowman? That would mean leaving out (among others) Dean Smith, Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Phil Jackson, Casey Stengel, John McGraw, Toe Blake, Al Arbour, Chuck Noll, Don Shula, Bill Walsh, Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, Bear Bryant and Knute Rockne. That’s just in the four major sports and no doubt I’m mind-blocking on someone right now.
In short, there’s plenty of room to discuss this more in the future.
This morning though I feel I have to weigh in on this Roy Williams controversy because I keep getting asked about it—which is actually a little bit of a relief because it means a few minutes less of being asked to psycho-analyze Tiger Woods.
Ole Roy—as he often calls himself—had a fan of the Presbyterian Blue Hose removed from the Dean Dome last Saturday during a North Carolina rout of a badly overmatched team. Apparently the guy stood up as Deon Thompson was shooting a free throw and yelled, “Don’t miss Deon!”
My guess is his major crime was waking up what was left of the crowd from a nice nap. Since he was sitting in the section reserved for FOR (Friends of Roy) and since Roy and others could clearly heard him, Roy got upset and had the guy removed.
Okay, let’s not make this into a big deal because it’s not. Did Roy overreact? Yes—even if some of his loyal supporters have jumped in claiming the fan in question was drunk, was rude, didn’t have a ticket (or should NOT have had a ticket) in that section, had used profanity prior to his crack AND was involved in the conspiracy to kidnap the Lindbergh baby. Deon Thompson, by the way, somehow shook off the ‘heckling,’ to make his free throw.
The fact is Roy didn’t have him thrown out for any of that—whether it was true or un-true as the fan in question and others sitting around him have said. Roy had him thrown out for yelling, “Don’t miss Deon.” Roy should just apologize and let that be the end of it.
Let me say this about Roy Williams right here: I really like the guy, which galls some of my Duke friends. If you question his abilities as a coach, you’re insane, just check the record. And I know people roll their eyes at times about all the ‘aw shucks, I’m just an ole country boy stuff,’ but most, if not all of it, is genuine. If some of it is put on because it helps recruiting guess what?—it works.
In 1991 when I was working for the late, lamented National Sports Daily I wrote a column about Dean Smith after the ACC Tournament basically saying that some of the little feuds he picked were beneath him. The freshest example I used was his refusal to go on the Raycom ACC Tournament telecasts either pre-game on tape or postgame live, in part because he was upset that they hadn’t hired any ex-Carolina players to do color commentary and in part because he thought that Dan Bonner (by far Raycom’s best analyst) had defended what he (Dean) perceived to be dirty play by Virginia. Bonner—surprise—played at Virginia so Dean saw a conspiracy.
The column set off a firestorm. Even though I had always had a good relationship with Dean and with almost everyone I knew at Carolina this was proof—absolute PROOF—that I was a Duke apologist and I was out to get Dean. Frank Deford, who was the editor of The National, showed me some of the letters which accused me of being guilty of most crimes committed in the 20th century, virtually all in the name of embarrassing Carolina and Dean.
Eddie Fogler, who I’d been friends with for years, walked up to me at The Final Four and said, “You are the worst sportswriter in America.”
“Coming from you Eddie,” I answered, “I consider that high praise.”
Duke ended up winning its first national championship that year—no doubt because of my efforts—beating Kansas, coached by Roy Williams, in the final.
A couple of weeks after the Final Four I got a lengthy handwritten letter from Roy. He talked about how much he had always valued our friendship and how much respect he had for me. Then he began to talk about Dean—“Coach Smith,”—and how much he meant to him. At the end of the letter he wrote: “John, I know a lot’s been said that’s unfair to you but I think you know not a word of that has come from Coach Smith. He may disagree with you on this but I know he respects you just as I know how much you respect him. I think the two of you should talk at some point this summer. If need be I will fly into Chapel Hill to make the meeting happen. This is that important to me because of how I feel about you and because there is no one in the world more important to me than Coach Smith.”
Dean and I did talk and agreed to disagree on Bonner and who should or should not be doing color on ACC games and on several other topics. I remember him saying, “At least concede this: when you and I argue it’s usually because I’m standing up for my players.”
I told him I knew that he ALWAYS stood up for his players. I also told him about Roy’s letter. There wasn’t anything phony in that letter and I could tell you a half dozen other stories that would illustrate why Roy is a good guy.
The only thing as silly as Duke fans trying to make Roy out to be a bad guy is when Carolina fans try to make Mike Krzyzewski out to be a bad guy. BOTH are Hall of Fame coaches and BOTH are outstanding men. They have very different styles on and off the court and I enjoy them both.
Do they make mistakes? Of course they do—who among us doesn’t? Theirs are just made in public a lot of the time. So Roy overreacted and it set off a minor firestorm. He ought to shrug his shoulders and say, “Ole Roy is probably a little bit sensitive sometimes.”
Because he is. Which doesn’t make him a bad guy by any stretch of the imagination.