I was making my weekly appearance yesterday on “Washington Post Live,”—which is a pretty good show except for the fact that there has to be a Redskins segment EVERY DAY—when this question popped into my head: If the United States makes the gold medal game in Olympic hockey (which is now distinctly possible after the remarkable 5-3 upset of Canada on Sunday) and it faces Russia, will fans of The Washington Capitals be torn at all?
After all, Alexander Ovechkin may be the most popular non-Redskin in the history of the town. The only person I can think of who might have been as beloved as Ovechkin is Wes Unseld. Frank Howard was certainly popular years ago with the Senators but they were a bad team throughout his years in Washington.
You can’t walk 100 yards in downtown DC right now without encountering someone wearing an Ovechkin jersey. People here are firmly convinced the Caps are going to win The Stanley Cup this spring and if they do Ovechkin is going to be the main reason. It can be argued that Ovechkin is the first athlete to represent Washington since, I don’t know, Sammy Baugh? Who was THE best player in his sport. (Save your Sidney Crosby argument for another day. The point is he is 1 or 1-A at worst).
So, I wondered aloud on the air if Ovechkin—and fellow Cap Alexander Semin—are out there representing Russia, do Caps fans root for their guys or for their country?
Based on text messages sent to the station the verdict was overwhelming: USA-USA-USA. Naturally some people wondered if I was “crazy,” for even thinking there was a debate.
All of which reminded me how doing what I do gives you a different perspective than most people. When I was a kid I rooted ardently for the Mets, the Jets, the Knicks, the Rangers and, after I had bought my first car and could drive to Long Island as a high school senior, the expansion Islanders. I even rooted for the Nets while they were in the ABA and never hated the Yankees or the Giants. My instinct has always been to pull for underdogs so I was drawn to the expansion Mets. With the Jets it was more basic: I could get into the games.
I loved my teams. Like any fan there were individuals I picked out as my favorites: Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee with the Mets; Joe Namath, Matt Snell and Verlon Biggs with the Jets; Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave Debusschere and Bill Bradley with the Knicks; Brad Park and the GAG (Goal-a-game) line with the Rangers: Vic Hadfield, Jean Ratelle, Brad Park and, later, Billy Smith, Denis Potvin, Brian Trottier and Mike Bossy with the Islanders although I always had a warm spot for Billy Harris even though he was traded before the team started winning Stanley Cups.
But in the end, I was a typical fan. To quote Jerry Seinfeld, I rooted for laundry.
I was furious with the Mets when they traded Seaver in 1977 and never stopped being a Seaver fan. In fact, one of my great thrills was covering the game in Yankee Stadium in 1983 when he won his 300th game while pitching for the White Sox.
But I was still a Mets fan—even after the Seaver trade.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I stopped rooting for laundry and started rooting for individuals. It might have been while standing in the Red Sox clubhouse in 1986 watching Bill Buckner answer question after question without blinking or complaining after his infamous boot of Mookie Wilson’s ground ball in game six of The World Series. As a Mets fan, I was thrilled with the way they had come back to win the game. Watching Buckner handle the situation with such grace made me feel awful for him. During game seven, even as I rooted ardently for the Mets, I couldn’t help but think about what this would do to Buckner.
To this day, when that World Series comes up, I point out to people—many of whom don’t remember—that the score was already tied when the ball went through Buckner’s legs. He did NOT lose the World Series for the Red Sox.
When Pat Riley became the coach of the Knicks, I stopped being a Knicks fan. I just didn’t like him and I hated his style of play. I’ve never gone back to the Knicks. In fact, I became a Celtics fan—a team I DESPISED as a kid—because of my friendship with Red Auerbach.
Other than being consistently lousy, the Jets never did anything to make me dislike them but when I did my book on the Ravens in 2004, I couldn’t help but want to see the Ravens do well since I got to know almost everyone in the organization. As luck would have it, the Ravens and Jets played that season, in the Meadowlands.
Darin Kerns, who was one of the Ravens equipment managers, had mentioned to the Jets equipment guys that I had grown up a Jets fan. So, before the game, Darin marched me to the Jets locker room where the Jets guys gave me a box of equipment—most of it for my kids. I walked back to the Ravens locker room carrying the box. When I walked in, Brian Billick said, “what’s that?”
“It’s a box full of Jets gear.”
“So let me get this straight, you’re in our locker room, you’re on our sideline, you’re in our meetings and you’re carrying a box of Jets gear around to take home to your kids.”
“Okay. Just so I’m clear on where you stand.”
Billick knew where I stood which was why he gave me a hard time about it. Now that Rex Ryan, who was an assistant on that Ravens team, is running the Jets I find myself pulling for the Jets again. If the Jets and Ravens played today, especially since a lot of the guys I knew back in ’04 are gone, I’m honestly not sure whose side I’d be on. I’d probably root for the team that needed to win the game more.
I AM still an Islanders fan. I covered the team in the 80s when they were still great and was thrilled to find that the players I’d loved watching play were, almost to a man, really good guys. (Of course hockey players in general are good guys). Al Arbour, the coach, was terrific to be around and, in addition to the big names, guys like Bob Bourne, Bobby Nystrom, Clark Gillies (who was actually a pretty big name) and Ken Morrow, made the job easy and fun. Even though the team has been mostly awful since it last played in The Stanley Cup Finals in 1984, I still have warm memories of that group that make me occasionally shout at the TV when the current team, still very young but (finally) with some potential, blows a 3-1 lead in the third period the way it did in the last game before the Olympics.
As for Duke, my alma mater, I’ve discussed my relationship with the school here in the past. I still pull for Mike Krzyzewski, because he’s been a friend for a long time but so have a lot of coaches including Gary Williams and Roy Williams and Oliver Purnell and Leonard Hamilton—just to name a few guys in the ACC. The games I get most into these days usually involve Patriot League teams. In fact, I think the most emotional I’ve been watching a game in recent years was the night Bucknell stunned Kansas in the 2005 NCAA Tournament. I still get chills thinking about that game. George Mason beating Connecticut to go to the Final Four in 2006 is right up there too, not because I don’t like Jim Calhoun (I do) but because it was one of the great underdog stories EVER and I got to cover it.
When Jim Larranaga raced over to where I was standing shortly after that game had ended and said, “I can’t wait to see (Jim) Nantz and (Billy) Packer in Indy,”—both had dissed the committee for putting Mason in the tournament—it was a truly sublime moment.
As luck would have it, I was having dinner in St. Elmo’s, the great steak house in Indy on Wednesday night that week when Nantz and Packer walked in. I’d already run into Larranaga because he and his team were eating in a private room in the back of the restaurant. When Jim and Billy stopped to say hello, I couldn’t resist.
“The George Mason kids are eating in a room in the back,” I said. “They can’t wait to see you guys.”
Nantz immediately headed back there to deliver his official apology. Packer never moved. “You aren’t going to apologize?” I said to him.
“I don’t have anything to apologize for,” Packer said.
That’s one reason I loved Billy—he always stuck to his guns even when they were empty.
So, if the U.S. does play Russia in the gold medal game, I’ll be no different than most Americans, I’ll be pulling for the U.S. But it will have more to do with my affection for underdogs than with the letters on the front of the sweater.