Thursday, March 24, 2011

Treasuring Magic moments at 1979 NCAA basketball tournament when Al McGuire & I defined the proper urinal-interview etiquette and I befriended Earvin

Standing elbow-to-elbow with Al McGuire, I figured I’d strike up a conversation. Obviously, neither of us was going anywhere soon, as we were using adjoining urinals.
Besides that, we both were raised in the North, loved basketball and had just relished watching a young and lean Earvin “Magic” Johnson offer proof that he was the best basketball player in the universe.
I was looking for some happy banter, anyway, as I had just been talking to Bobby Knight and was feeling the need to escape that egotistical throw-a-chair-across-the-court hangover funk that resulted.
And Al, well, he was such a contrast to the perhaps brilliant, but erratic, Knight, who these 32 years later has said “Jimmy Tressel represents all that’s good about college athletics” or some such. That’s another story, of course. If that’s true, then Bruce Pearl also is a similarly stellar representation. Wonder if Pearl took that orange sport coat with him when escorted to the door at UT? Great for grilling out.
Normally I don’t conduct interviews at urinals. First of all, at least in my case, it’s difficult to take notes. But urinal etiquette usually calls for a couple of guys to brag about the number of Buds passing through or complain that the Cubs haven’t been the same since Ernie Banks last played two.
It’s generally a guy thing as well. And in most cases, I prefer it that way.
“So, Flap, what’s this have to do with going to the bathroom at a local university the other day?” you might ask if you were reading my mind or had been with me.
As “journalist-in-residence” at one of our fine universities in Nashville, I teach young people about writing, ethics, AP style and also advise the student news web site.
And when I’m not talking with these bright young people or drinking Pepsi Maxx, I’ll occasionally – like many of my friends across the U.S., including in Libya and our other recent acquisitions – take a bathroom break.
Other than the every third or fourth decade occurrence, like when I’m chatting with Al McGuire about Magic Johnson and personal hair styles – Al was of the slicked-back persuasion and I am, well something altogether different – I try to pay attention to my own business when in the john.
I’m sure women do the same, but I’ve never been one (although I remain an avid fan), so am not sure what goes on in the women’s restrooms. I have seen couches in there, which does give me pause to wonder just what kind of lurid things are happening in there. But it’s none of my business.
Speaking of minding my business, that’s what I was doing the other day at the university when a when a young man – wearing a T-shirt proclaiming allegiance to God and country – stepped up two urinals away and turned on the speaker function on his iPhone, so he could have a loud conversation with his girlfriend while he was going to the bathroom.
Between the “I’m sorrys” and “I love yous” and “I can’t wait to see yous” and “what did your parents say when they found out” conversation bouncing off the tile walls, well I have to tell you I felt violated. The girl’s voice was so loud that it was as if she was in there too.
And I personally couldn’t believe this young man – a smart and rich young college lad I’m sure – would continue his elimination process while love-cooing his girlfriend. I mean, I’m all for multi-tasking….
Few call me a prude … with good reason and reputation, I’m afraid … but this whole thing turned me against iPhones. If I’d been at Greer Stadium, where they have those big troughs, I’d probably have knocked the phone in there. The girl’s voice would have faded into the sea of recycled Buds.
Which brings me back to Al McGruire in the restroom at the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro back in 1979.
It was my favorite time to be a sportswriter, as generally the first round of the NCAA tournament would be played within a couple hour’s drive. It would be in Murfreesboro, Tenn., or Bowling Green, Ky., and once we even went over to Lexington to watch the first weekend’s games and then the following week’s Regionals.
What was special about these tournaments was that, to a young sportswriter/editor, I got to spend time with the best young athletes and broadcasters, watch remarkable basketball and, if necessary, eat for free in the media lounge.
On that particular weekend in 1979 I was in Mufreesboro primarily because I wanted to see Earvin “Magic” Johnson and his pal, Greg Kelser (the only Spartan to ever score 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds ) tear into Lamar (Not ALEXANDER … the University … although I’d have gladly watched them tear into the governor as well.)
I’d also been a huge fan of Al McGuire, especially liking it when he reamed out Billy Packer. Hey, Al’s dead. Don’t be silly: Whatever happened to Billy?
Al didn’t hold himself as better than anyone. He and I had just ended up in the same bathroom because back then, the NCAA tournament was not owned by General Electric, Disney World, Gannett, CBS, the oil cartels and the law enforcement Taliban. Even small-time newspaper sports editors and their pals were afforded press credentials without fingerprinting, genital fondling, DNA analysis and blowing into a blood-alcohol machine (a fortunate thing in many cases).
It was in the era of “jump balls.” Remember them? If so, I’m sorry for you. You are pretty damned old.
Anyway, I wanted to talk to Al for one of my slices of life columns I was providing from this tournament. I was covering the games, but I also was writing color stories.
Which would be the only reason I’d ever go into a press conference held by Bobby Knight and ask what he’d tell me was a stupid question. You know, all I did was ask him why he was such a turd. The answer was obvious to us all, and I don’t think he took particular objection. But every question was stupid then for Bobby, long before they tarred and feathered him and ran him out of Bloomington, Ind., in a straitjacket with a bottle rocket up his butt.
But then there was Al McGuire, who coached his Marquette team – a gang of very skilled pseudo-Catholic outlaws – to an NCAA championship in 1977 and retired to the broadcast booth.
He was a likable coach, who proved even more likable behind the microphone. And since I’d won $136 on the Marquette victory (office pools were illegal back then .. .much as they are today), I really liked the guy. After all, he and “Bo” Ellis and the gang had defeated Dean Smith’s Tarballs for the championship.
Anyway, let’s get right to the point, as my pal, Tom Petty, likes to say, I found myself standing at the urinal next to Al McGuire in between games.
Since this was one time when I was alone with one of the great characters in basketball history, I decided to conduct an interview. I mean, I already at that point in my life had spent days with Muhammad Ali (clothed and unclothed – him not me), John Wooden (generally well-clothed), Henry Aaron (in a nice suit), Joe Montana (wearing a dozen Super Bowl rings) and O.J. Simpson (who kept sharpening his knife on his shoe soles while we spoke).
So, with Al, well, I just started chatting. We had bladders filled and so there was time to talk about basketball, about Magic and about his championship season. It was obvious to me that we’d both had our share of “Tab” back in the media lounge. Remember “Tab”? Tasted like Diet Coke.
After we zipped up that conversation, we converged on the single sink. I always wash my hands. Not just after I use the facilities, but always. In fact there are times when my hands turn raw from the repeated washing. Yes, I am the lunatic you’re looking for.
There was just the one sink, so Al and I washed our hands together. Soap brothers. Then he smiled and looked at my shock of hair. My hair, although somewhat shorter back then and almost black, always has exceeded societal-norm standards.
“I guess you don‘t use one of these, do you?” he said, as he pulled a comb from behind the hanky in his breast pocket. “See, you go like this….”
At which point one of the great basketball coaches in NCAA history gave me lessons on combing hair while I finally retrieved my notebook from my back pocket and began scribbling down notes.
“Well, Tim, I gotta get back to work. See what happens in the next game,” he said, as we shook clean hands and walked back toward press row.
Probably nowadays, sports announcers have security clear the rest rooms so long-haired smalltown journalists won’t bother them in their hour of darkness. For all I know Billy Packer left broadcasting not just because he insulted Duke students and alienated almost everyone but because he was afraid I’d catch up to him one day in the john.
I loved Al McGuire and Marquette, and his street-guy-gentlemanly ease with a young reporter proved his image was just him being him. And the urinal interview would have been the capper on a great weekend.
But then, as Al walked away, I looked up, and there was Magic Johnson, standing in front of me, in the hallway.
He’d already done his dog-and-pony press conference, his NCAA duties, smiling and capturing hearts, just as he did the remainder of his ball-playing years.
He had no reason to stop when I asked him if he had time. Course he was standing in front of me, but much lesser athletes and musicians and politicians have ignored me and wandered off, haven’t you Senator Sasser, Mickey Mantle (course you were drunk), Toby Keith and Al Gore.
I looked up at the guy blocking the hallway, who was, to my way of thinking, the best, most-complete basketball player on the planet. And he was there with Kelser, his support man.
This was long before Magic became famous for contracting HIV. Long before he took over the helm of the Los Angeles Lakers after Jabbar went down and guided them – from the center spot – to a world championship.
He was just a big kid, a sophomore in college, and that day he and Kelser had put on a Globe Trotter-worthy exhibition, crushing Lamar, 95-64, in the second-round of the Mideast Regionals.
During my life, I’ve covered a lot of basketball games and met a lot of ballplayers. But, other than James “Fly” Williams, who was a gunslinger for then-outlaw school Austin Peay State University, none of them had a bigger smile than Magic.
And, to be fair, Fly’s smile was enhanced by the fact he was snaggle-toothed. His Peay pals apparently didn’t take care of his dental work. He became a friend of mine and sometime I’ll go up to see if he’s still alive in New York City.
That’s another long story and I may get to it today or it may be next time. Or later on to be sure.
Because this one really is about Magic. Well, about Al McGuire and Magic.
I’ve been thinking a lot about both men as this NCAA tournament – as Al called it “The Big Effin’ Dance” -- progresses.
I love basketball, but there never has been another player who could not only dominate a game but capture hearts like Magic Johnson.
I saw Michael Jordan in the rafters up in the Charlotte Mausoleum the other day and it made me think two things.
No. 1, Michael Jordan was a great basketball player and I loved to watch him play. But I don’t think I’d like to know him, as I’m a Fruit of the Looms guy.
No. 2, Magic Johnson was better. And I am glad I got to know him a little bit back during his playing days.
For me that 1979 season, which ended up with the storied Bird-Magic showdown – won by Magic – may have been college basketball at its best. I later met Bird, and he too seemed like a nice guy, even when I laughed at him for growing up in French Lick.
Anyway, after our conversation, Magic told me he wanted to watch some basketball. So I let him go.
A few minutes later I walked back into the arena, and was looking for a place to sit in the stands. Magic and Greg Kelser waved me up to sit with them.
So I did. Just a scruffy-haired sports editor, wearing Acme cowboy boots, sitting up in the stands watching basketball games with Magic Johnson.
And, a few rows below, Al McGuire was sipping on a Tab.

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