Sally Jenkins and I have been friends for 32 years—dating to when she first came to The Washington Post in January of 1985, taking over the Maryland beat from me so I could focus on covering national college football and basketball.
When I had my heart surgery almost eight years ago and my then fiancée (now wife) had to be in New York for a couple of days, it was Sally who came and stayed with me because the doctors said someone should be in the house with me other than my cats.
I love Sally. She’s the sister I never had—my real sister asked me once why Washington’s football team hadn’t drafted Christian Laettner.
We agree on most things—especially when it comes to politics. But one thing we’ve never agreed on is women’s college basketball. Sally loves the sport and the people in it, much the same way I love men’s college basketball and (many) of the people in it. I can still remember Sally’s joy in 2007 when Georgetown lost to Ohio State at the Final Four in Atlanta because it meant she could leave the next morning to go to the women’s Final Four.
I would never criticize someone for loving a sport I don’t love. I don’t criticize my friends who love the NBA, even though I almost never watch it. On Saturday night, I watched almost a minute of the Warriors-Thunder game because I was curious to see how Kevin Durant would handle all the booing. He made his first shot. I’d seen enough. I went back to Gonzaga-St. Mary’s and learned the next morning that Durant had been so shaken up he only scored 34 points and the Warriors won by about 100.
I can’t really explain to you why I’m not into the NBA, but since my beloved Knicks of the 70s faded, I’ve never gotten caught up in it again. Even when the Knicks became a good team again under Pat Riley, I couldn’t get fired up. I don’t like Riley personally—he’s about as arrogant a human being as I’ve ever met—and I couldn’t stand the style of play. (I did watch enough to know that). Nowadays, I just laugh like everyone else at the embarrassing soap opera created by Jim Dolan and the Zen Master.
I paid attention to the Celtics for a few years because of my friendship with Red Auerbach and was pleased when they won the NBA title in 2008—a year too late for Red to witness that one last title (it would have been his 17th) before he died. I still like the Celtics because I like Brad Stevens, but I can’t honestly say I watch them.
I mention my NBA malaise because Sally has insisted for years that my refusal to get wound up about women’s basketball is sexist. Once or twice a year she will write a column DEMANDING that people pay more attention to the women’s game because…well, because she says so dammit!
I read these columns, because I read everything Sally writes. She’s about as good a sports columnist as there is, so when she writes, I read. I even read her occasional rants on why all drug-cheats aren’t really cheats; that they’ve all been set up or punished unfairly and that the real criminals are those penalizing them.
Hell, she’s so good, I actually believe some of what she’s saying.
This morning, she was doing her, ‘women’s college basketball is the greatest thing since the invention of pizza,’ thing. Her subject was Connecticut and the Huskies extraordinary 100 game winning streak. Ironically, I had written one of my CBS minutes for this morning on why the U-Conn winning streak is good for the women’s game, even if almost all their games are routs.
My morning routine every day is the same: get up, feed the cats, go get the papers, sit at the kitchen table and drink my coffee while reading the Washington Post first; the New York Times second. Then I go record my ‘minutes,’ and come back to hang out with my wife and daughter before they leave for school. (My wife teaches at my daughter’s school).
When Sally has written a column, I start with her. Which I did this morning, even though I knew I was going to be told again why I HAD to pay more attention to the U-Conn women. The irony in this is that Sally was Pat Summitt’s best friend and, for years, couldn’t bring herself to even acknowledge how good Geno Auriemma and the Huskies had become. Imagine me having to write columns talking about what a great owner Dan Snyder had become and you have some idea what this must be like for Sally.
But, she knows greatness when she sees it. (Thank God the chances of my seeing greatness in Snyder is someplace between no way and impossible). So, she began her column today saying that men’s college basketball is “a mess,” because upsets keep happening all the time and then insisting that those who weren’t enraptured by the U-Conn streak are STUPID.
Her word. And then she wrote this: “I’m talking to you John Feinstein.”
Honestly, I laughed out loud. It reminded me of people who I do NOT love the way I love Sally telling me that I’m stupid because I don’t understand that soccer is the one and only game in the world worth watching or talking about. I like soccer; watch the World Cup and, on occasion, the English Premier League or the Champions Cup—the final at least. But that’s not good enough for the socceristas.
The funny thing is, I love hockey—which, like soccer, is a niche sport. When people tell me it’s boring or they can’t follow the puck on TV—even HD—or, as my great friend Dave Kindred once said, “it’s basketball on skates with a turnover on almost every play,”—I don’t lecture them. I don’t tell them they MUST watch hockey. I don’t call them STUPID for not understanding how great Crosby or Ovechkin are or not seeing what a great story Auston Matthews is and how cool it would be for the Maple Leafs to finally get good again.
I love to watch hockey, but that doesn’t mean those who don’t are WRONG. They’re just different.
I have watched enough women’s basketball to know that the quality of play has improved markedly from the late 1970s and early 1980s when George Solomon, The Post’s sports editor, occasionally forced me to cover a women’s game and I literally cringed watching. The game is still played under the rim and that’s fine—it’s different, not better; not worse. Different.
I prefer the men. I LIKE the chaos that Sally calls “a mess.” If you ask me today who is going to win the national championship my honest answer is, ‘I have no clue.’ Give me 12 guesses and I might not get it right. Raise your hand if you had Connecticut—the men–in 2014. Or, for that matter, Villanova a year ago. Now, if you offer me Connecticut or the field on the women’s side, I’m taking the Huskies in a heartbeat. So would Sally. If they win, that will make five in a row and seven out of ten.
Now, don’t get me wrong: a dynasty is good for any sport. It brings more attention to it. That was the point of my CBS minute: UCLA; the Cowboys and Packers; the Canadiens; the Celtics; Tiger Woods. All were good for their sport when they were dominant. The U-Conn game Monday night when they won No. 100 got an insanely high regular season rating on ESPN—thanks, in part, to the network’s relentless promotion of it over the weekend.
They say that a rising tide raises all boats. One can only hope that sometime soon, some of those other boats will rise to meet U-Conn. I would love to see Auriemma, who has clearly conquered the women’s sport, coach a men’s team. He’s 62—which isn’t old nowadays—and THAT would be a great story. For years Sally insisted Summitt should be offered a men’s job. That would have been a great story too—even more so since she was a woman.
But, Sally my love, here’s the thing: I’m going to continue to watch the men because I know and understand the game and I know and understand the people. If you prefer the women’s game—or, for that matter—the NBA, I am 100 percent fine with that.
I would never criticize you for not finding Saturday’s game between UMBC and UMass-Lowell as interesting as I will find it.
And I’d never call you stupid for two reasons: 1: I know you are smart as hell. And 2: you’ll always be the sister I never had.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The Legends Club—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry—spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list. It will be out in paperback in two weeks. His latest kids mystery, “The DH,” was published last fall. His first kids mystery, “Last Shot,” won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for mystery writing in the Young Adult category.