Ozzie Newsome, the general manager of the Baltimore Ravens, tells a story about the first touchdown he scored in 1978 as a Cleveland Browns rookie tight end.
“I was so excited when I scored that I spiked the ball – emphatically,” he always says in the re-telling. “The next day the phone rang and it was Coach Bryant. As soon as I heard his voice, I knew why he was calling.”
Newsome had played at Alabama for the legendary Paul (Bear) Bryant. “One of the first things he told us was, ‘When you get to the end zone, act like you’ve been there before,’” Newsome said. “When I picked up the phone that day, all he said was, ‘I saw you.’ He didn’t need to say another word.”
Newsome went onto play for the Browns for 13 seasons and scored 46 more touchdowns in a Hall of Fame career. He never spiked the ball again.
Mike Krzyzewski has been the basketball coach at Duke for 37 seasons and has won 1,071 games – more than any coach in the history of college basketball. Like Newsome, he is in his sport’s Hall of Fame.
One of his first important wins came against a Michael Jordan-led North Carolina team in the semifinals of the 1984 ACC Tournament. Prior to the game, Krzyzewski told his players: “After we win, I don’t want to see any celebrating. Act like you expected to win – because you SHOULD expect to win.”
Duke won, 77-75. Jay Bilas, now ESPN’s No. 1 college basketball analyst, then a Duke sophomore, turned to join the handshake line as instructed – without celebration. It was then that he saw Krzyzewski at mid-court hugging Johnny Dawkins, Duke’s star guard.
Like Bilas, Dawkins, now the coach at Central Florida, was stunned. “I said, ‘Coach, I thought we said no celebrating,'” he remembered, laughing. “He said, ‘Blank-it, we just beat Carolina.’”
The players laugh in the re-telling. Krzyzewski, no so much.
“I got carried away,” Krzyzewski said, years later. “It was just so HARD to beat them. I forgot we had another game to play.”
The next day, Duke lost the championship game to Maryland.
Seven years later, Duke pulled one of the most stunning upsets in basketball history, beating an unbeaten Nevada-Las Vegas team in the Final Four – like the North Carolina game – in a semifinal. As Duke’s players began to hug one another, Krzyzewski raced onto the court, palms pointing downward screaming, “Stop! Not yet!”
His players stopped. “We still had another game to play,” Krzyzewski said. “I had learned my lesson.”
Two nights later, Duke won its first national championship.
I thought about Krzyzewski and Newsome a week ago Friday when I saw John Wall jump on the scorer’s table and flex after he’d hit the winning shot to give the Washington Wizards a 92-91 win over the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference semifinals.
The series was tied, 3-3. There was still another game to play.
Coincidence or not, the Celtics won Game 7 going away this past Monday night. Wall missed his last ELEVEN shots in the game’s final 19 minutes. When I tweeted the next day that I thought Wall’s table-leap was a mistake, I was buried in profane return tweets by angry Wizards fans.
Okay, you expect visceral – even over-the-top – reactions from fans. They are pretty much the same in every city.
What is truly disappointing sometimes is how parochial the local sports media in D.C. can be. This is, after all, the nation’s capital, not Tuscaloosa, Alabama or Lexington, Kentucky.
One local radio anchor ripped me for criticizing Wall and for failing to recognize that Wall is “a superstar and a future Hall-of-Famer.”
Wall IS an All-Star, but a superstar? Hardly. Here’s the list of NBA superstars: LeBron James; Stephen Curry; Kevin Durant; Russell Westbrook and (maybe) Kawhi Leonard. That’s the list. In no sport are there more than five or six superstars.
Ironically, Alex Ovechkin, whose playoff failures with the Washington Capitals are far more glaring than Wall’s, is a superstar and a lock Hall-of-Famer. That’s why his postseason failures are so baffling.
Of course, when I suggested on a local radio show that the Caps should consider trading Ovechkin if they AGAIN failed in the playoffs – which they eventually did – people reacted as if I’d said Ovechkin should be shipped to Siberia for nothing in return. Now that a number of hockey “experts” have made the same suggestion, things have quieted down considerably.
Washington is a town where local radio and TV anchors regularly refer to local teams as “We.” It is a town where, several years back, the men working on-air at one local TV station grew “playoff beards” to show support for the Capitals. It is a town where columnists regularly make excuses for failures: bad officiating, bad luck and, of course, the non-apologetic media is almost always at fault. One very good columnist wrote last year that “Mike Rizzo’s next bad trade will be his first.”
Apparently he was out-of-town when Rizzo drowned the Nationals chances in 2015 by trading for Jonathan Papelbon, whose pitching was so bad people almost forgot what an awful teammate he was.
Now, in what appears to be an act of sheer desperation, the National Football League is sanctioning foolish end zone celebrations. Somewhere along the line, Commissioner Roger Goodell and the 32 owners bought into the notion that the TV ratings drop the league experienced last year was somehow tied to the league’s reputation as the No Fun League.
In 2003, after Joe Horn did his idiotic routine with the cell phone after scoring a touchdown in New Orleans, the league cracked down on end zone celebrations. Thirteen years later, TV ratings took a dive. Clearly, some of it was tied to the reality show posing as a presidential campaign, and – in my opinion – a lot of it was tied to the constant raining of yellow flags all over the field, the length of replays, and the general length of games, which often seem to be fitted in between commercials.
Is there anything more maddening in sports than watching a touchdown – or field goal – putting up with three minutes of commercials, coming back to watch a touchback, and then dealing with three more minutes of commercials? You want to talk about No Fun? THAT is no fun.
The owners have decided to buy into the notion that young fans want to see players act like children after scoring a touchdown. Maybe, they’re right. When Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis responded to Tuesday’s announcement by saying Horn-like celebrations wouldn’t set a good example for kids, he was buried in “Get off my lawn” tweets.
Lewis IS old – like me. So is Newsome.
His spike, the one that caused Bryant to pick up the phone, has never been illegal. It isn’t as if the so-called No Fun League doesn’t allow ANY celebrations; it just drew a line between celebrating and acting like an idiot. Now, as long as you don’t openly taunt an opponent, you can pretty much do anything you want. The new rule even says that players can “use the football as a prop.”
Group celebrations, a la the old Washington “fun bunch,” are also now legal. One can only imagine where that’s going to lead. Maybe an 11-man conga line.
The only good thing is that the celebrations will likely become so commonplace, they’ll become boring after a while. And teams with records of say, 4-8 or 5-10, might want to think twice before going nuts. Fans aren’t likely to enjoy THAT.
One of Krzyzewski’s pet sayings is, ‘next play.’ You make a spectacular play, you move on. You make a bad one, you move on. He applies it to winning and losing games and to successful or un-successful seasons. Twenty-four hours after winning the national championship in 2015, he was on the road recruiting. Twenty-four hours after being upset in the second round of the NCAA Tournament by South Carolina this past March, he was on the road recruiting.
Next play. Next game. Next season. Act like you’ve been there before.
John Wall might want to learn a lesson from that. The entire NFL might want to have a talk with Ozzie Newsome. Get off my lawn?
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The Legends Club—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and The Story of an Epic College Basketball Rivalry,” spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list in hardcover and has been on the NY Times list in paperback since publication this past March. His new book, “The First Major—Behind the Scenes at the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—will be published in May. He was the Edgar Allan Poe Award for mystery writing in the Young Adult Category for, “Last Shot—Mystery at the Final Four,”—and has been inducted into four Halls of Fame.