Feinstein: I Didn’t Like Rollie Massimino; I Loved Him

At The Washington Post, when someone of note dies, the newspaper will often run what are called, “Appreciations.” These go beyond regular obituaries and are usually written by someone who knew the person who has passed away or had some sort of intimate understanding of what made them special.

In recent years, I have found myself writing “appreciations” far more frequently than I would like. This is, I suppose, part of getting old.

The last two days have been especially rough. On Tuesday, I wrote an appreciation of Jud Heathcote, the Michigan State coach who brought Magic Johnson to East Lansing and first made the school matter in college basketball. I got to know Heathcote during my Season on the Brink season, in part because I knew he’d be quotable, but also because he was the rarest of the rare: a coach who had beaten Bob Knight with some regularity who Knight didn’t despise.

In my appreciation, I remembered a Knight-Heathcote conversation that season during which Knight had said to Heathcote, “You know, Jud, you’re the only coach in the Big Ten who likes me.”

“Don’t be too sure of that, Bob,” Heathcote answered.

Heathcote moved back to Washington state after he retired in 1995 and settled in Spokane. He became close to the Gonzaga program, even travelled with the team at times. In 2004, when Gonzaga came to Washington D.C. to play in the BB+T Classic, I sat with Heathcote for an hour while he told stories about Magic, Knight, Tom Izzo, Mark Few, and Lefty Driesell, among others.

I sifted through my Heathcote memories after his death — at the age of 90. I sent texts to both Izzo and Few to tell them I was sorry about the loss of their friend and did the best I could to explain Heathcote in the story.

A friend of mine, Terry Chili, dropped me a note Wednesday and said, “I think you do your best work writing these obits.”

Not exactly a label I’m seeking.

Wednesday, I was out of the house before dawn to drive to New York for several meetings. I managed to beat the traffic out of the city mid-afternoon and got home in under four hours. I spent most of the trip home listening to John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman agonize over the Yankees’ inability to get a clutch hit in a 2-1 loss to the Indians – the first game of a rare one-admission doubleheader that was created by a rainout the night before.

Listening to baseball on the radio always brings back fond memories. Ironically, even though I grew up a Mets fan, the very first baseball game I ever saw was a Yankees-Indians game. Thinking back, I realized that game was more than 50 years ago. I still get a rush when I think back to being 6 years old and being overwhelmed by the vastness of Yankee Stadium.

I got home, had something to eat and went to the computer. I checked e-mails and then went to check sports news looking for subjects for my daily CBS “Sports Minutes.” I was tired from the 5 a.m. wakeup and wanted to get them written as quickly as possible.

The headline hit me square in the face: “Legendary Coach Massimino, dead at 82.”

“Oh no,” I said out loud to no one. “Oh no.”

It certainly wasn’t a complete shock. Rollie had slowed noticeably the last couple of years and I knew he had cancer. Still, I fully expected him to coach this winter. He had been at Keiser University (formerly Northwood) an NAIA Division-2 school in Palm Beach, Florida for 11 seasons. He’d had great success there, making the NAIA D-2 Tournament nine years out of 11. He never won the whole thing, but had gotten to the championship game in 2012. He failed to win at least 20 games ONCE.

More important, he loved it. All through his ’70s and into his ’80s, he coached. Every time I asked him how much longer he would keep doing it, he’d shrug and say, “As long as I can. I’ll probably die having a heart attack yelling at some ref.”

When you’re a young reporter, the old guys warn you about becoming friends with the people you cover. The two great myths of journalism are: 1. Be objective. It’s a myth because none of us is objective; we’re all biased in some way. The key is to recognize your biases and be fair. And 2. Never becomes friends with anybody you cover. Again, this is impossible. Reporters are human. We’re going to meet and get to know people we like and we don’t like. When that happens you have to go back to myth 1 and try to be fair when writing about those you like and those you don’t like.

I didn’t like Rollie; I loved him. He was truly one of the great characters I’ve ever met in sports, and, even though he could be feisty and stubborn and WRONG, he was a loyal friend. That’s why his players and assistant coaches loved him. Ever year on Christmas Day, he called all his former players to check in on them. Even Gary McLain, the Villanova point guard who embarrassed Rollie and the school by admitting in a Sports Illustrated story that he was high on cocaine when the team went to the White House after the epic upset of Georgetown in the 1985 national championship game.

“Do you still call McLain on Christmas?” I asked him once.

He looked at me like I was nuts. “Of course I do,” he said. “He’s one of my kids.”

The funny thing is, my first encounter with Rollie hardly began pleasantly. It was in February of 1985. Villanova played at Maryland in what was then a big-deal, Sunday-afternoon, nationally televised game. Maryland, led by Len Bias and Adrian Branch, won the game.

Afterwards, in the postgame press conference, I asked a benign question about something — don’t remember exactly what — and Rollie, very unhappy with the outcome, looked at me and said, “That’s a stupid question.”

Nice to meet you too, coach.

I couldn’t resist following up when the press conference was over. I introduced myself and tried to explain what I meant by the question.

“Let me guess,” Rollie said. “You’re a strap from New York, right?”

“A strap?” I said, baffled.

“Yeah, a strap-hanger, you guys get around on subways and buses, hanging on to straps all the time.”

I’d never heard that one before. “Maybe so,” I said. “But we know basketball.”

Rollie smiled. “Apparently, not so much.”

Then he told me to walk with him to the locker room where we spent 30 minutes talking basketball. It was an early afternoon game so I had plenty of time. A friendship was born.

Exactly two months later, Villanova shot 79 percent for the game — nine-of-ten in the second half — to win the national championship in the last college basketball game played without a shot clock. The Wildcats barely sneaked into the tournament as a No. 8 seed and had to play their first game AT Dayton. They won by one. Then they upset Michigan, Maryland, North Carolina, Memphis and the Hoyas. It was arguably the most stunning run in college hoops history.

As it turned out, I covered every one of those games. Maryland and Navy also played in Dayton that first weekend, so I was there. Then I was in Birmingham when they beat the Terrapins and Tar Heels. Finally, the Final Four in Lexington.

I was in the locker room after the championship game when Rollie grabbed me. “I want you on the plane with us tomorrow,” he said. “Come back to Philly for the celebration.”

Rollie never asked you to do something; he told you that you were doing it. I was delighted. Dick (Hoops) Weiss, then of The Philadelphia Daily News and I flew back with the team. We were also IN the parade into downtown Philly because we were loaded onto flatbed trucks getting off the plane. It was one of my most memorable experiences — as a reporter and as a person.

I stayed in regular touch with Rollie through the years as his career careened through two bad seasons in Las Vegas; eight mediocre ones in Cleveland and then, finally, to Florida and Northwood. He’d fallen out with Villanova after leaving in 1992 but Jay Wright — God Bless Him —brought him back to the fold for the 20th anniversary celebration of ’05 and he was very much a presence when the Wildcats made the Final Four in 2009 and then for their title run in 2016. The first thing Jay did after his team beat Pitt in Boston to make the ’09 Final Four was race into the stands to hug Rollie.

There are so many memories. On the actual 20th anniversary of the Georgetown game — April 1, 2005 — I was in a restaurant late at night in St. Louis (at the Final Four) with Rollie, Jay and a number of other Rollie assistants, including Frank Sullivan (Harvard) and Tom Brennan (Vermont).

The Rollie stories flowed: how impossible he was to work for; how demanding he was — every story filled with love. Finally, Rollie stood up. “I’m tired,” he said. “I gotta go to bed.”

“Oh no,” Wright said. “You aren’t leaving. You killed us for years. Now we get to kill you.”

Rollie sat down. The stories continued. I’m not sure I ever saw him happier.

He never stopped calling me “strap.” When I saw him last winter, we were talking about what an amazing job Jay has done at Villanova and how proud Rollie was of him. I just kept nodding in agreement.

Finally, Rollie smiled, pointed his finger at me and said, “Yeah, he’s great. But remember one thing, strap. I was the one who got you in the parade.”

He certainly was.

There’s no “appreciation” that can capture how much I’ll miss him.

John Feinstein’s new Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys, A Mystery in Black and White,” was published this week. His next non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” will be published in October. Both books can be ordered online now.

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