The Magazine

The Fan

Robert Novak, Terrapin.

Sep 7, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 47 • By FRED BARNES
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Robert Novak was a world-famous columnist when I met him in 1974. I was a reporter for the Evening Star newspaper in Washington. We were covering a trip to Delaware by Vice President Gerald Ford, who was a few months away from succeeding Richard Nixon as president. The Watergate scandal was raging, the press corps was obsessed with nailing Nixon, and all of Washington was in an uproar. Bob and I spent the day talking about basketball.

Bob, who died on August 18, was unlike most of the bigwigs in journalism. He wasn't a snob. He spent gobs of time with people who didn't know a fraction of what he did about politics and Washington and the world. But if they shared at least one of his many interests, he enjoyed being with them. And basketball, college or pro, was one of his most passionate interests.

I mentioned to Bob I'd seen him at an NBA playoff game of the Washington Bullets (now Wizards). It turned out he was thinking of buying season's tickets for the Bullets. Perhaps we should get our seats together, he said. I was thrilled at the thought. I already had season's tickets--in bad seats. No problem. He'd contact a friend about seats. His friend was Peter O'Malley, himself a close friend of Bullets owner Abe Pollin and a major figure in Maryland politics. For the next 35 years, Bob and I sat beside each other at midcourt. His understanding of basketball was as keen as his knowledge of politics.

The Bullets are a notoriously mediocre team, but there has always been hope. In 1985, that hope was named Karl Malone, a power forward from Louisiana Tech nicknamed the Mailman because he had a part-time job delivering mail. The Bullets had the 12th pick in the NBA draft, which gave them a shot at acquiring Malone.

Bob and I went to the Capital Centre, where the Bullets played then, on draft day. The team had invited season ticket holders to a party. When the 12th pick arrived, Bob began to yell, "Take the Mailman, take the Mailman, take the Mailman," at the top of his lungs. I yelled too. The crowd joined in.

The Bullets took Kenny Green, a forward from Wake Forest. Green was a flop. The last I heard of him, he was playing for the Istanbul team in the Turkish league. The Utah Jazz had the next pick and took Malone. He retired in 2004 after a career as one of the greatest players in the history of basketball.

And so it went. Bob and I had the rare pleasure of watching a historic performance by Leonard Gray, who briefly played for the Bullets. He entered a game in the fourth quarter and fouled out (6 fouls) well before the game had ended. The Bullets lost. We saw Michael Jordan play for the Bullets--after his skills had begun to fade. We watched the Bullets tie a game with 6 points in the final 10 seconds, only to lose by 3 at the buzzer.

Bob got greater satisfaction from following the University of Maryland basketball team. He went to the University of Illinois. In the late 1960s, he took his father to a Maryland game decided in the last seconds and was hooked. He was spotted by members of the Terrapin Club, the boosters club, and asked to join. He did and many of the boosters became Bob's close friends.

Like most Maryland fans, Bob hated the sanctimonious Dean Smith and the team he coached, the University of North Carolina. If UNC played the Soviet Union's team, Bob insisted he'd root for the Soviets. Indeed he would have. He wasn't crazy about Duke either. And he cheered during a game with the University of Virginia, where I went, when the announcer said a Mercedes with Virginia tags was being towed away. I was sitting next to him.

For years, Bob would invite Maryland players from out of town to his home for Thanksgiving. "It was the greatest thing for me," Bob's son Alex told me. "My grandmother thought it was weird." He also took on players as summer interns.

As great as his journalistic achievements (and a lot more fun) was Bob's attendance at every Maryland game, home and away, in the 2001-02 season, when Maryland won the national championship. He traveled to games on his own and arranged with Coach Gary Williams to fly home on the team plane.

Williams and Lefty Driesell, who arrived as Maryland coach soon after Bob adopted the team, came to his funeral. Bob appreciated their ability and liked both of them enormously. It was the politicians he wrote about who aroused his skepticism. He said he could never trust a politician who wasn't a sports fan. And he never did.

FRED BARNES