Now me, I'm a
Nolan Richardson man, always was, and still am. A few years ago,
in a characteristic fit of pique, the late Democrat-Gazette editor John Robert Starr demanded
to know what made me such a big basketball expert. Howcome I'd been so right about
Richardson's ability to coach winning basketball when he'd been so repeatedly and noisily wrong?
(Needless to say, Starr didn't put it that way.)
Well, I grew up in New Jersey,
where football's an equal-opportunity game for clumsy people.
Like my father, I played organized basketball into my thirties. My brother's still playing in a rec center
league at 55. We have a distant cousin exactly my age who's in the NBA Hall of Fame. I even had the
wisdom to marry an Arkansas coach's daughter, who not only thinks it's normal to watch a whole lot of
ballgames-and ALL Razorback games-but agrees that Charles Barkley's commentary on TNT's NBA
broadcasts is the funniest thing on TV. Sir Charles is my favorite black Republican. He recently explained
that underprivileged high school stars were foolish to declare for the NBA draft before their game was ready.
"They can get paid playing college ball," Barkley deadpanned. "Send them to Alabama."
But what really gave me insight
into Nolan was simple: I reported the story. During his second year
in Fayetteville, I wrote a magazine profile of the Arkansas coach. It wasn't my first rodeo. I'd written fairly
extensively about college basketball and major league baseball. I interviewed Nolan at length, attended
practices, talked to former players and rival coaches, and read up on his history. We had a mutual
acquaintance, a guy Nolan played with at Texas Western who'd schooled me in grad school pickup games.
Well, that's an understatement. Ever had a foot race with a greyhound? Like that.
The story wrote itself. Basketball
ain't particle physics. Richardson was smart, determined,
a terrific teacher and a charismatic leader who inspired a mixture of love and awe in his players.
Honest to a fault and shrewd judge of talent, he saw things other people didn't.
He'd won everyplace he'd been; he'd win at Arkansas.
But let's get down to cases:
Many in the Arkansas media were brutal to Richardson after he inherited
a weak team from the departing Eddie Sutton and got off to a rocky start. Much of the criticism was all but
overtly racist. It seemed Nolan was the only college coach in Arkansas who didn't know his Xs and Os.
His teams played "street ball." They had no discipline, guts or character. John Robert Starr must have written
a hundred columns to that effect, and he was far from alone.
Nolan's beloved daughter
Yvonne died of leukemia during the 1987 season at age 16. The dirt hadn't
settled on her grave before editorial and sports columns appeared in the Arkansas Democrat essentially
demanding that he be fired for incompetence. Apart from Starr's earlier attempts to help Sheriff Tommy
railroad an innocent man for murdering his wife, it remains the most contemptible thing I've seen in an
American newspaper. For sheer meaness, nothing Bill Clinton's enemies ever did to him touches it.
Like many others, I said so at the time.
Although his work certainly
never betrayed it, columnist John Brummett was once man enough admit
that his attitude toward Nolan had roots in racial feelings he wasn't proud of. Others never forgave
Richardson for proving they didn't know what they were talking about by winning the NCAA National
Championship in 1994. The same chorus started up again any time the Razorbacks lost three in a row.
Partly because they're pretty much the same people, Nolan-haters are a lot like Clinton-haters: not
everybody who dislikes either man is a bigot, but all the bigots do loathe them both.
Nor did it help that Richardson
did love to rub it in. Nothing seemed to give him more pleasure
than sarcastically humiliating his media antagonists. Given that wit was not his talent, he often used a club
instead of a needle--condemning all sportswriters when he meant two or three, or all fans when thousands
adored him. For all the rubbish sportswriters peddle about "winners," show me a Michael Jordan, a Larry
Bird or a Nolan Richardson, and I'll show you somebody who's driven to beat you every time, then tell you
about it. Nolan didn't hide it as artfully as some.
I do think I understand what
makes Nolan tick. Raised on Irish-Catholic chauvinism, I too learned to
never forget, never forgive, never back up an inch. Trouble is, the anger consumes you. In the end, the
saddest thing about Richardson's leaving the University of Arkansas is that, a bit like Clinton himself,
he handed the pygmies the rope theyneeded to bind him.