Double trouble

I had water bottles thrown at me at San Diego. Pennies at LMU. I had people approach me on the bus, screaming at me, trying to jump on the bus. But that’s when it was just bananas. It was a traveling circus in a sense. I don’t know how else to describe it. Everywhere we went was sold out. People were hanging out in the rafters. — Adam Morrison

College basketball this season has been dubbed The Year of the Senior, which simultaneously has been fantastic for the hoops junkies who thrive on seeing the entire arc of a player’s career and a direct byproduct of the lack of elite freshmen across the country.

Ben Simmons got all the hype early in the year, but as his team sputtered and the likes of Denzel Valentine, Buddy Hield and Malcolm Brogdon put together All-American-caliber campaigns, it’s been the veterans who have made the headlines. It’s been a decade since we’ve seen a season that was this senior-laden. That was back in 2006, when four seniors were named Preseason All-Americans and college basketball was still a year away from hosting the nation’s best prospects for their one-and-done season.

Duke’s J.J. Redick was one of the four seniors on that Preseason All-America team.

The fifth guy on that team?

A floppy-haired, mustachioed junior from Gonzaga named Adam Morrison.

That duo did not exactly enter the season without expectation. They were Preseason All-Americans on top-10 teams at two of the most visible programs in the country. But no one could have predicted the phenomenon that they became, their battle for the nation’s scoring title and the race for Player of the Year becoming one of the biggest stories in sports.

This is the story of that season. Each of the participants in the oral history is listed by the title they had during the 2005-06 season. Redick refused numerous requests to be interviewed for this story. His quotes are attributed to the source they came from.

* * *

“He was just unbelievable. He hit shots from everywhere, every play. … It was one of the all-time great games.” – Tom Izzo (Michigan State Head Coach)

Redick was a superstar for Duke entering the 2005-06 season. He had played in the Final Four as a sophomore, and he was a first-team All-American as a junior, when he averaged 21.8 points per game. He already was one of the most hated players in college basketball history. Morrison entered the season as another guy in a long line of Gonzaga stars that those outside of the West Coast Conference couldn’t really distinguish, but all it took was three games for him to make the transition into a national sensation.

That was when Morrison put on a show in the Maui Invitational, leading the Zags to the title game in a tournament that included four teams ranked in the top 12 and five in the top 25. The game everyone remembers was against Michigan State, a nationally televised, triple-overtime thriller played in primetime on a weeknight, when Morrison finished with 43 points.

JOHN BLANCHETTE (Columnist, Spokane Spokesman Review): “Really, the whole deal it started with the tournament in Maui that Gonzaga played in, with Morrison playing sensational basketball.”

MORRISON: “That was the breakout for myself and that particular Gonzaga team. It was obviously nationally televised and that’s always a fun tournament to watch. Then Michigan State speaks for themselves as far of their talent and track record. Then also, it’s just a three-overtime game that was really fun to watch.”

IZZO: “Maurice Ager and Adam Morrison had a shootout that Morrison won. He was just unbelievable. He hit shots from everywhere, every play. It was a helluva game. I thought [Gonzaga] played really well and we played pretty well, but [Morrison] definitely was the difference in the clutch. He kept answering the bell, making shot after shot. It was one of the all-time-great games.”

BLANCHETTE: “It was literally a March game in November. I can’t remember any Gonzaga tournament games that had as much fire and as much passion as that one did. Maybe because of the setting a little bit, it’s that tiny little gym in Lahaina. There was just an atmosphere to it that was otherworldly.”

MARK FEW (Gonzaga Head Coach): “There’s no fluff, no nothing. There’s two little tiny locker rooms and you share it with the team that just got over and you’re out of there because the next team comes in.”

LEON RICE (Gonzaga Assistant Coach): “It’s pure. You go and you play in these big NBA arenas in front of 20,000, but there’s nothing like these pure gyms, where you’re warming up and stretching and the other team is on the other side of a curtain.”

BLANCHETTE: “That tournament really set the tone for the season. For people locally, it kind of said that this team had a chance to do something great. Nationally, people said, ‘Look at all this drama, look what these guys can do, look at this guy who is going off for 43 points.’”

RICE: “Coach Few, he always had concerns, he was like, ‘I don’t know, guys. We’ve lost our ability to score. Adam has lost his ability to score. He doesn’t score like he used to.’ I’d been with Mark for a long time and we had been best friends for a long time so I didn’t bother arguing with him.”

“That game in Maui, Adam gets 43. That game was one of the most remarkable individual performances I‘ve ever seen. Looks like Adam hadn’t lost his ability to score.”

FEW: “Leon was right.”

IZZO: “Whatever we did [against Morrison], it failed. Like a good head coach, I blame my assistants for that.”

DEREK RAIVIO (Gonzaga Point Guard): “That’s kind of when he started getting into a big rhythm.”

MORRISON: “That put it at a whole different level from there on out.”
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* * *

“He’s like a mountain stream of running water. It goes up against one rock and turns another way. It never stops flowing.” – Rick Barnes

Morrison’s season was rolling along for the first month. He had 25 points against Maryland, 25 against Washington State, 34 against Portland State, another 43-point outburst at Washington. Redick, on the other hand, was just kind of floating along, doing what had become customary for him at Duke. He failed to break the 20-point plateau in four of his first eight games. He struggled against Memphis. He struggled against Virginia Tech. Duke was 8-0, but it wasn’t playing the way that you would expect an 8-0 team ranked No. 1 in the country to be playing. 

Then, December 10 happened. Duke was playing No. 2 Texas in the Meadowlands, and Gonzaga was taking on Oklahoma State in Key Arena in Seattle in the back-to-back games of a doubleheader on CBS.

DAN WIEDERER (Columnist, Fayetteville Observer): “There’s a unique intensity that comes with playing at Duke. On one side, there’s this perception that (Mike Krzyzewski) teams are always overpraised and overhyped. That, in turn, leads to this exaggerated wave of criticisms. So what I remember most about the leadup to that Texas game is that Duke had really been feeling mentally strained. The previous weekend they had dodged an upset at Cameron (Indoor Stadium) against Virginia Tech when Sean Dockery hit a half-court shot at the buzzer. A few days later, they’re sloppy and out of rhythm in an underwhelming win against Penn. There was this stress that came with that. It didn’t matter that you were 8-0 at Duke. If you were ranked No. 1, people wanted you to prove it.”

GARY PARRISH (Writer, Memphis Commercial-Appeal): “Clearly because of the way the schedule played out, the J.J. Redick thing wasn’t a thing yet. I remember this: Even though J.J. had scored 22 points per game the season before, I don’t remember Memphis playing against J.J. Redick being a big deal. It was Memphis against Duke.”

WIEDERER: “As early December college basketball games go, it had all that buzz. OK, this is important. No. 1 vs. No. 2. Verne Lundquist and Billy Packer on the call. One of the first games on CBS early in the season. Vince Young was in New York for the Heisman trophy ceremony and he comes to the game. There’s this buzz for the whole thing.”

CHRIS COLLINS (Duke Assistant Coach): “They had LaMarcus Aldridge, Daniel Gibson, P.J. Tucker. They were loaded. And J.J. just went off. Nine threes, 41 points. They were incredible threes, off-the-dribble fadeaways, guys all over him.”

MIKE KRZYZEWSKI (Duke Head Coach): “As good as they come. For me, it’s up there with any [performance] that any kid has had for me.”*

GREG PAULUS (Duke Point Guard): “It was a special performance. It was just one of those days where, as a point guard, you see him getting it going early and you try to find him whenever you can. He was just making shots.”

LEE MELCHIONNI (Duke Shooting Guard): “J.J. had a lot of open looks, and his ability to come off screens and get open, just burying almost every shot he took. Typical J.J. He just came out gangbusters and set the tone from early on in the game.”

RICK BARNES (Texas Head Coach): “He’s like a mountain stream of running water. It goes up against one rock and turns another way. It never stops flowing.”*

WIEDERER: “He put on a damn show. Nine 3s, not just that he scored 41, Duke wins that game by 31 points.”

COLLINS: “Right after our game, it was a national doubleheader, and I think right after our game [Gonzaga] played.”

FEW: “We were not playing good. Oklahoma State did a good job taking us out of things.”

RICE: “Oklahoma State did everything but win that game. They put themselves in a great position and they did all the right things. They were right there.”

Oklahoma State led by a point with less than 10 seconds left after they missed a free throw.

J.P. BATISTA (Gonzaga Center): “I remember grabbing the rebound and he was the first guy in front of me, so I passed to him and ran to set a screen on him.”

RICE: “We got the ball to Adam on that wing.”

FEW: “We were mulling through some stuff, and then Adam hits a banked three at the buzzer to win.”

BATISTA: “In the locker room he came in yelling, ‘I CALLED BANK! I CALLED BANK!’”

RICE: “To this day, he claims he called bank. That’s one of those legendary Adam things. Knowing Adam, he might have. He banked that thing in from the side for the game-winner. That was pretty remarkable, but that was Adam. We speak about the things that we see in practice, we would practice situations like that all the time and Adam would always make them. We would try to stack the situations even harder. Length of the court, one second left. ‘There’s no way Adam’s going to make this one.’ Then they’d throw it to him at half court and he’d make it. Gosh. That’s when we knew we were seeing things that were not normal. Once in a lifetime. That’s what we would see in practice all the time. When he made it against Oklahoma State, we were like, ‘Yeah, that’s Adam.’”

FEW: “He’s been saying [he called bank], but I doubt it. No one calls bank.”

DAVID PENDERGRAFT (Gonzaga Forward): “I know what he says. I was going to rebound the miss. I was focused and didn’t hear it. Let’s go with that.”

DEREK RAIVIO (Gonzaga Point Guard): “It didn’t surprise me he made it. He was always throwing shots like that up in practice. Messing around, it was kind of fitting. It was just like, ‘Oh, man, that’s Adam right there.’ He said he called it, but I guess we’ll never know.”

MORRISON: “No, I didn’t call bank. What am I supposed to say? It was one of those things where I’ve made a banked 3 before so it wasn’t like an out-of-this-world thing, but I wasn’t trying to bank it in on a fadeaway. It just so happened to go in. So I went with it. It’s like when you make a really long putt. You say you meant to do it. I was going to take the final shot regardless. I certainly wasn’t going to pass it. So I’m just glad it went in, to be honest.”

COLLINS: “That was the day that the J.J. vs. Adam stuff took over the country, and the college basketball season became their year.”

JAY BILAS (ESPN and CBS color commentator): “It was a two-man race really from December on. I don’t remember anyone else really entering the conversation.”

*(Quotes from postgame press conferences.)

* * *

“Before we were just two buddies playing Halo together, and now we’re like, ‘Do you think our calls are being monitored?'” – J.J. Redick

Part of what made the race for the Player of the Year such a media spectacle was that both Morrison and Redick were living, breathing caricatures of the people we wanted them to be. Redick was the archetypal ‘Duke Villain’, a cold-blooded superstar who looked like an Abercrombie & Fitch model. Morrison was a prototypical counterculture college kid, reading Karl Marx and listening to Rage Against the Machine while growing out his hair and showering around twice a week.

That they were both white, confident and brash enough to come for your throat on the court and then tell you, all of your teammates and everyone in the arena within earshot about it only made the subject all the more irresistible.

And then the media found out they were besties who played video games online.

MORRISON: “We were kind of two of the better players to watch at that time. And to be honest, we were both white guys, so that played into it. You’d be an idiot not to think that was a part of it.”

REDICK: “We’re both competitors and we’re both really, really white.”**

MORRISON: “We met at the 2004 Jordan Camp. All the college guys make their rounds at Adidas, Nike and then the Jordan camp. We met there and had similar interests and kept in touch.”

REDICK: “We played Halo 2 together. He [was] on there all the time.”**

RAIVIO: “I remember with video games, he would get really into it. I’d be coming back from practice and he would be hooting and hollering down the hall. ‘Oh, that’s Mo right there. Getting into it with somebody.’ He loved the college experience and the college lifestyle. He was close to all the guys in the dorms. He was always down to play video games. He just thrived in that atmosphere.”

MORRISON: “[J.J. and I] really didn’t play together much. That was an angle the media took. It was a three-hour time difference and obviously being busy with school and our respective roles on the team, video games were kind of on the back burner. It wasn’t as big as everybody made it out to be.”

WIEDERER: The angle was overblown. It was this sort of new-age, 2006 relationship of guys on opposite sides of the country who could talk on a cell phone, text, get on X-Box headsets and play Halo. They could share this common ground, great shooters that could share the spotlight of being a college superstar. Both really into video games. Their communication kind of took off, but those guys, until the postseason when they were collecting awards, they had only met in person one time, 2 1/2 years earlier.”

MORRISON: “It was right at the time when Facebook and all that stuff started to become normalized. Text messaging was no longer thought of as a T9, weird thing to do. It was definitely on the national scale not comparable to now. Everybody’s in touch with each other in some way or fashion.

REDICK: “We’ve talked about how this whole thing between us has been created. I’ll be watching Adam’s game, and Dick Vitale is calling me out and the fans are chanting, ‘J.J. who?’ Before we were just two buddies playing Halo together, and now we’re like, ‘Do you think our calls are being monitored?'”*

*(Via Sports Illustrated.)
**(Via CSTV)

* * *

“It was too easy for him sometimes.” – Derek Raivio

LEON RICE (Gonzaga Assistant Coach): “Adam was a stir-the-pot guy sometimes. He liked to be controversial. He was kind of a James Dean character. It was fun. As a coach, I loved it. I loved showing up to see what was going to happen with Adam that day and see how that was going to go. There’s never a dull moment when Adam’s around. The thing about him, his dad was a coach. He always had respect for us and he would always listen to us. But it was always on the edge.”

MARK FEW (Gonzaga Head Coach): “He’s really, really, highly competitive. We figured out early that if we were going to have good practices, I literally had to make every drill competitive. If I didn’t put a number on it, then he wasn’t interested in giving it his all. 1-on-1 drill, 3-on-3 drill, 5-on-5 drill, then look out. Then it was going to be all the way, right to the level of fisticuffs. Because of that we had remarkable practices. He was so crazy competitive. I would never temper that fire, although at times it was frustrating.”

MORRISON: “My dad probably doesn’t want to hear this, but I wasn’t the greatest practice player at that time. I also was playing 38 minutes a night so I wasn’t exactly into doing the full court 1-on-1 Z until I dropped. I gotta play in a day here.”

RAIVIO: “I still say it to this day. I’ve been in Europe playing nine years professionally, NBA summer leagues and stuff, and of all the guys I’ve seen, he’s got the best ability to put the ball in the hole. Sometimes he would come down and not touch a ball for a month, and he would play pickup and it would be like he was playing ball everyday. It was crazy. Even if you don’t work out for a week, guys are rusty. They’re off. For him, it was just natural. It was too easy for him sometimes.”

DAVID PENDERGRAFT (Gonzaga Forward): “Even when he was done in the NBA, he would come in and play pickup with the guys or we’d play old vs. current guys, and he was amazing. There’s not too many people that can score like that. Three weeks off? He goes in and he just busts guys. It’s unbelievable.”

MORRISON: “I was never injured, so I never took a week or two off. It’s funny, my teammates misremember a lot of things. It’s fine. They set a lot of screens for me so I’ll deal with it.”

PENDERGRAFT: “He did not like to lose. He was intense. He’s not a bully, but he would try to manhandle situations. It’s what made him great.”

J.P. BATISTA (Gonzaga Center): “He was competitive on the floor. He was competitive in a discussion in the locker room. He wanted to be the guy that had the upper hand. He definitely had that competitiveness inside of him. There’s no doubt. We play a game, he wanted to win. We play video game, he wanted to win. He was that guy.”

Proof of that competitive fire could be seen after Gonzaga’s loss to UCLA later that season in the NCAA Tournament. But did you know that Morrison’s most recognizable trait was a direct result of his inability to accept losing?

MORRISON: “One of my teammates dared me to play with a mustache all year when we were joking back and forth, and it kind of grew an identity of its own.”

PENDERGRAFT: “We were goofing off and in the summer, as college kids, you don’t really groom yourself very well. It was one of those things where everyone saw the mustache and in the beginning it just looked ridiculous. And his hair … It was total joke dare and it became a reality. That’s how the conversation went down. Sitting on couches in the summer. But he did it.”

MORRISON: “I think every American boy has a time when bad facial hair was a part of their persona.”

* * *

“It was kind of like, ‘Man, what are you doing? We’ve got a game tomorrow.'” – Lee Melchionni

Talk to anyone around the Duke program at that time, and they’ll tell you that there was a change in Redick between his sophomore and junior seasons. He fully embraced what it meant to be in college, both as a star athlete and a kid that enjoyed the party scene. But entering his junior year, Redick became a different — and unstoppable — force because he was a different person off the court.

REDICK: “I think a lot of college students, when they go through those first two years, they’re trying to figure out who they are and who they’re going to be. And I struggled with that for a while.”

“Maybe if you’ve never partied before and you go to a party on Saturday night and have fun — in your eyes — well there’s another party on Sunday night. Should I go to that, too? You just kind of get caught up in what everybody else is doing.”*

LEE MELCHIONNI (Duke Shooting Guard): “It was kind of like, ‘Man, what are you doing? We’ve got a game tomorrow.’ It’s sort of hard being in that place, but you needed to say that for the good of our team.”*

DAN WIEDERER (Columnist, Fayetteville Observer): “Early on in his career, he partied a little bit more than he should have. He made 3 a.m. visits to the Cosmic Cantina for burritos. He’d be a little heavy.”

MELCHIONNI: “He was enjoying being a college student sophomore year. Not that he wasn’t working hard, but the level his conditioning and preparedness went to his junior and senior year are evident in the statistics that he put up.”

WIEDERER: “There was a point somewhere along the line where both Coach K and Johnny Dawkins pulled him aside and said, ‘You can be an all-ACC player and have a solid career here and do everything the same as you do now, or you can be a jersey-in-the-rafters kind of special if you dedicate yourself.'”

JOHNNY DAWKINS (Duke Assistant Coach): “We asked him, ‘What do you want to accomplish while you’re here?’ The only way you’ll be able to do that is to get yourself into great, great shape. He really bought into that, he really focused, and that became his mission.”

REDICK: “At some point, you wake up one day and think, ‘I’m not really headed down the road I want to head down.’ And I had that day.”*

COLLINS: “That started after his sophomore year. We had a really hard-fought loss to UConn in the 2004 Final Four and he had a late turnover in that game in the lane where he got stripped and we were down by one. He took that loss really hard, and that summer, he made a commitment to his body and his game that he was going to put everything into being as good as he could become. Those last two years, what he was able to do with his shape, I think that’s what set him apart.”

GARRETT TEMPLE (LSU’s Defensive Stopper): “I had to get my track shoes ready to run around with him. A couple of practices before, we had one of our redshirt guys just run around screens the whole practice, some times not even passing him the ball, him just running.”

COLLINS: “We watched a lot of film of Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Reggie Miller. Those were the three guys I tried to get a lot of film of for him. At that time, the three best guys in the world in terms of movement, running off screens, being in great shape, non-stop motion, wearing the defense down. Our goal was always to get to those last eight minutes, and instead of JJ being the one that was worn out and tired, the guy that was guarding him, a lot of times, was the guy that ended up being exhausted because they couldn’t keep up.”

*(Via The Sporting News)

* * *

“He had always been targeted because he’s the scorer, a little bit flamboyant. The role was not a new one, it’s just now you’re on Broadway with it and bigger audiences.” — Coach K

“Fans don’t boo nobodies.” – Reggie Jackson

As the season progressed, the amount of attention that Redick and Morrison garnered became, at times, overwhelming. For Duke, it was more or less business as usual. Redick’s star power, and the requests for his time by fans and media, was not all that different from any other Duke star of year’s past. But for Gonzaga, which had already jettisoned its way into conversation as a top 10-15 program nationally, this was an entirely different level of attention.

As their bicoastal, one-on-one battle became the focal point for SportsCenter every morning and reached the cover of seemingly every magazine in the country, the hate that they would receive from opposing student sections reached insane levels. And, perhaps more than anything else, the one trait that defined both Redick and Morrison was that they reveled in that role. It wasn’t that they loved being the villain as much as it was that the trash talk and vile comments got their juices flowing. And when they got pissed off, they were out for blood.

MARK FEW (Gonzaga Head Coach): “That year when we went to Memphis with [John Calipari], it was enormous. They did something in the papers, like 43 reasons why this is the biggest game for Memphis, because Adam had 43 twice.”

GARY PARRISH (Writer, Memphis Commercial-Appeal): “This came at a time where Memphis was in Conference USA, the s**** version. They didn’t have high-profile games too often. Beyond that, Morrison had just had that Maui Invitational and he was becoming this iconic thing. Long hair, mustache, white dude, scoring all the time. It was an expensive ticket. To get in the upper level it cost real money. It was as hyped a game as I can remember at Memphis. It wasn’t Gonzaga was coming to town, it was ‘Adam Morrison is in town.’ It was like ‘LeBron James is in town’ or ‘Kevin Durant is in town’. It was a big deal.”

FEW: “When you got into Memphis, and places like that that are basketball-centric towns, those are basketball fans. They get it. That kind of ignited it and that probably ignited the national scene.”

MORRISON: “It was bananas. That’s when we knew that we were in the slot of being a team that a lot of people like and some will dislike because we were getting so much media attention.”

FEW: “[Adam] was better in that environment. If ever there was an apathetic arena, which there wasn’t that year, he wouldn’t be that good.”

RICE: “When we played Memphis and Calipari knew that. He’s a smart coach, and he had put his guys on warning.”

PARRISH: “In practice that week, I was in the practices, that’s one of the things Cal was stressing. Because these Memphis kids f’ing talk, man. Chris Douglas-Roberts — he wasn’t a Memphis kid but he might as well have been — Shawne Williams, Andre Allen. They’re constantly talking. Cal was like, ‘Listen, cut that s*** out with this dude. Because he’s crazy. You start talking to this kid and he’ll go off. Just don’t say a word to him.’”

“And there it is, first half, Morrison isn’t really going yet, and he and Shawne Williams end up nose-to-nose. And then Morrison took off.”

FEW: “Cal just went nuts and started lighting up Shawne Williams.”

RICE: “Coach Cal went absolutely ballistic on him. Meanwhile, ‘I’m like, this is great, this is going to get Adam going.’”

MORRISON: “We got into some scuffle, I can’t remember what happened. I think he said something or nudged me and I just, I think Cal was right. I think all greats — and I don’t want to call myself great — good scorers or what have you feed off of that stuff.”

FEW: “Adam literally scored the next 20 points. And that’s just kind of how he was. Adam was also the kind of guy that he’d hit a couple shots, the crowd would start booing and he’d raise both hands, like, ‘Bring it on’. He just thrived under that kind of environment or attention.”

CHRIS COLLINS (Duke Assistant Coach): “Inherently, [J.J.] wasn’t that kind of player. He wasn’t like that when he was in high school. He was a great player, but he kind of just played and didn’t allow the outside environment or anything to get him going in either direction. I think initially in his career it was something he struggled with because he was really good when he was early, and I think he couldn’t understand why there was so much venom towards him. He’s a guy who’s really strong with his faith, he’s a good kid, and all of a sudden, he’s like, ‘Why is there so much hate towards me? I’m just out there playing ball.’”

COACH K: “J.J. had a personality that could handle adversity and not let it interrupt performance. It would enhance his performance. He had always been targeted because he’s the scorer, a little bit flamboyant. The role was not a new one, it’s just now you’re on Broadway with it and bigger audiences.”

DAWKINS: “He eventually liked being the villain. Absolutely. To become a great player you have to enjoy that. You have to look at that as a sign of respect.”

COACH K: “He always used it as a positive and never looked at it as a distraction. Never looked at it in a personal way, but in a respectful way. ‘Why are they giving me all this attention? I must be pretty good.’ The real competitors who are put in those situations understand that.”

WIEDERER: “He liked being the villain because he knew there was little point in hating being the villain. He was going to be the villain either way. He sort of embraced it, and I think he became more mature in handling that by his senior year, with the way he interacted with opposing crowds and the way he carried himself. Early in his career he was a little bit more overtly cocky and a little bit more antagonistic.”

STEVE WOJCIECHOWSKI (Duke Assistant Coach): “It was the worst that I’ve seen and/or experienced while I was at Duke. I wasn’t around to experience up close Laettner or all that stuff, but I can’t imagine that anybody in the history of college basketball has endured the exuberance of opponents’ fans like J.J. did. He got it everywhere he went. The thing about him that was pretty neat was that he kind of reveled in it. He got better in those environments.”

COLLINS: “At Maryland that year, they had to turn the boom mics off. [The fans] were all chanting ‘F*** YOU, JJ’ in unison, every single person in that building. He just kind of had that little grin, like, ‘Keep bringing it my way, this ain’t fazing me.’”


MELCHIONNI: “Maryland brought out their best, or worst, however you want to phrase it, when Duke came to town. They had signs that read, ‘JJ drinks his own piss.’”

WIEDERER: “I remember him and Sean Dockery talking about a poster of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and they had a pink cowboy hat and superimposed JJ’s face on it. He thought it was funny.”

COLLINS: “He learned to just embrace that that was what was happening, and he kind of learned to enjoy the banter and the things people were saying about him, to use it as motivation, but also instead of getting hurt by it, if this is who they want me to be, then I’m going to have fun being that villain. It’s something that he certainly kind of thrived on his last year. I think it helped him deal with all the things that were coming his way.”

REDICK: “I probably in a way bought on some of the animosity towards me with antics. The smiling, the head-bobbing, the trash-talking.”*

“I said, ‘All right, if they want to call me these things, then I’m going to act like a jerk on the court.’ That made people dislike me even more. Over the [last] two years, as I matured as a person, I just [became] more secure in who I am. There’s no reason for me to act like an idiot out on the court or to say stuff to the opposing crowd. Really, the only thing I ever do is just smile because I’m having a great time out there playing basketball.”***

“This is going to sound terrible. At Wake Forest [my senior year], I hit a shot in the second half. It was a tough shot, off a spin move, and I was going down the front row — this is going to make me sound like a jerk — but I just shook my head and said, ‘Man, I’m really good tonight. I don’t know what it is, but I’m just really good.’ I said that to the entire front row. That’s probably the reason people dislike me so much. I guess that’s part of the persona I have on the floor. I would never say that off the court.”**

“But to be honest with you, it was more in reaction to the hate that was already coming my way before I ever did anything to warrant it. It’s almost like every time there is a player at Duke, the media says, ‘Oh, you should dislike this guy.’”*

COLLINS: “Sometimes, if he didn’t have that look in his eye, we knew the way to get to him was to get him mad, get him angry, and if you put him in he would turn it on. The best example of that was his final ACC game. We played Boston College in the ACC Championship and BC had a great team. Craig Smith, Jared Dudley, Sean Williams. They were loaded.”

“It was his last ACC game. Greensboro Coliseum, ACC Championship. Early in that game, they were knocking him around, chucking him on cuts, and I thought he was acting a little bit like a baby in the game. He was complaining, he was whining to the refs. I told Coach K to take him out and we were losing. It wasn’t a big deficit, but we were losing early in the second half. ‘Coach, take him out for a minute. I need to talk to him.’”

“I knew that the only way to get him back to his level was to try to make him mad at me, so I just started unloading on him, calling him a baby, calling him a brat, ‘I can’t believe this is your last ACC game and you’re acting like this.’ After about a minute of me just getting into him, he finally started yelling back at me. As soon as he snapped back at me, I leaned over to my right and I said, ‘Hey coach, we’re ready to put him back in.’ We put him back in and he hit three 3’s as soon as he came in in the span of about 65 seconds and just blew the game open.”


*(Via The Vertical Podcast)
**(Via The Sporting News)
***(Via New York Times

FEW: “The amazing thing to me was that Duke would play two or three hours before us, and J.J. would post an incredible number, and all of a sudden Adam would post the same one or one more three hours later. It was like they were going back and forth, and I don’t know how much the really knew, but it made you wonder. He got 33 and then Adam would get 34 or vice versa. There were a lot of nights like that.”

RAIVIO: “We didn’t really expect to get that big nationally. As the season progressed, it would be on SportsCenter and ESPN every night. Secondary to who won or lost, they just wanted to see who had the bigger game.”

MORRISON: “It got to a point where it was hard for me to go anywhere. It gets to be, ‘I’ve signed three balls for you and now you’re mad I won’t sign the fourth because you want to throw it on eBay?’ As a young kid how do you interact with that situation? Because it’s never presented to you. In any situation in life, nobody gets practice on being a celebrity or whatever you want to call it. It just gets thrown on you. But it was crazy for a while. I couldn’t go anywhere.”

BLANCHETTE: “The SID puts together a conference call, and people can dial in, and they did it in the media room where a couple of us happened to be filing our stories a the time. Adam knew he was going to come in and there were going to be 40 guys on the call, and he was going to answer so much of the same stuff he had been answering all year, and he came in, and the first question was something very typical. And his head just went down and bonked on the table because he was just like, ‘I gotta go through this for another 20 minutes?’ It was the same stuff that he’d been talking about all year. There were times when it dragged on him.”

MELCHIONNI: “Everywhere we went, there were Duke fans and they wanted an autograph, to see (Redick), touch him, be near him. That was no matter where we went, and that was before selfies and social media took off. Before everyone had a camera on their phone. Every restaurant we went to, every arena, even if we just went out, people knew who J.J. was and they wanted a piece of him.”

WIEDERER: “(J.J.) couldn’t watch SportsCenter. What does every college kid want to do: You come home from class, you come home from practice, you put on Sportscenter. But every episode had something about Redick, something about Morrison, something about Duke. He got sick of it. He’d flip on a Gonzaga game to watch Morrison play and Dickie V would be like, ‘J.J., are you watching? OOHHH J.J.?’ It didn’t always have to be about those two, but it always was about those two.”

REDICK: “I [would] check the box score online to see how many [points] Adam had. Neither one of us probably wants to admit it, but we know what each other’s stats [were].”*

*(Via New York Times)

FEW: “It just started rolling from there, and the reason it kept rolling is that [Adam and J.J.] kept producing and kept delivering.”

JAY BILAS (ESPN and CBS color commentator): “If you’re in the WCC, Gonzaga is the storm-the-court game. That’s the game that everyone sells out, and for some, that’s the only one. Same thing with Duke. People come in there ratcheted up for their team to do well and hate you, and those two were the primary targets.”

FEW: “When we got all the way into league, there were just some unbelievable performances where he had 30 in a half with standing-room-only crowds. The fire marshall was kicking people out. Just putting on a show.”

MORRISON: “It was a traveling circus in a sense. I don’t know how else to describe it. Everywhere we went was sold out, people hanging out in the rafters.”

RICE: “We were playing down at Loyola, and they were guarding him, face-guarding him, box-and-1-ing him. All that stuff. There were these fans sitting in the front row on the other side, and they started chipping at Adam, and I thinking, ‘He’s only got seven points, I wonder how he’s going to get to 28 today?’ Those guys got him going and he comes out in the second half and scores 37.”

FEW: “That’s a crazy number. Are you kidding me?”

PENDERGRAFT: “It was a surreal moment. It was like you were watching a video game on easy.”

MORRISON: “Somebody was yapping at me in the crowd. I can’t remember what he said. But it was something that bothered me. It was one of those games where I was in the zone and felt really good. It was one of those things where good scorers in any sport or a musician or anything really where you get into a zone that you feel like you can’t do anything wrong. It was one of those times. Everything I threw up went in. It was fun.”

PENDERGRAFT: “I remember them throwing pennies at us after the game was over. Chucking pennies and bottle caps and everything at us. He was getting into it with the fans and egging them on. He would hit one and just look at them, talk back. Then they’d say other obscene things and he’d do it again. 37 points in one half. It’s just insane.”


MORRISON: “I had water bottles thrown at me at San Diego. Pennies at LMU. I had people approach me on the bus, screaming at me, trying to jump on the bus. But that’s when it was just bananas.”

FEW: “It was like traveling around with the fifth Beatle. We were using aliases to check into hotels and things like that. There were people waiting for the bus in the towns when we got there.”

PENDERGRAFT: “He just did things that made you look at him, like, 1. ‘How, in your right mind, would you decide to do that?’, and 2. ‘How’d you come through doing that?’ There was one in San Francisco where he was feeling it and caught it off the pass and pulled up from the volleyball line, and you’re like, ‘What?’ That is not a good shot for anybody, I don’t care who you are, pulling up from the volleyball line is not a good shot.”

“He hit it. Nothing but net. He had 43 that game.”

FEW: “What would usually happen is that he would end up winning the opposing crowd over. San Francisco, it was standing room only and at the end of the game they’re giving him a standing ovation.”

The subplot to the entire season for Redick was that as he was chasing ACC titles, Player of the Year Awards and scoring titles, he was also making an assault on the NCAA record books, going after Duke’s career scoring record, the ACC’s career scoring record, the NCAA record for 3-point shooting. It was incredible. It was also exhausting.

COLLINS: “That stretch from early December to mid-February, he was doing it every night. There was a look in his eye. I saw it every night. It wasn’t like, ‘Here he’s got it going.’”

BILAS: “Nobody could stop him. They were throwing everything at him. And you’re looking at some of these shots and you’re going, ‘That’s not possible. How do you do that?’ And he just kept doing it.”

WIEDERER: “There was a sense all year long that J.J. understood how big the spotlight was and how big the moments were and he really enjoyed it.”

“I remember that building being super energized that night. They played three consecutive road games after the Miami game, so he needed 30 points to catch Johnny. He really wanted to do it at home, they really wanted it to happen at home.”

COLLINS: “Typical J.J. It was fitting that it happened at home in Cameron. Here’s a kid whose dream his whole life was to go to Duke and get his number retired. He grew up watching the great Duke teams and dreaming of being one of those guys, and I think that made it really special to.”

MELCHIONNI: “It’s an incredible moment for J.J. to not only break the all-time Duke scoring record at home, but to do it with the guy he passed being our assistant coach on the sideline.”

REDICK: “I feel very lucky and I feel blessed and honored for Coach Dawkins to do that. He’s the best player in Duke history, and he helped turn the program around. Without him, I’m probably not here.”*

WIEDERER: “During my time on Tobacco Road, that’s the loudest I’d ever heard Cameron for a non-Carolina game.”

DAWKINS: “I’m sure it was a great to get it there, but knowing J.J. like I know J.J., he was worried about the win.”

*(Via ESPN Broadcast)


COLLINS: “There was a particular night that I really saw it in his eyes. We were playing Virginia at home and that was always a meaningful game for him because that was his hometown school. If he didn’t go to Duke he probably would have gone to Virginia. A lot of guys on that team that he grew up with, playing AAU for Boo Williams, a lot of those guys were on that team. Guys he played in high school with. It was one of the the more remarkable performances I’ve ever seen, I think he scored 40 points on 13 shots. He scored 40 points on 13 shots. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that.”

BILAS: “The guy went the whole year without getting an open shot. It was all unbelievably contested and coming off screens with guys flying at him or having to shot-fake dribble. It was amazing the work rate and what he had to do to score. It’s not just making the shot, it’s getting it. And I don’t know that anybody had to work harder to get a shot than he did.”

WIEDERER: “The other thing that came of that season is that he played 37 minutes a game. They couldn’t afford to take him out. They didn’t talk him out, [which is unique] for a guy like that under that much scrutiny and that much defensive attention.”

COLLINS: “He got a little bit worn down by the end of the year.”

WIEDERER: “There is this, I call it an exhaustion, that comes with playing at Duke. You’re always going to get the other team’s best shot. You’re always going to get the opposing crowd’s most energetic noise and most hostile chants. There’s a drain to that, and I think the drain goes up exponentially when you’re the best player and it goes up even more when you’re J.J. Redick.”

* * *

“Heart. Break. City.” – Gus Johnson

Everyone remembers the way that Adam Morrison’s final collegiate season came to an end. The team’s collapse, his collapse, the tears. What people may not remember is that J.J. Redick’s career was coming to a close with a loss to LSU as Morrison’s final game was tipping off.

WIEDERER: “It’s one of JJ’s worst games. 3-for-18. 11 points. LSU has this kid, Garrett Temple, a long, athletic freshman who I don’t think did shit in the box score, but he was more athletic and quicker than JJ and hounded him all night.”

TEMPLE: “I remember watching him during the regular season on TV thinking, ‘How’s he averaging 28?’ He’s not the most athletic, he can shoot he piss out of it, but he can’t really create off the dribble. If you watch, the shots that he’s taking are deep, but no one is really crowding him. He uses screens well, but the bigs don’t help. I told my brother that if we win our first two games, I’ll be able to guard J.J. When we beat A&M in the second round, he texted me and said, ‘You got your chance.’”

JOHN BRADY (LSU Head Coach): “That may have been the best defensive effort I’ve seen in one of my teams.”*

COACH K: “We could have had a better offensive game, there’s no question about it. But LSU had a lot to do with that.”*

TEMPLE: “The whole game plan was no open looks. Chase him, chase him, chase him. We helped. A lot. When he caught it, we were there trapping, Big Baby and Tyrus Thomas. It was easy for me to pressure guys because I funneled them right to one of the best shot blockers in the country in Tyrus Thomas. You’re not going to get a 3 up and you’ve got to shoot a mid-range because if you get all the way to the rim, it’s going to get sent to the second row.”

COLLINS: “I thought at the end of the season [the entire ordeal] eventually took its toll. I don’t want to take anything away from LSU, they did a great job, but I also thought that what he had to go through from the start of the season to that point, at the very end he didn’t have quite the pop that he had. It stunk because there was no one to me that was more deserving of going to a Final Four and having a chance to win a national title.”

WIEDERER: “He got pulled out of the game with 11 seconds left of whatever it is and goes to the bench and I was expecting more of an emotional reaction from Coach K and from JJ, but they were both just so numb.”

MELCHIONNI: “When the season ended, it’s a shock. It’s abrupt. It’s final. you don’t really realize that you’ll never take the court again as that team.”

COLLINS: “I still have a huge picture in my house of J.J. and I with our arms around each other after the LSU game. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to end, but his senior year was a magical journey, and I don’t know that we’ll see that for quite some time.”

BILAS: “I did the LSU game and it was surprising. LSU played great. They were so athletic. I watched the UCLA-Gonzaga game after.”


PARRISH: “I was there for that one. That was my last year before I came to CBS. I was the Memphis beat writer and Memphis was in that same regional. Memphis was playing the second game. That was the first game. I wasn’t out there for the second half. I sat and watched the first half, but that game was over. They were up 17 points! I remember leaving the court going, ‘This game’s over.’ You had to walk through all these halls and you’re way underneath the arena. They just set up a bunch of tables under the stands in Oracle. And there’s no TV there. But I hear these roars. Loud, crazy roars. You know something crazy’s happening. I finally get out there and realize that UCLA won this game.”

RICE: “I went back like a year later and charted everything that went right and everything that went wrong. It was just like the perfect storm. Everything had to happen, just one little event changes and we would have won that game.”

FEW: “A big play was that we got an offensive rebound and instead of pulling it out to run more clock we tried to go back up with it and got blocked and that led to a fast break. We had a couple situations where we got the switch we were after, they put (Jordan) Farmar on Adam and he’d been just so tough and aggressive and ornery that he’d just bounce a guy like that down and go through their chin, and he settled for a couple jumpers.”

MORRISON: “Raivio turned it over, J.P. turned it over that could’ve been called a foul, I missed an easy jump shot when we were up two and I had a smaller defender on me and I settled, probably should have taken that and would’ve gotten fouled or to the line. A lot of weird plays happened back to back. Ryan Hollins makes two free throws. Farmer makes that running back from 18 feet.”

BILL GRIER (Gonzaga Assistant Coach): “Luc Richard Mbah-a-Moute full-on dove from behind Raivio to tip the ball away. Then they steal the ball from the strongest guy I’ve ever been around in J.P. Batista.”

MORRISON: “We thought we were going to win. The people watching thought we were going to win. We were thinking of Memphis coming up to go to the Final Four.”

RICE: “That one was, to this day, still is lodged in there and it still rubs against you in the wrong way. It took me forever to even watch that game again.”

RAIVIO: “I remember coming into the locker room and it was silent. Adam was down.”

PENDERGRAFT: “Adam was having a phenomenal year, and we had a good team. Being up like we were … that was a tough one to swallow.”

RAIVIO: “It’s a testament to him and shows how much he put into it and how much he cared. We were like brothers; we were with each other every day. It was like family. We were all there and grieved differently. I think it showed right there what it meant to him.”

BLANCHETTE: “Adam was [at the press conference] and once he calmed down after the immediacy of the loss, he was fine and pretty lucid. He was obviously downcast, but he answered questions.”

MORRISON: “I get how people would throw shade or whatever. I’m fine with it. There’s worse things I could’ve done in life than show emotion.”

“The thing is people always expect me to be embarrassed or shameful of it. I’m honestly not. It doesn’t really bother me. I showed emotion. There’s a lot of other things I could’ve done. I could’ve punched my girlfriend in an elevator. If I’m known for (the display of emotion), I’m totally fine and at peace with it and have been for quite some time. People give me the picture to autograph, and they’re like, ‘Oh, sorry’. I’m like, ‘Why? It’s an image from that year.’ I’ll sign it for you, absolutely. Doesn’t bother me.”

“The UCLA game is not a great memory. But people are like, ‘Oh my god, you said UCLA around him.’ I went to the game last year and sat on the bench, and they were like, ‘You’re going to go to the game?’ Yeah. Of course I’m going to the game. When I was [playing in the NBA] with Charlotte, they were like, ‘I can’t believe you played with Los Angeles.’ I had to look at this guy for 10 seconds, and think, ‘Is he just really dumb and I should give him a pass because he’s stupid? Is he thinking that I won’t come to a city of eight million with beaches and beautiful weather because one of the colleges beat us in a game? Congratulations for waking up every morning, because that probably takes a lot of will power.'”

FEW: “A good percentage of high-level players are moved to tears when their career comes to an end. I don’t know why people reacted so adversely to that. They should have celebrated it and understood just how much these guys put into it and how much it means to them. That’s what everybody asks of them, including the people that were making light of it or that had a problem with it. They want it to mean everything to these people and call them out when it doesn’t.”

“Here’s a guy that did lay it all out on the line and he’s reacting to the end of his season and career. And he gets mocked, which is ridiculous. A joke. People should have been celebrating it, the year that this guy had. It had to go down in the annals as one of the greatest single season individual performances in college basketball.”

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    Peter King goes 1-on-1 with Cowboys’ Jason Witten

    Year: 2017
    Runtime: 19:25
    Originally aired on: NBC

    Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has done it all during his 15-year NFL career. The two-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler is the Cowboys’ all-time leader in both receptions and receiving yards and is third in franchise history in touchdowns. The future Hall of Famer let Peter King of The MMQB and Football Night in America behind the scenes for a look into Witten’s recovery process. The end result is an incredibly rare shot of what it takes for an NFL player to take his body from gameday to gameday and perform at their absolute best week after week.

    Off Script: Jeremy Roenick opens up on career, family

    Jeremy Roenick was as outspoken as he was talented during his 20-year NHL career.

    Now 47 years old and almost a decade out of the league, the NHL on NBC analyst opens up to Kathryn Tappen about trouble with coaches, life after getting traded, close family ties and much more in the debut episode of “Off Script.”

    Once more, with feeling

    NEW YORK — Again and again, over and over, they ask him how he FEELS. Well, this is the question to ask, isn’t it? The bus crawls through New York traffic and takes Jimmie Johnson from office building to office building. People wait inside. Kelly Live waits. Charlie Rose waits. USA Today … Mad Dog Radio … NFL Radio … TMZ. They wait for him on top of the Empire State Building. They wait for him outside the Time Life Building.

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

    How does it FEEL to come from nowhere to win your seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, Jimmie? How does it FEEL to tie the two enduring legends of your sport, “The King,” Richard Petty and “The Intimidator,” Dale Earnhardt? How does it FEEL to be the best at what you do, to be inside a race car, rushing at the speed of chaos with 39 maniacs around you barely holding on? No, really, break it down for our audience, how does it feel to be you, Jimmie Johnson, championship race-car driver, part-time triathlete, millionaire philanthropist like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, loving husband, adoring father, everybody’s best friend and somehow, still, the nicest guy?

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

    “Insane,” he says. “It feels insane.”

    “Awesome,” he says. “It feels awesome.”

    “Wonderful,” he says.

    “Surreal,” he says.

    “Incredible,” he says.

    “I don’t know that I have the words,” he says.

    We’ve known each other a long time, Jimmie and I. We’ve talked about a lot of things through the years, about family and sharks, about food and dreams, faith and football, about kids and ice cream and how hard it is to not care when people boo.

    “Let me ask you something,” I say as the day crawls on, and he has been asked the question two or three dozen times, and his eyes begin to close because he’s worn out. “All these people keep asking you how you feel.”

    “Yeah,” he says. “Part of the job.”

    “I know,” I tell him. “But if you keep talking about how it feels, how do you keep anything for yourself?”

    He smiles at that and shrugs and looks out the window of the bus.

    * * *

    There is a giant hill near the small house where Johnson grew up. People tend to know he grew up around San Diego and so they might think about the sun and the beach, colorful sailboats and yachts. He gives off the impression of royalty. But that’s not the San Diego where he grew up. His town was called El Cajon. There are no yachts in El Cajon. His father operated heavy machinery. His mother drove a school bus. They made do. Jimmie would escape down that hill on his bicycle.

    WATCH: NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards on Dec. 2 (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN,, the NBC Sports app)

    That hill — El Cajon mountain — is a road that seems to go straight down. Even in a car, it is a bit daunting. And for the young Jimmie Johnson it held all the secrets worth knowing. He would rush too fast down that hill, then faster, then faster still, until his parents would tell him to chill, and his friends would nervously call him crazy. Then he went faster again. At that speed, he found that he could feel everything. Fear. Breathlessness. Joy. Hope. Love. Pain. Oh, sure, there was always some pain. There was always another crash. Jimmie Johnson was the kid who showed up for just about every class photo wearing a cast or leaning on crutches.

    Well, he couldn’t help it. He needed that speed. He needed to race. There was something about being on the edge — barely in control and barely out of control — that called to him. He would do ANYTHING for that feeling because being on that edge was the thing that made him feel most alive. As the years went on, he realized that to get that edge, he needed to make connections. So he made connections. He realized that to get to that edge he needed to know people. So he met people — the Herzogs, the Chevy people, Jeff Gordon, Rick Hendrick, the people who could help him get where he so needed to go.

    He is just one of those people who cannot leave his fears alone. He needed to explore the fears, dance around them, poke at them if he can. It’s still true. Even after he made his name as a race-car driver and could do more or less anything he wanted, he still spent a vacation diving into the water so he could be thisclose to sharks. Why would a sane person do that?

    “Because I’m absolutely terrified of sharks,” he says, as if that explains it.

    * * *

    Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt. Jimmie Johnson. It does boggle Johnson’s mind that he’s now in that company, officially and inarguably, one of NASCAR’s holy trinity to win seven championships. People can argue who is, in fact, the greatest of all time — and there will be those who believe it isn’t ANY of the three but instead is an Allison or a Gordon or a Richmond or someone like that. Johnson doesn’t care. He’s so happy to be in the discussion.

    Johnson never did race against Petty or Earnhardt, though he raced plenty against their sons. He did meet the legends. Well, he has met Richard Petty quite a few times, but he doesn’t really have any good stories about it. “What can you say about him that hasn’t been said a million times?” Johnson says. “He’s the King. He treats everyone with respect. He’s our greatest champion. He’s always been very nice to me, but he’s nice to everyone, you know? I don’t really know that I have more to add than that.”

    Johnson does have good stories, though, about the two times he met Dale Earnhardt.

    As part of Johnson’s effort to know people, he became friends with Ron Hornaday Jr., a four-time World Truck Series Champion, and a friend of Earnhardt’s. And one day, Hornaday sees Johnson and says, “Hey, you want to meet Earnhardt?” And of course Johnson says yes because Earnhardt was a legend by then. “People my age,” he says, “there was no one on earth cooler than Dale Earnhardt.”

    They walk in together, and Hornaday introduces Johnson. Earnhardt sizes up the kid; Johnson was 21 years old then. And then Earnhadt reaches for a little box and gives it to Johnson. “Here,” he says with no warning or explanation. Inside is a little pocket knife with Dale Earnhardt’s name on it. Johnson is overwhelmed.

    “OK,” Earnhardt says. “So what did you get me?”

    Johnson kind of stumbles around. “Um,” he says, “I didn’t know …”

    Earnhardt growls, “You know it’s YEARS of bad luck if you give somebody a knife and then don’t get a gift in return.”

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

    Earnhardt goes on: “I don’t need your bad luck. I still haven’t won Daytona. I give you a knife and you don’t have anything for me, and now you’re telling me I have to walk around with your bad luck …”

    Johnson panics. He rushes outside and, using all the ingenuity he could muster up, gets a penny. He goes in and gives it to Earnhardt saying, “It’s a heads-up penny for good luck.”

    Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

    “You know,” Johnson says now, almost 20 years later, “I wonder if he was messing with me.”

    * * *

    Did you see Johnson going crazy?  In the minutes after Johnson won that race at Homestead on Nov. 20, the one that clinched the seventh championship, he lost his mind. He danced. He jumped around. He hugged everyone and everything in his path. He screamed — screamed so loud and with such force that even days later he did not have his voice back.  He had won six championships before this one, and he celebrated those heartily, too. But this was different. This was unchained. This was Spinal Tap’s eleven.

    “I don’t even know who that guy was,” Johnson says as he looks at footage of himself going bananas.

    Shock, of course, had something to do with it. Johnson went into Sunday’s race needing to finish ahead of three drivers — Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — to win the seventh championship. And all race long, he could not beat any of the three. They all had better cars. They all had better track position. Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, had tinkered and gambled and even tried making a few rather desperate changes, but none of it mattered. Johnson just didn’t have enough car. Those three guys pulled away, and Johnson was left sitting in his car thinking of ways to be gracious when the inevitable loss happened. “I knew I wasn’t going to win,” he says. “I accepted it.”

    (All the while, his wife, Chandra, was a mess. Chandra is famous around the track for her relatively serene approach to watching Jimmie race. On Sunday, she admitted, she was in the fetal position).

    And then in the final 10 laps of the race, suddenly, a whole series of wacky things happened. Carl Edwards was in command of the championship when the caution flag came out. Poor Carl Edwards. He’s had a glorious NASCAR career, winning 28 races and more than $80 million in prize money, but something has always blocked him from being THE GUY. There was the time he tied Tony Stewart and lost the tiebreaker. There was the year he won nine races, including the last one, but fell short on points. And then there was this one, the time when he had the championship in his hand but a caution flag came out with 10 laps to go and it all went to hell.

    Edwards restarted on the front row, and he had Joey Logano behind him. Jimmie Johnson was behind Logano. And for the first time all day, Johnson thought: “Well, hey, maybe there’s a chance.”

    Logano, as is his style, made a bold move inside to try and beat Edwards on the restart — nobody in NASCAR restarts quite as aggressively and forcefully as Logano. He went so far inside that his car rolled over the painted area near the interior wall. And it was a winning move — his move would trap Edwards between cars, and there’s no escaping that spot. Edwards knew it, knew his race was over if he let Logano by, and so, in a desperate effort to block Logano, he swerved left. “I was a bit optimistic,” Edwards said ruefully afterward. He bumped Logano, and then lost control, leading to a fiery wreck that ended Edwards’ hopes and shut the race down for 30 minutes.

    “As soon as I got by that wreck,” Johnson said, “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. What’s happening here? I might actually win this.'”

    Well, that was certainly the thought in the Johnson camp, where Knaus was pumping his fist and Chandra was losing her mind and so on. During that 30-minute, red-flag delay, Johnson’s crew, his fans, and the many people around NASCAR hoping to see a bit of history were going out of their minds. It was going to happen! Jimmie Johnson! Seven championships! Impossible!

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

    “I guess I was calm,” he says, and even now he’s surprised.

    There was one more break to come Johnson’s way — he expected to be lined up in the third position, which would have been him on the inside lane with his championship competitor Kyle Busch on the outside. If there was one thing that was clear all day in Miami it was this: You did NOT want to be in the inside lane. That was the lane where Carl Edwards AND Joey Logano saw their dreams end. “You just can’t hold your speed on the inside at Miami,” Johnson says.

    But, NASCAR determined that Busch, not Johnson, should be in the third spot. Johnson broke free from Busch on the restart and took the lead.

    * * *

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    There’s an irony about NASCAR: It is the ultimate thrill ride — 200 mph on sheet metal and horsepower and all that’s left of your tires — but you don’t get to NASCAR and you don’t win championships through daredevil feats. You get to NASCAR through great racing, yes, but also by building relationships, by impressing sponsors, by pitching the Lowe’s-Budweiser-M&M’s-FedEx-Napa Parts-Chevrolet-Toyota-Ford car and by working within a team. You win championships by driving like the devil when your car is loose and seems to be on a sheet of black ice, yes, but also by understanding what you don’t know and trusting your crew to handle things. You win championships by controlling your car, but also by relinquishing control. It’s the shakiest of balances.

    And balance is what Johnson does better than anyone in the sport.

    So when everyone asks Johnson how he feels after the seventh championship, well, he tries his best, he uses the balanced words that come closest, but really, in a private moment, he will tell you: He doesn’t really know HOW he feels. It’s all too much to take in.

    “All my life,” he says, “I just wanted to race cars. It was never about the numbers. I didn’t want to win seven championships. I didn’t really want to win one championship. I mean, yeah, I wanted to win, but what I really wanted was to drive a race car.”

    Before this race, he said the thing he wanted was to feel like he did when he was a kid, to strip away all the money and all the fame and all the past glory and just feel that thing he used to stay up all night dreaming about, that thing that pushed him to go down El Cajon Mountain just a little bit faster than felt right.

    Did he?

    “When people ask me how I feel,” he says, “I tell them best I can. I want people to share in this feeling i have. … But I don’t tell them everything.”

    * * *

    The second time Johnson met Dale Earnhardt, well, it’s a much shorter story. Johnson was hanging around with some buddies at Earnhardt’s garage when they all saw The Intimidator’s car roll slowly by with its windows pulled up. Suddenly the car stopped, and it backed up, and the window came down.

    “Hey,” Earnhardt said to Johnson. “You work for me?”

    “No sir.”

    “Then get the hell out of here. I don’t need no lawsuits.”

    And the window rolled back up and Dale Earnhardt drove away.

    At the end of that magical race at Homestead, there was one final restart, and after that Johnson heard “Clear” from his spotter, meaning the race and that seventh championship was his. Then came the disbelief and the crazy dancing and screaming and joy and hugs from his wife and children and the greatest compliment a driver could ever get.

    “Jimmie,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. would say to his friend as he pulled Johnson close, “Dad would think you’re such a badass.”

    The fourth wheel

    MIAMI — Carl Edwards has to know that he’s sort of the odd duck in this year’s Chase. Here, you have Kyle Busch, defending champion, force of nature, superstar. There, you have Jimmie Johnson, six-time champion, legend of the sport.  And third, completing the triangle, you have Joey Logano, 26 years old, phenom trying to insert himself into the story, everybody’s favorite young villain, the future of NASCAR.

    And here is Carl Edwards, 37 years old, a former dirt-track driver who ground out 28 victories in an excellent 13-year career but has never quite crashed through, never won a championship, never quite broken out of the pack of those excellent and professional drivers who make up the heart of NASCAR. People who know him probably know him as the guy who does a backflip when he wins. That’s fun. But it isn’t exactly what he wants.

    When you look at a list of the drivers who won the most races without winning a championship, you see this:

    1. Junior Johnson, 50 wins

    2. Mark Martin, 40 wins

    3. Fireball Roberts, 33 wins

    4. Denny Hamlin, 29 wins

    5. Carl Edwards, 28 wins

    Edwards knows this, knows it better than anyone. He knows there’s a difference in how people look at you when you’ve won a championship — knows there might even be a difference in how you look at yourself.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    “Winning a championship,” he says, “it just means that, you know, you go to bed Sunday night and know, hey, you did it. You beat the best in the world. And we’re the champions … at least until they start racing again. I guess that’s what it comes down to. That’s about the longest a win can last in this sport.”

    Edwards has had his share of championship heartbreak, beginning with his loss to Tony Stewart in 2011. The two were actually tied in points after an epic duel at Homestead, but the championship went to Stewart because he won more races than Edwards that year. NBCSN has shown that race this week, and Edwards admitted that he watched maybe 10 minutes of it. After that, he was so motivated he was ready to jump in a race car immediately.

    There were other close calls, but now, he’s back, and he will not pretend that it’s just another week. When someone asked all four drivers if they were going to try and treat this week differently from other weeks, the other three guys said, “No.” They talked about how you have to treat this race like any other, prepare the same way. Edwards had a different answer.

    “For me,” Edwards said, “I’m going to be honest, this week does feel different. I mean, yes, we do have to go do the same job, like these guys said. But for me, each moment, I almost have to pinch myself, like, ‘Hey, this is really it, we’re getting to do this.’ So this is more excitement for me personally.”

    “Would winning a championship change your self-perception?”

    “Well, yeah, it would be great. I think it would be great … you can print that. It would be great for a different reason for me at this point in my career, though. I’m starting to just realize how difficult this is.

    “As far as self-perception, probably like most race car drivers, I kind of have an ego problem already. So that could put me over the edge, honestly.”

    Edwards’ advantage could be the track. He has won the pole twice at Homestead and has won the race twice, finishing top five five times in his 12 starts. He just won at Texas, which is a similar track that uses a similar tire setup. “There’s not a better race track,” he says. “Statistically, this is as good as it gets for me.”

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    And his dirt-track background sets him up well too. The toughest part of competing in a winner-take-all race is that you have to find a way to win no matter what gets thrown your way. In other races throughout the season, you just do the best you can with what fate deals you. There is always more than one winner in a regular season NASCAR race. There’s the driver that takes the checkered flag, but there are also those who had to overcome numerous problems, mechanical issues, tire trouble, poor pit stops, whatever, and somehow finished seventh or 10th or something like that. Every week, you will hear drivers and crew chiefs say happily, “We got the most out of our car today.”

    But for the four drivers left in the Chase, that’s not really an option on Sunday. It’s all about winning.

    “Carl’s real good at driving through the limits and being able to compensate for something not being right the with the car,” his teammate and competitor Kyle Busch says. “He’s able to make more out of it. So that sets him up pretty well.”

    “I think that comes from his dirt background,” Johnson says. “He’s used to dealing with cars that just weren’t exactly right.”

    “Yeah, that’s nice for people to say,” Edwards himself says. “But this is NASCAR, you have the best drivers in the world, they’re ALL good at making the most of their car. The other three drivers in the Chase are incredible. I don’t really think I have an advantage in that. All of us are good at that.

    “I do feel like, yeah, I like the challenge. I feel like if they would spray the track down with water and said, ‘OK, everybody race,’ I would enjoy that struggle. … But I’ll enjoy this week no matter what. It’s fun. This is what I like.”

    One for the history books

    MIAMI — There is a funny thing about sports dreams. You know, the kind you have when you’re a little kid. You dream about hitting the game-winning home run. You dream about catching the game-winning touchdown pass, or swishing the game-winning basket, or scoring the game-winning goal, or making the putt that wins you the Masters.

    Few of us ever get to do it, of course. But that’s not the funny part.

    The funny part is that the people who DO get to do it, well, they find that it isn’t exactly like the dreams. Take Jimmie Johnson. He has won six NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships. Six. Only two men — Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt with seven — have any idea what that’s like. But to be realistic, even they don’t know EXACTLY what it is like because the sport has grown so much bigger, the money has grown so much bigger, the pressure has grown so much bigger. So many people are counting on you. So many people are rooting against you. Gigantic companies have many millions of dollars at stake.

    And so even though this is all Jimmie Johnson ever wanted — to be the best race car driver — those first five championships felt nothing at all like his childhood dreams. He didn’t even ENJOY them, not in the way we understand the word “enjoy.” Yes, he was very proud of what he and his team did. Yes, he thrilled in the racing, the speed, the challenge, the victories, the opportunities that came with being the best stock-car driver in the world. But it wasn’t fun, if that makes sense. It wasn’t that innocent joy that went along with all those childhood daydreams, that feeling of the world going in slow motion, that intoxicating blur of champagne and happiness and wonder. He would stay up at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking about how he could stay on top.

    In 2013, when Johnson was 38 years old and won his sixth championship, the feeling was closer to what he had hoped. By then, Johnson had let go of a lot of things, a lot of the insecurities. He had stopped worrying so much about pleasing everyone. But even that wasn’t EXACTLY what he had dreamed about.

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    “You’re like, ‘Wow, this is nutty, this is stressful, can I do it?'” Johnson says. “You have all of these things weighing you down. When I won those first few championships, it wasn’t fun AT ALL. There was always more to do, you know? In ’13, it definitely felt different. I felt different. That was the most fun I’ve ever had racing for a championship by far.

    “Still, some days, you wish you could feel that thing you wanted as a kid, you know, that place you see in the movies or hear about in stories, and it is surreal, and the world stops and time stops, and it is perfect.”

    So that’s what this time is about. Johnson is 41 years old. He’s a legend of the sport. He has won six championships and 79 races and more than $150 million in prize money. He has won multiple races every year since he was a rookie. The legacy, if such a thing matters, is secure.

    And so, this race is for him.

    “I feel different going into this championship than I have ever felt before, there’s absolutely no doubt about that,” Johnson says. “As weird as it may sound, I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been. And that’s a major player. I have nothing to prove to anyone, and I don’t care what other people think. I really don’t. I’m racing this weekend for me and my family and my team. I don’t have any outside baggage that’s on me. That was other years. There was plenty of that stuff. None of that matters to me anymore.”

    He endured an odd year. It began like most Jimmie Johnson years do — he won in Atlanta in the second race of the year and followed that up three weeks later with a win at Fontana. And then he and his team went into a bit of slump. In a 15-race span, he finished in the top five four times while finishing 20th or worse six times. He and his crew chief Chad Knaus struggled week to week. There was the talk — which has grown louder the last couple of years — that Johnson was close to the end. “I definitely missed driving up front,” Johnson says.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    Then came the Chase and it has been absolutely perfect. He breezed into the second round, then won the first race, Charlotte, to automatically move into the third round. He promptly won the first race of the third round, in Martinsville, to qualify for Sunday’s final four. Johnson’s team has had two stress-free weeks to prepare the car for this final race, and while nobody knows if that will make a difference, well, it can’t hurt.

    And Johnson is just enjoying it. “I’m excited,” he says. “And I’m fresh. I don’t know if it will change as we get closer to the race, if the nerves will come. But I don’t think it will.”

    He is well aware, of course, that winning this title would tie him with Earnhardt and Petty for most championships — so aware of it that ever since he won the race in Charlotte he has been wearing a helmet with Petty and Earnhardt’s photos on it and the words “Drive for Seven.” He says that if he could tie those two legends of the sport, it would mean the world to him because it would connect him to history.

    But, again, he promises not to let that inflate into pressure.

    “I never race for stats,” he says. “I’ve never raced for stats, for fame, for money. I’ve just always loved racing. I feel like I’m more in touch with that, in tune with that, than I’ve ever been in my career.

    “I think about those dreams I had as a kid, dreams all of us have in our own way I suppose. I guess I want that moment. I’ve done this for a long time. And I’d love to have that moment.”

    Promises, promises

    MIAMI — Two years ago, Joey Logano showed up for his shot at destiny … and he was scared out of his mind. He doesn’t like to say it that way. He would prefer to just say, “I was nervous. Because I didn’t know what was happening. And I think that’s where nerves are going to come from.”

    He was just 24 years old then and he was trying to join Jeff Gordon and Bill Rexford as the only two drivers to win a championship before turning 25 years old. But it was different for Logano. He’d been preordained to be NASCAR’s next superstar ever since he was a teenager. “Sliced bread,” they called him — as in “best thing since …” — and while he sort of got a kick out of the nickname and the expectations when he was a kid, those things soon felt like an anchor tied to his waist.

    “Sliced bread,” people would mutter savagely every time he finished out of the top five.

    “Sliced bread,” people would taunt him because he won just three races in his first five full seasons.

    “Sliced bread,” other drivers would mock when they felt like Logano pushed his aggressiveness too far.

    Then in 2014, it finally came together for Logano. He won five times. He came to Homestead with a real chance to win the championship … only he readily admits that his head just wasn’t in the right place. “I couldn’t settle my mind down,” he says. “I was thinking about what could happen … or what’s going to happen … what’s the week going to look like … what’s the feeling on Sunday going to be … what is it going to feel like like getting in the car … do I have what it takes?”

    Here Logano smiles. He’s famous for that smile.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    “I think that’s the big one. ‘Do I have what it takes?’ I didn’t know then. I know now.”

    “What do you know?” 

    “I know the challenge ahead. I’m prepared for that. I’m ready for that, ready for the pressure. I’m more than ready, I’m excited about it. I’m genuinely pumped. It’s like a complete 180 from last time I was here.”

    There are times when it feels like Logano has been racing forever — and he HAS been racing full time since 2009 — but he’s still just 26 years old. He’s five years younger than Jimmie Johnson was when he won the first of his so-far six championships, three years younger than Dale Earnhardt when he won his first of seven. And he’s five years younger than any of the other drivers in the Chase this year.

    And it’s the combination of youth and experience that makes him unique … and dangerous. NASCAR people will tell you: Young drivers go FAST. The great Junior Johnson used to say, “They don’t know no better — they haven’t hit the wall yet.” So younger drivers push closer to the edge than might be prudent out of youthful exuberance and daring. That makes them go extremely fast, yes, but then they tend to burn out (or spin out or get spun out).

    Logano has that speed. But he has more or less stopped burning out.

    “When you’re flirting with the edge, you’re going to step over it from time to time,” Jimmie Johnson says. “And he has. I think he’s figured out how to inch his way up to the edge instead of flying over it like he did three or four years ago.”

    “For me,” Carl Edwards says, “a switch has gone off the last couple of years for Joey. He’s just so fast everywhere. I have a feeling he’s going to be VERY fast on Sunday. He’s hungry. He wants this very badly. You could argue that he doesn’t have a lot of experience or whatever but I’ve been around long enough. I’ve watched how he’s been approaching this. I think he’s got a ton of confidence.”

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    The other three drivers talk a lot about handling whatever adversity comes this week, being patient, always, in the immortal words of NASA legend Gene Kranz, “Working the problem.” Logano talks about these things too, but more he talks about being aggressive … and being aggressive … and when that doesn’t work, to keep being aggressive.

    “Attack all day,” Logano says of the gameplan. “That’s it. It’s the way our team is. It has been for the last three years or whatever. That’s what we found to be successful for us. Race aggressively. Attack every minute. I start the race and say, ‘I’m here to win,’ and I have that ‘I will not get beat’ attitude throughout the race. Whether that’s good or bad, well, it’s different for other people. Probably it’s a lot different. But it works for us.”

    And when you ask him how he will deal with the frustration that might come with a poor pit stop or a car that won’t quite adjust to conditions or the ever-changing conditions of the track, he smiles again.

    “Frustration is OK,” he says. “It’s OK as long as it’s channeled in the right way. But there’s never that feeling of ‘We’re just not going to win today. It’s just not our day. We suck.’ There’s never that feeling. Because I know we don’t suck. I know I’m a very good race car driver. I know I have a very good race team. And I know we can handle this.”

    The Magic Man

    MIAMI — The wonderful thing about the press conference for the NASCAR Championship Four — just three days before the big race — is that you have all four of the contending drivers sitting on the stage side by side. And because they are sitting next to each other, you can get just a small feel for how they feel about each other and their chances and everything else coming into the winner-take-all final race.

    Joey Logano, for instance, is totally pumped up, super happy. Why not? He won last week to become one of the four drivers to have a chance to win a championship Sunday. This is the dream, man.

    Jimmie Johnson seems calm, beyond calm, like he’s done this whole thing a million times before, which is pretty close to true.

    Carl Edwards looks a bit dazed, but in the best of ways. He’s 37 years old now and he has won 28 races and more than $80 million, but he has never won a Sprint Cup Championship. He looks like a guy in a dream.

    And then there’s Kyle Busch. He looks, um, lethargic.

    “Do you guys like each other?” someone asks the group.

    “Kyle,” Logano says, “we’ll let you answer that.”

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    Busch looks out with a bit of a bewildered expression, as if someone has just woken him up from a nap. “I am exhausted,” he would say later. And when asked why, he would say, “I am always exhausted.”

    “Do you like each other?” was the question to the group.

    “Right now, yes,” Busch says. “In about 25 seconds, no.”

    Kyle Busch has the aura now. For so many years, he was the guy with unlimited potential, the impossibly talented driver who won a lot of races but always should have won more. Busch himself bought into the hype. He lashed out. He got into numerous dust-ups. Fans loathed him. He beat himself up continuously. In the words of his team owner Joe Gibbs: “He always felt like he was letting himself and his team down, like he wasn’t living up to his great talent.”

    Last year, it all changed. What a year that was. Busch got into a wreck at Daytona that threatened to end his entire season — for a brief time it seemed like his career might be in danger. Even once the doctors got a handle on his condition, Busch was supposed to be out for a minimum six months. Three months later he was standing — wobbly but standing — in the hospital room when his wife Samantha gave birth to their son Brexton.

    Then he came back to the track … and he was essentially unbeatable. In a beautiful five-week span, he won at Sonoma, at Kentucky, at Loudon and finally at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis — his first major victory. He won so much that he easily qualified for the Chase even though he’d missed 11 races. Then he made it to the final four, and he ran away to victory at Homestead for his first championship. In the last few laps, he was singing the theme song for “Vocabularry” — his infant son’s favorite TV show.

    A magical year like that, yeah, it changes a person.

    “No,” he says now, “it doesn’t feel a whole lot different.”

    A magical year like that, um, it sort of changes a person?

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    “Well, look, it hasn’t been terribly different on the racing side,” Busch says. “Personally, with Brexton at home and stuff like that, that’s different. Having him come to all the races, that’s pretty fun. We certainly enjoy the time that we have on the road. But, you know, I’m just me.”

    So, OK, maybe a magical year like that doesn’t change a person — but don’t tell the other drivers that. They see a different Kyle Busch. There was always a saying in the garages about Kyle Busch during those years when he could not quite put everything together: If he ever wins a championship, watch out.

    Now that he’s won one, yes, watch out.

    “He just has so much confidence now, you can see it,” Johnson says. “I mean, he was always a confident guy, but it’s different, I think. Now, he’s a champion. Now, he KNOWS.”

    That is exactly the thing that is apparent as Kyle Busch sits off to the side during the press conference — it’s like he’s separate from the other three. He knows. He’s the defending champion. He’s the closest thing this Chase has to a favorite. He’s the guy in the best position to take over this sport, to be the new Dale Earnhardt, the new Bobby Allison, the new Richard Petty. A year ago, after he won his championship, he boldly said he’d like to win 10 in a row. When people laughed, he made it clear that he wasn’t joking.

    “It’s not about what we did last year,” he says. “We’ve already got that one. It’s in the bag. This is about going out there THIS one. It’s one race. It doesn’t matter what the situation is this week, doesn’t matter what comes your way, you have to figure out a way to win.”

    That, more than anything, might be what makes Kyle Busch the favorite. Right now, there is no stock-car driver anywhere who can make more out of less than Kyle Busch. Just last week in Phoenix, he had a tepid car that was running around 15th for most of the race. Through sheer relentlessness, a few adjustments on the car and a bit of driving brilliance — especially on restarts (Busch is a wonder on restarts) — they somehow finished second and could have won.

    “Oh, Kyle can make some magic,” Johnson says. “And knowing him, I’ll bet he will on Sunday.”

    No more fun and games

    Cam Newton, at his best, is a magical player. He does things that blow minds. He throws 30-yard darts that slip by defensive backs before they can react. He avoids sacks not so much by eluding them as by simply standing up through them, a brick house in the Big Bad Wolf’s wind. Newton takes off running and in the open field he is both halfback and fullback, able at times to split defenders in two the way Gale Sayers could, able at other times to blast through a defender, not unlike the way Neo blasts through Agent Smith at the end of “The Matrix.”

    This is Newton at his height, when the conditions are right, when his team is playing great and the opponent is in retreat and, as the Magic 8-Ball says, “All signs point to yes.”

    This was Newton last year for a 15-1 Panthers team that went to the Super Bowl.

    Something has changed this year, of course. That part is obvious. It isn’t that Newton is playing badly. His numbers are down, yes, and the Panthers are 3-6 and in last place. But he’s still among the top five or 10 quarterbacks out there. And there have been a few familiar moments. He threw for four touchdown passes against San Francisco. He has had a couple of dazzling runs. He has put his team in position to win for the most part, including last week against Kansas City. It isn’t like Newton suddenly forgot how to play football … he’s still Cam Newton.

    But something has obviously changed.

    What? There are a few clear possibilities. The Panthers’ defense was otherworldly last year, forcing turnover after turnover, setting up Newton and his offense with golden opportunities time and again. That has more or less stopped this year. The Panthers are starting inside their own 20-yard line more often. This has affected the Panthers’ offense generally and Newton specifically. He’s thrown only 10 touchdown passes this year. All the numbers are down.

    On offense, the line has been beat-up and inconsistent, and that has knocked Newton off his game. He has thrown off his back foot more often, and that usually leads to bad things. It did last week when the Panthers seemed about ready to put away Kansas City — a retreating Newton threw a pick-six that put Kansas City back in a game that should have been over. Newton has dealt with injuries, too — he missed the game against Tampa Bay, and he wasn’t himself in others.

    Watch: Saints vs. Panthers on Thursday Night Football (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports app)

    And, perhaps most of all, teams have been taking their free shots at him at every turn. Newton is 6-foot-5, 245 pounds and a great runner, so teams obviously have to tackle him hard. But there’s no question opponents have taken this to an extreme this season. They have hit Newton late a few times, stolen some shots to the head, unloaded some knockout blows. And, for the most part, there have been no penalties to accompany the hits, possibly BECAUSE Newton is so big and powerful.

    This has driven Newton to distraction. Newton seems to believe the whole world is ganging up on him. A couple of weeks ago, he flatly said that the late hits are “really taking the fun out of the game for me. At times I don’t even feel safe.”

    Newton has a beef. But more to the point here, all of this leads to this rather simple theory that I have about Cam Newton.

    He needs to be having fun to play his best football.

    And this year, he’s just not having any fun.

    Great athletes tend to feed off different motivations. Some want to be loved. Some seem to get a huge kick out of being despised. Some are motivated by fear, others by anger, still others by fame and fortune. Tom Brady, for instance, STILL seems to motivate himself by disrespect (you might have heard that he was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft) even though it has been years since anybody disrespected him (Roger Goodell aside). Meanwhile, a player like Carolina’s impeccable linebacker Luke Kuechly seems to motivate himself through the daily challenge of figuring out how to break up an offense — it is like a puzzle for him.

    Newton apparently grazes off joy. He wears the hats. He does the dances. He gives away the footballs. The bigger the lead, the more fun he has, the better he plays. The louder the crowd, the more fun he has, the higher he soars. This is part of what makes Newton such a joy; through it all, he PLAYS football the way kids PLAY football. It’s a game. And it’s so much fun when everything is working and everyone has come together.

    This is something people around the Carolina team have noticed for years. There have been times that people inside the organization have wondered if Newton could be serious enough to become a great NFL quarterback. Soon enough they realized that it was the wrong question, realized that being serious doesn’t suit him or his play. You probably noticed how serious Newton looked in the Super Bowl last year. That didn’t turn out well.

    Marty Schottenheimer is one of the many coaches who noted that you can’t have fun in the NFL if you lose. The Panthers are coming off one of their worst losses in recent franchise history, a complete giveaway to the Chiefs. Their playoff situation looks pretty dire — Carolina might have to win out. The key will be getting Newton to start having fun again.

    The remarkable rise of Andy Murray

    For years, there was this fun argument going on about Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. The argument assumed that both men are the best who ever played golf and tennis (an open debate, obviously). And it led to one question: Who is better at their sport?

    The argument never really went anywhere because for every point (golf requires beating the WHOLE field rather than one opponent at a time), there was a counterpoint (one mediocre/bad day in golf does not sink a golfer’s chances, but it can end a tennis player’s tournament).

    For every factor that points to the difficulty of golf (it is so mentally challenging that even the great golfers will miss cuts with some regularity — Phil Mickelson missed 11 in his career) there is another that points to the difficulty of tennis (it is so physically grueling that many of the greatest players — John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Mats Wilander, on and on — won their last Grand Slam singles title by the time they turned 25 years old).

    Anyway, it was fun to talk about, even if it never really led anywhere. But there is something that does seem to be emerging about the wonderful dominance of Woods and Federer. You might call the two effects “dishearten” and “hearten.”

    All of this, eventually, will take us to Andy Murray. Hopefully.

    Tiger Woods was such a force in golf that he disheartened his opponents. He broke their spirit. They could not beat him, not when he was on his game, not when he was slightly off his game and, quite often, not even when he was very much off his game. There’s an old Jack Nicklaus line that is even more true for Woods: He knew he would beat you, you knew he would beat you, and he knew that you knew he would beat you.

    FIfty-eight times, Woods was either in the lead or tied for the lead going into the final round. He won 54 of them. He won the first 14 major tournaments he led after 54 holes.

    And how did this uncommon mastery of a sport that is supposed to defy mastery affect other golfers? It crushed them. Sure, there were supremely talented golfers in Woods’ time, several who are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. But let’s put it this way — from the time when Woods broke onto the scene and breezed to the 1997 Masters title to when he won the U.S. Open on one leg, there were 46 major championships.

    Tiger Woods won 14 of them, as mentioned.

    The other 32 majors? Well, 25 different golfers won those 32 majors. Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson won three. Mark O’Meara, Retief Goosen and Ernie Els won two each. Those five terrific players — four already in the Hall of Fame with only Goosen waiting — won fewer majors than Woods COMBINED. And the other 20 majors were won by 20 different golfers. It’s a clear pattern: Everyone would show up at the majors with the hope that Woods was way off his game. Then, and only then, did they have a chance.

    His magnificence was unassailable. It was meant to be enjoyed and feared but not challenged. The best golfers on earth not named Tiger Woods had to console themselves with the huge sums of money that Tiger brought into the sport and the hope that maybe someday he would stop winning everything and leave some tournaments for everyone else.

    So, yes, Tiger Woods was disheartening.

    Roger Federer, somehow, was the opposite. He was every bit as dominant as Woods — the numbers are even more striking. From 2003, when Federer won his first Wimbledon to 2010 when he took the Australian Open, there were 27 Grand Slam tournaments. Federer won 16 of them, more than half, and reached the final in another six. The only other tennis players to win Grand Slams in Roger’s time: Rafael Nadal, who won six, and five others who managed one each.

    But it was different somehow. There was something magnanimous about Federer’s beautiful game, something that opened up possibilities in the minds of other tennis players. Golfers would see Tiger Woods hit miracle shots out of trouble and make every important putt he looked at and they would think: NO SHOT. But Federer would hit some implausible running forehand winner or spin a drop-volley with such touch that it would not even bounce, and the other tennis players would think: I WANT TO DO THAT!

    That begins with Nadal, of course. He seemed to be just the latest in a long line of Spanish and Latin American clay-court specialists — Sergi Brugera, Gustavo Kuerten, Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrera — who would show up at the French Open to win and then disappear like top-spinning swallows of Capistrano.

    Nadal, though, was stirred to take his game to a higher place. He has spoken eloquently about how the inspiration of Federer took him there. Nadal has won all four major championships and 14 Grand Slam tournaments in all — he has his place now in the inner circle of all-time tennis greats. His rivalry with Federer might just be the greatest in tennis history. Nadal has controlled it for the most part with shots that kick up high and attack Fed’s backhand like wasps. Still, their tennis has lifted the sport.

    Novak Djokovic was next. He had both Federer AND Nadal to contend with, something that certainly could have left him entirely discouraged. At times, he did indeed seem discouraged. Djokovic does not have quite the grace or touch of Federer nor the ferocious power of Nadal. He found his own path — foot speed, instincts, hitting balls on the rise, imposing return of serve and sheer ambition. He has now won 12 Grand Slam titles, including the career Grand Slam. He has a winning record against both Federer and Nadal. He too has a place in tennis’ inner circle.

    All of which brings us to Andy Murray. He has been around a long time. It is tempting to think that Murray is younger than he is, but he was born in the same month as Djokovic (Murray is actually a week older). He is less than a year younger than Nadal. He played in his first Wimbledon in 2005. He has endured more or less the ENTIRE period of Roger and Rafa and Novak’s dominance.

    He did not just endure that dominance, he was repeatedly smacked down by their dominance. The first 10 times he reached at least a Grand Slam semifinal, he was knocked out by Nadal (four times), Federer (three times) or Djokovic (two times)*. If anyone had good reason to grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time, it was Murray.

    *He was also beaten once in a semi by Andy Roddick, another slap in the face — he couldn’t even be the best ANDY on the court that day.

    And Murray seemed, well, to put it delicately, just the type of person who would grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time. Murray in 2008, when he was 21 years old and had not yet won a single significant tournament (no offense to the Qatar Open) nor reached the final of a Grand Slam event, wrote an autobiography called “Hitting Back.” Nobody was entirely sure WHY he wrote an autobiography at that time, but he did indeed hit back — at British tennis, at the media members who doubted him (he was refusing to even talk to the BBC at the time) and at the unfair obstacles he seemed sure that everyone was putting in his way and his way alone. He came across as a very angry young man, though nobody was entirely sure why.

    Then, maybe the answer why was obvious. Federer was majestic then. Nadal was ascendant. Djokovic won the Australian Open that very year. There seemed to be no room in the tennis world for Andy Murray, and he seemed to know it.

    So what happened from there? The book kept getting updated as Murray began growing up. The paperback version of that book was called “Coming of Age.” And then the book title was updated and titled  “Seventy-Seven: My Road to Wimbledon Glory.” That happened in 2013, after Murray broke the 77-year British drought and won Wimbledon. By then, he was a different tennis player and a different man. He had won the Olympics in London. He won the U.S. Open that year. He had found himself.

    And I would argue that it was, once again, the inspiration of Federer, who inspired Nadal, who inspired Djokovic, who inspired Murray. Andy improved everything about his game. And he did it by building up every single part of his game. He doesn’t really do anything specifically better than the rest of the world. But you know those Sprint commercials where Sprint basically admits it’s not QUITE as good as Verizon, but it’s 99 percent as good for half the price?

    Murray doesn’t quite have Djokovic’s return of serve (no one in tennis history does) or his pure speed — but it’s probably 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Nadal’s bullfighter tenacity — win or die with honor — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Federer’s ability to hit the “gaga shot” that tilts an opponent’s head the same way shaking a pinball machine does — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    In other words, at least as I see it, Murray created a game that is like an homage to those masters he has been trying to beat. He does a little bit of everything, and he brings along some of that youthful rage and intensity, and here he is: Murray is now the No. 1 player in the world.

    It is unclear if he will stay at No. 1 for very long. Djokovic seems worn down by his own extraordinary rise, but he has still made the final of nine of the last 11 Grand Sam tournaments, winning six of them. Djokovic also dominated the head-to-head matchups between them, winning 24 of 34 matches and eight of the 10 times they played in Grand Slams. It seems a pretty good bet that he will be back, and so this could be just a Murray blip, a fluke of timing.

    Or it could be more. Either way, for Murray to reach No. 1 after all these years is an extraordinary thing.

    When Tiger Woods hit the golf scene, you will remember there was a lot of talk about the generation of golfers he would give rise to, the young golfers who, seeing what he was doing, would find a way to take golf even higher. We might be seeing that with golfers like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, though it is too early to tell.

    Federer’s impact is clearer. He came into the sport during a lull, just as the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi era was ending, and he played sublime and previously unimaginable tennis. And his tennis genius has helped create three of the greatest tennis players who ever lived. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do that. But, hey, who DOESN’T want to be Roger Federer?