David Gregory, David Aldridge and Jeff Jones
Earlier this week, Jeff Jones stood on a stage in the American University student center and presented No. 24 Eagles basketball jerseys to two men, David Aldridge and David Gregory. It was the kind of moment that called for a fleet of photographers taking pictures, but there wasn't a fleet of photographers, so Jones filled the pause.
"Actually, the way we've been shooting, if either one of you guys can shoot the three...." Jones said with a pained grin.
"I set picks," Aldridge said apologetically. "That's all I do."
Gregory just laughed, but later -- when the three men were deep into Jones's weekly WTOP radio show -- the Meet the Press host talked about his own basketball history of playing pickup games in Tenleytown.
"Well, it was the closest I ever got to playing competitive basketball, despite my height," Gregory said. "There were some serious pickup games here, usually at night. And I was just reminded recently that Paul Ryan, Congressman Ryan, who's now the powerful Budget [Committee] chairman in the House, was here as part of the Washington semester, probably my junior year. And he reminded me that we used to play pickup games, and there were some real ballers. Those were some rough games. That became a big part of the week."
Then Gregory (class of '92) began ruminating about what sports can mean at a place like American.
"It is a front porch, and people come here, kids come here, you're in a big city, but it's such a small campus," he said. "And everybody wants to be part of this larger community, and sports is really a thing that does that. It's something to rally around, and of course, that's why you can sustain alumni support over the years. There's nothing like it. A friend of mine was in town from Louisville, and we took him to the Louisville-Georgetown, and that energy in college athletics is just different. Everybody's yearning for the same thing. It's that sense of belonging."
Gregory was sitting behind a crowded stage, filled with senses of belonging. There were many bobbleheads of Clawed the Eagle, and American Blue Crew t-shirts and mugs. (The Blue Crew, I should note, is hosting a White Out on Saturday afternoon, featuring white Blue Crew t-shirts, which makes my head hurt.) The Eagles' two Patriot League championship trophies were prominently displayed. Jones was in the middle, surrounded not just by Gregory and Aldridge, but by American AD Keith Gill and play-by-play man Dan Laing. There were about 200 students in the audience, plus free bagels, volleyball coach Barry Goldberg and scattered cheerleaders with pom-poms.
And while Jones was recovering from a road loss to Bucknell -- "This would have been a lot more fun if we won last night," he later said -- the coach pressed on with his radio show, asking his famous guests about the meaning of sports.
"The soccer team getting to the national championship team in '85, and just the galvanizing effect it had on this campus, I can't explain it," said Aldridge, class of '87. "If you weren't here, I can't really explain it to you. It was just a feeling that whole fall -- because they started the season ranked No. 5 in the country, they were very good and they continued to be good all year -- and it just kept building.
"And to get to play for a national championship in a big-time sport, it just had a huge effect on the school, because it brought a lot of different people together. And so, to me, it was the most powerful example I've ever seen of what sports can do to a community. When people are all kind of pulling in the same direction and feeling very passionately about one thing, it can really change -- and maybe not permanently, but at least for a while. It made you feel very different and very good about being here at AU."
Gregory, as I've written before, grew up rooting for Southern California teams, but his oldest son has roped him into becoming a D.C. sports fan. They're especially dedicated to the Nats and the Caps, and at the American event, he again talked about what that means to him.
"I think sports is really about your childhood," he said. "And as much as I love the Dodgers and have a connection to the team, I'm a Nats fan. Now I told the Nats, I'm upfront, I'm a Dodger fan from when I was a kid, you're not gonna take that away from me. But I'm gonna be here supporting the team. And the Caps is something completely new. I'm from Los Angeles, and even though Gretzky played in the '80s for the Kings, I don't come from a hockey culture. But to be in this town right now and to see the Caps [rise] is great, and my oldest son is just so into it, so I'm just trying to keep up."
There was very little talk about this year's American team, which is second in the Patriot League with five games remaining. Jones talked about having to kick leading scorer Vlad Moldoveanu out of the gym to avoid burnout when the three men were discussing how to become great. There was very little talk about politics, either, though Jones asked Gregory whether he might make House Speaker John Boehner cry during this weekend's show. Mostly, they just talked about sports.
"We never let people know how hard this is," Aldridge said, when discussing Ray Allen. "I mean, people think this is just something you sort of do, you just sort of pick up. These are professional athletes; they work extremely hard to be as good as they are....I think people, when they watch sports, because it is such a release for people, tend to think it's something that's easy, and it's not. It's like being a concert pianist. It's not easy, what they do."
"I want to pick up on some of that; I think it's important, but I don't want to sound preachy about it," Gregory said. "One of the things that brought me to Washington and to AU was I wanted to be here, I was focused on a career in journalism and it was sort of unfolding all around me. And I tell young people, you've got to use this time to be building up your strengths in a lot of different ways.
"I always tell people who want to get into journalism, I say, look, if you're kind of checking this out, that's fine, that's cool. Learn about it. But if you decide you want to do it, just know one thing: that there's people like me who are out there. And I used to lay awake nights trying to figure out how I was gonna get ahead in this business, and how I was gonna get to the very top of this profession. That's true in sports, and that's true in journalism."