Getting to know Gus
SALT LAKE CITY — When Gus Johnson served up an unsolicited cigarette as a peace offering, the bizarre two-day story had, like Ruben Studdard’s career, come full circle in a hurry.
Ever wonder why this was so short? Certainly not, but I’m going to lay it out anyway. I’ve been careful about sharing this for nearly a year because I didn’t want to go all Deadspin on the guy. The more I think about it, though, the more the tale seems conveyable.
After all, Gus didn’t do anything to embarrass himself. He did a bang-up job of embarrassing me, but I harbor no resentment. This is simply the story of a misunderstanding.
The scene is Salt Lake City’s EnergySolutions Arena, during last year’s NCAA Tournament. Less than 24 hours before Kansas State and Xavier would tip off the best game of the event, I needed some filler to go along with my other pregame coverage. It was getting late. There were no more than a handful of people left in the building. The teams practicing that day had departed, leaving a small group of particularly masochistic media members on hand as things wrapped up for the afternoon.
The Topeka-Capital Journal’s Austin Meek, the only witness to all this, and I were a part of the small posse, and, as it turned out, so was Gus. The light bulb in my head didn’t take long to flash.
Sporting a pair of dark-rimmed glasses, he made his way down press row and took a seat beside me. I started my recorder and began lobbing quirky softballs. The interview was going well. He even found a way to work in an “Octagon of Doom” reference, a phrase he strangely emphasized.
“oc-TA-gon of DOOM”
I’m not sure why I remember that. Maybe it’s because things took a strangely abrasive turn shortly thereafter. This question represented a switch that turned an energetic, playful announcer into a Mike Vick-raised pitbull, and in this case, I was the tire to be chewed as a means of training.
“Do you ever have to foster excitement for moments in games or does it always just come naturally to you?”
That was it. Harmless right? Yeah, just like an H-Bomb.
My only lasting regret is turning off my recorder when he stood up and condescendingly asked, “What do you think, buddy?”. If I hadn’t hit stop, there’s a good chance I’d still be using the ensuing audio as an alarm tone on my phone. There’s no way I’d sleep through it. You see, what followed was a tirade. He called me a few choice names and told me that I had asked a “wise-guy question”.
At first, I reacted as if he’d unzipped his skin to reveal some kind of metallic Gus-bot. My shock quickly wore off, and after grasping the reality of the situation, I began to blindly apologize. Looking back, the instant remorse seems strange, as I hadn’t the slightest clue what I was apologizing for. Either way, Gus wasn’t hearing it. He stormed into the tunnel never to be seen again.
Until the next day, that is.
Sometime between Gus encounter No. 1 and the tobacco-infused second conversation, a fellow reporter turned me on to why I drew Johnson’s ire. I was shown a Deadspin blurb basically mocking Gus for having a Gusgasm in the final moments of a game that had long since been decided.
As I walked to the arena the next afternoon, I spotted my adversary once again, this time standing outside the media gate. With a godfather-like hand gesture, he invited me over for what I thought would be a second round of abuse. Instead, like a disappointed dad, he basically wondered if I had thought about what I’d done. I told him I saw the Deadspin story and could see why he thought I was baiting him.
Then, in what seemed like one fluid motion, he whipped out a pair of Marlboros as an olive branch. It was basically a 1960s bro make-up session. Understand that I don’t make a habit of abusing tobacco, especially not on the job, but when the nationally prominent broadcaster that somewhat publicly wrecked you the day before offers up a smoke, you light it up, inhale and listen to unsolicited fatherly advice. Ask around, it’s a rule as old as time.
While we pumped deadly toxins into our lungs, he said things like, “suspension of disbelief” and “theatrical touch” and “young reporters like yourself”. Somehow, though, it didn’t come off as condescending in the slightest. We became quasi-buddies for the remainder of the week, and while my view of him was forever changed, the shift was strangely for the better.
Gus’s personality is magnetic. He’s the dude that eats your entire sandwich and leaves you thanking him for leaving the crust on the plate. But hey, he took my advice on using “Dobermans” in the broadcast. In some ways, the situation was a give and take.