- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 20, 2009

This was in the late 1970s when my newspaper of the moment, the lamented Washington Star, was embroiled in a heated dispute (and lawsuit) with the University of Maryland because of a story that five men’s basketball players were on academic probation.

Before the Terrapins’ next home game, their most recognizable fan accosted me with fire in his eyes and a snarl on his lips.

“Heller, you’re a disgrace!” Robert Novak yowled. “If it was up to me, I wouldn’t let you in Cole Field House. I wouldn’t let you on campus. I wouldn’t even let you in the state of Maryland.”

Rarely did anyone get the best of the so-called Prince of Darkness, but that evening I might have.

“Let me get this straight, Bob,” I said. “Are you advocating less access for the press?”

Novak scowled and stalked away. Years later, as joint followers of Maryland basketball, we were friendly - although as a working reporter, I never became the kind of superfan he was.

Through the decades stretching from Lefty Driesell to Gary Williams and encompassing hundreds of players, Novak stood staunchly as the Terps’ biggest booster. And when the noted political columnist died Tuesday of brain cancer at 78, Maryland’s athletic department felt the loss along with millions of readers and viewers across the country.

“We were good friends,” Driesell said Wednesday from his vacation home in Bethany Beach, Del. “I first met him when I came to Maryland [in 1969] because he started following us and sometimes riding the bus with the team. He had a beach house near ours, and we used to sit on the porch and talk. He was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known and a big-time fan.”

Then The Lefthander brought forth one of his characteristic dry chuckles and added, “He really knew basketball, but when he discussed politics I had no idea what he was talking about.”

Jack Zane, a retired Maryland sports information director, recalls the time in 1978 that Novak called him from Tokyo while on a reporting assignment and requested a ticket and hotel room for the Terps’ game the next night in Las Vegas.

“When we got off the plane, he was standing there waiting for us,” Zane said. “As far as I know, that’s as far as anybody ever went to see us play.”

In his 2007 memoir titled (what else?) “The Prince of Darkness,” University of Illinois alum Novak related how he got hooked on Maryland hoops.

“[When] Maryland hired Lefty away from Davidson, I knew that big-time basketball had come to Washington,” he wrote. “[Two years later,] Driesell slowed down the game against vastly superior Duke and kept the score close until the end, when anything could happen. The ‘anything’ turned out to be a shot from near half court that gave Maryland a stunning 52 to 50 victory. … Then and there I became a Maryland fan.”

He remained one for nearly 40 years, through thick and thin, until he was diagnosed with brain cancer in July 2008. When Novak failed to show up at Comcast Center for any of the Terps’ games last season, friends understood how far his illness had progressed.

“I saw him eight days before he died, and he was unresponsive,” said Jack Heise, who has been involved with Maryland athletics even longer than Novak. “But it was a joy to know him. I always called him a born-again Terrapin because he originally came from Illinois. Basketball was a big part of his life.”

And when Williams coached Maryland to its first NCAA championship in 2002, Novak’s joy was unrestrained. As the Terps defeated Indiana in the national championship game in Atlanta, this famous journalist who had perpetrated untold scoops undoubtedly reacted like a little kid. Which in a way he was where Maryland basketball was concerned.

“[That season] was a remote dream come true,” Novak told longtime Maryland broadcaster Johnny Holliday. “For the first time in all those years of following the Terps, I decided to make an effort to attend every game, at home and away. I did it, all 36 games culminating in the golden moment at the Georgia Dome when Maryland and coach Gary Williams won their first championship.”

Perhaps in a lifetime of reporting on such serious matters as politics and government, Maryland basketball was a psychological escape hatch for Robert Novak. Regardless, his passing leaves a gaping hole at Terptown as well as elsewhere.

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