Sports in the shadow of the sniper
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Under the gun. Athletes, coaches and other people in sports are often said to be in this position. But now people in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area are really under the gun. It has a negative effect, being a bulls-eye, having open season declared on one's person. I don't care for it.

A woman who would not identify herself casts a wary eye while pumping gas Monday near Route 95 in Fairfax, Va.
Call me crazy, but I like D.C., and many of the people traveling in confusing circles in and around it. How has being under the gun of the sniper affected the psyche of people in sports in the greater D.C. metro area, also known as the prime hunting range for a lunatic, yet clever, expert marksman who had shot nine people in 10 long-distance tries at the time of my arrival Friday Oct. 11? (A shot fired through a crafts store window may not have been even aimed at anyone.) Of nine hits, seven were fatal.

Nobody had a clue, or, if they did, they didn't have the right clue, or hadn't yet made the right connection with the clue. Meanwhile, debate between government agencies and the media degenerated, as it often does in D.C. There is an inordinate amount of punditry and talking head-dom in D.C. There was a definite media frenzy. Was there hysteria among the citizenry?

I drove inside the Beltway. The sniper struck first just north of the Beltway, on Oct. 2. Somebody or something had ticked him off. He fired a shot into a Michaels craft store window in Rockville. Then, in rapid succession, within 24 hours he had shot six people, five fatally, north of D.C., in Silver Spring, in Rockville again, in Silver Spring again, three times, finally, just inside the D.C. line, at Kalmia and Georga Avenues, northwest, near a laundromat I once frequented. Since then, he'd shot four more people, first 50 miles south in Fredricksburg, Va., then 20 miles east in Bowie, Md., then 20 miles west in Manassas, Va.

He had hit inside of the Beltway, outside of it, north of it, south of it, east of it and west of it. His pattern was random. Too random. Intentionally random. He started off in a rage, but it had degenerated into a game -- The Most Dangerous Game -- a man with a rifle, hunting people.

But he started off north of town. That's where the tell might be.

My mind spun through the sporting rules of engagement, to see if any of them would help. Box with a puncher, punch with a boxer. Make him lead. But nothing was working for me when I hit town. As soon as I got off the plane, word came. Another direct hit -- one shot. Like in "The Deer Hunter," everybody who went outside was playing Russian roulette now. We were all as helpless if not as unwitting as deer. But we are not like deer. We have a bigger brain pan, though evidence of this is not always on display.

A 53-year-old gentle black guy from Philly was filling up at a gas station just off I-95 when he was shot at long range in the back, the shot damaging his spinal cord. He died within minutes. The police dropped a dragnet on I-95 within 15 minutes, but too late. Again.

So the shooter obviously knew the area, the whole metro area, well. As anybody who has traveled in the D.C. metro area can tell you, it is a good place to get lost. He was probably a resident, and likely a longtime resident. He knew it too well. After his initial spree, when he shot six people up in Silver Spring and Rockville, Md., and in the northwest quandrant of D.C., he'd warmed to his work, developed a taste for it, and was a serial long-distance shooter now.

On the talk shows, "sniper experts" were saying, what with new and improved rifle sights, anybody who practiced for a while could do this, and that the guy didn't really have any skill at sniping, they sniffed. Ten hits in 11 shots, eight kills? No. He had high skill. He'd have to know about drop. He'd have to know about wind. He'd have to know about breathing. He'd have to know something about camouflage. He'd have to know. This sniper was good at his work. This was no outdoorsman, no duck hunter. No longer. This guy was now pure HK. Hunter-Killer.

Yet D.C. was not at a standstill. Many sports for the young people were, though, and continue to be. After his initial spree of the six shootings just north of the capital, the shooter had gone due east 25 miles to Bowie, Md., and shot a teenager in front of Benjamin Tasker Middle School, just off six-lane Route 50, between D.C. and Annapolis. My son and I rode our bikes past Tasker all the time, back when he was a young kid and we lived out that way. Now he's in college down in Hampton Roads. Called and told him not to come up to see me, to stay there, and if he had to come up, don't take I-95, and if he had to take I-95, then don't gas up near it. Better to come up Route 301, the back way in.

If the shooter was after havoc wreaked on lives (as he'll say somebody made havoc on his, once caught, if he's still able to talk), he accomplished it. Many events, once-in-a-lifetimers like senior year high school Homecoming football games, were canceled, lost, as was something in the eyes of the students. No wonder they always seem so disappointed in adults. Area school districts discontinued outdoor sports and field trips. This will be the third weekend in a row there will be no outdoor sports for the high schoolers in the suburban counties.

The pros were rolling, of course. They have to make payroll. But would anybody come out to see them? I stopped by MCI Center and watched the Caps warm up for the NHL season opener, where I absent-mindedly bantered on-air with Steve Z. and Andy, and wondered aloud why Jagr wasn't the best player in the league last year. It was Andy who answered that one for me: "He was, the last two months of the season." MCI Center slowly filled up, many dressed in white Caps' jerseys. The sniper never came up in our radio bantering. He was known to be an outdoor enthusiast.

Police officer Mitchell
A Prince George's County, Md., police officer stands guard Sunday at FedEx Stadium.
Then I went by the National Press Club for the launch of "I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It," Charles Barkley's new book, edited by Michael Wilbon. Tony Kornheiser was there too. They had a good turnout, sniper or not, although Bridget of Vertigo Books thought they could have gotten even more if they'd opened up the room. She did not say how many more they would have gotten were there not a sniper on the hunt. The crowd was large, maybe around 200, which is large for a book signing, to me. The people did not seem afraid, and the sniper, if he came up at all, did so only in soft whispers. The crowd was curious and enthusiastic, and well-entertained by Sir Charles & Co.

Later on, he held two mixed drinks in one hand at Jordan's Restaurant, as he went from group to group regaling us with torrents of homespun common sense and his own sincere beliefs and loquacious humor that make him both fun and volatile. Charles, like all of us, is still working a lot of things out in his life. "But even compared to me, Allen Iverson and Randy Moss, they're crazy," Charles said. I laughed. As for politics, running for governor of Alabama, let's say, a la Jesse "The Body" Ventura, Charles said he'd decided, "Why would I spent 20 million for a job that pays $88,000?"

Sunday, the Redskins played at Fedex Field in Princes Georges County, and many among the incoming hordes were interviewed about whether they feared the sniper. Some said yes, some said if it was their time, then what could they do about it? Some talked about sightlines, trees, high ground, and began sounding more like Bo Gritz than Redskins fans, as if there's a big difference.

Choppers buzzed and much overtime was made by Prince George's County police. They should have arrested the Saints. Patrick Ramsey had a clear case of assault and battery against Grady Jackson and Norman Hand, and grand larceny against the Saints' DBs.

At the same time, people stayed away in droves from the annual Taste of D.C. downtown. So sports can make people turn out even when food, one of the three basic drivers of life, cannot. Exotic and international food vendors from near and far had set up to celebrate the end of summer and of Indian summer, but hardly anyone came.

Monday, Oct. 14, was a holiday, Columbus Day. The high school football players continued to practice indoors, and got antsy, and said they should play. They were quickly overruled by the county governments. Maybe they should play. There's something to old sports-applicable saws like, "A coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man only once;" "Bravery is not the absence of fear; it is the overcoming of fear;" "Sometimes you just gotta bow up."

Rod Grizzard, a lanky jump-shooter from Alabama, was cut by the Wizards. Had trouble learning the plays. And they hadn't even put anything in yet. Grizzard had dominated at 'Bama, in his own oblivious way. Now he was what the CBA was all about.

Over in College Park, a University of Maryland running back, a short, former walk-on with a quick change named Chris Downs was no longer running the scout team. Ralph Friedgen planned on getting him in there plenty against Georgia Tech on Thursday.

Turtle hoops coach Gary Williams was in his glory, so proud of the brand new Comcast Center you'd have thought he built it himself. And he had put up a few bricks in his time, come to think of it. He also had mistakenly taken off with Tony Kornheiser's wedges as they played a round, as I learned when I stopped by Kornheiser's popular ESPN radio show studio at the ESPN Zone in downtown D.C. He sat and did his thing with Andy and an engineer. I'd speculated to some people at ESPN and to Tony K. a while back that he's the closest thing to Howard Cosell going today, and I meant that as the highest compliment. Know when to notice it? When he interviews somebody. Kornheiser is Cosell who doesn't use his vocabulary like a shotgun and has a better sense of humor, which he isn't hesitant to use on himself.

If you can't see your own foibles and laugh at yourself, then you've really got no business laughing too hard at anybody else.

Quick segue to Atlantic Video studios, near Chinatown, to look in on Wilbon again, on the set and in the control room of "Pardon The Interruption," or, PTI. Between Wilbon and Kornhesier, there are worse options out there, as far as getting medicinal sports info tucked inside a sweet tablespoon of entertainment value goes. They are quick, smart, engaging, and know the drill.

They also happen to be my boys. Tony makes me laugh. Wilbon's mom is fabulous. She reminds me of my own. All this is neither here nor there when it comes to critical review. They know that. The two of them have a rapport, a magnetic ease that is subtle and subversive. It means something, the way they get on together. It is instructive, enviable, enticing, and helps explain why their show is a hit. In among the hollering, the seeming disregard for each other's knowledge and feelings, what Tony calls "yodeling," there is a genuine affection, a love, and a respect that we all should wish to have for each other.

It's not always as easy as they make it look.

There's also the framework, the format of the show, to consider in its success. The format is like a warp-speed, word-association script that Kornheiser and Wilbon ad-lib around. Producer Eric Rydholm is architect of PTI's linear framework (Eric called himself the Motley Fool, in another life). It moves so fast your own pulse rate spikes, and you feel exhilaration watching it, as if skiing down a mountain at breakneck speed in virtual reality. Matt, Tony (Stat Boy), Shannon, Frankie, Tom, Bonnie, Patrick, they all pull their oar, and it adds up to a good show.

Charles Moose
Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose holds two composite images of the type of van that was seen at the Spotsylvania County, Va. shooting.
Not once does the sniper come up. He can end a life, but he can't stop life. Can't let him. I decide this is for the best later on that evening 84 hours since I arrived in D.C., my no-place-like-home home, even though I'm pretty much national now. I go where I perceive the action to be. If I could only help harried and emotional Chief Charles Moose; you can tell that he's under the gun, too. If only there was something of substance to tell Greta Van Susteren. If only there was a clue, some kind of pattern, some kind of tell ...

Then, suddenly, he strikes again, at the Seven Corners mall in Falls Church, Fairfax County, 10 miles west by southwest of D.C., at 9:30 p.m. This time he shoots a 47-year-old white woman in the head at a distance of more than 100 meters as her husband is loading the car after a trip into Home Depot. Fairfax made it unanimous. All three adjacent counties had been hit. The woman was brain dead by the time she hit the ground.

Some "sniper experts" making their rounds on the talk shows had been saying he wasn't that good a shot, because he had made several hits in the torso (and because as far as they knew he had no training, like they did -- they were better shots than that, was the inference). It's as if the shooter was watching saturation news coverage emanating from the tent city outside the Montgomery County police HQ. It was like he felt he had something to prove. Like he was the one under the gun.

This time the area was closer in, more congested, just like for the first six victims. People were in the parking lot. They heard a shot. One shot. They saw the woman crumple. They fled into Home Depot; people in Home Depot fled toward the rear, screaming and crying in confusion and fear. But the sniper was already long gone.

There was an eyewitness this time. He said the sniper was maybe about 50 yards away from 47-year-old Linda Franklin. He said the shooter was an olive-skinned or a dark-skinned man, and that he had escaped in a van, maybe a Chevy Astro van, cream-colored. I tightened my eyes at the 50-yards-away claim. Didn't track. Too close for this guy. He didn't need to be that close. He wanted more cushion for his getaway. It turned out this "eyewitness" was lying, for whatever his reasons, maybe not even crazy ones. Maybe he just wanted to help, and started fantasizing. I know I did. But he helped nothing. Neither did my years on the cophouse beat.

They dropped the dragnet in mere minutes this time, but they don't call it Seven Corners for nothing. Several roads, including Routes 7, 29, and 50, all course away into the night, in different directions.

He slipped through. So he's not only skilled and highly motivated. He's lucky, too. Suddenly, I felt like we'd all been drafted and were in boot camp together, in Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," listening to a sicko drill sergeant rave on about his twisted admiration for Charles Whitman, the ex-Marine who shot a score of people with a high-powered rifle from the university tower at Texas in Austin.

Fairfax County police search a parking lot accross the street from the Home Depot store where the ninth victim was shot Monday night.
This sniper is even worse. Whitman wasn't getting away. But this sniper thinks he can get away with it. He's a spree shooter, a serial shooter, a guerilla shooter, a Hunter-Killer, technically proficient, possibly technologically advanced, with cold local knowledge of the shooting range and the playing field. Don't tell me it isn't a game to him. He's playing it too well. He's made sport of us all.

I don't much like it. You?

Eighty-four more hours have passed since his last kill shot. Young boys are playing organized PeeWee football in the neighborhood where my mother still lives, across from Bolling Air Force Base, in the southeast quadrant of the city. He wouldn't hit there, would he? My mother? Oh, she fears little. She's 85. She rode the el from the hard-scrabble South Side of Chicago to Evanston, to the Graduate School of English Supervision and Curriculum at Northwestern University, back in the early '50s, back once upon a time, when she was "colored." It's hard to intimidate her.

Some workmen are at her house. One of them is driving a white van with a ladder rack. Mr. Haynes. A hard-working black carpenter. The police stop him in her driveway, lights spinning; they search his van, question him thoroughly, then again, then they tag his van with an orange sticker and call it into HQ so that a record of his vehicle is on file. I watch silently, knowing the sniper is watching too, on TV, in The Post, on the radio, and that he is likely to use no such vehicle again.

The Most Dangerous Game is still on. We're targeted.

What does this have to do with sport? Am I debasing myself and human life by even equating it with sport? These are questions I've often asked of myself, about hunting God's living creatures with a rifle. It didn't seem fair to me then, and sure as hell doesn't now.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."



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