If you're a Princeton Athletics fan, you can't in good conscience go to Spain and not think of the University's favorite Spaniard, Pete Carril. And who better to talk about Carril with than Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee, a Princeton men's lacrosse Academic Athletic Fellow and a long-time buddy of the Tigers' Hall of Fame basketball coach.
"I used to play tennis with Pete," McPhee says. "He'd play with a cigar in his mouth. He was better than I was, and when he had to put his cigar down, that's when I knew I was playing over my head that day."
McPhee is 77 years old, born less than a year after Carril. Their relationship is one of "mutual insult," decades of good-natured back-and-forth between the basketball coach and the scholar/author who rose to prominence with his piece on then-Princeton senior Bill Bradley entitled "A Sense Of Where You Are."
Despite being the oldest member of the Princeton men's lacrosse travel party on its current tour of Spain and later Ireland by 10 years (the gap between McPhee and assistant coach Bryce Chase), McPhee has not fallen off the pace at all. His only use of the elevator that goes up the flight of stairs from his room the main level has been when he helped athletic trainer George O'Neil carry a water cooler. He has been on all the walking tours, has stayed up late with the coaches and staff and has been on the field for practice and the two games.
If you didn't know he graduated in the Class of 1953, you would think he was younger. And so it was no surprise that he was there, in the high-80 degree temperatures Saturday afternoon, walking through the ruins of Cartagena, an ancient city that dates to 227 B.C.
The team took a walk through the old city, to a spot where an ancient Roman theater had been. The site had been covered by stone and then housing for nearly 2,000 years before what was underneath was rediscovered in 1988. Archaeologists are in the process of restoring the theater.
After that, it was off by boat to the Fuerte de Navidad, or Fort of Christmas, which stands high above the harbor of Cartagena, a port that has been fought over for centuries, up through the Spanish Civil War from 1936-39. Since no one apparently knows why the fort invokes the holiday in its name, the Princeton contingent figured renaming it "Old Fort That Was Never Used In A War And Never Fired Its Cannons Except In Military Parades" might not be a bad idea.
Through the entire time in Cartagena, a span of nearly more than three hours in the sweltering heat, McPhee walked and talked about his life, his work and, when pressed, his friend Carril.
McPhee grew up in Princeton, the son of the doctor for whom an award given annually by the Princeton football team is named. He attended the public schools in Princeton and then the University, never going to school beyond that. He began his career writing scripts for the live television shows of the 1950s, and he went from there to Time Magazine for 10 years.
"My dream was to write for the New Yorker," he says. "I don't have a favorite author. I liked to read the New Yorker when I was younger. I sent them pieces for 10 years and never got in there. Then I wrote the Bill Bradley piece, and everything in my life changed. I went from commuting to New York to writing from my basement."
"A Sense Of Where You Are" was published in January 1965, Bradley's senior year, as a long piece in the New Yorker. McPhee continued to follow Bradley and the Tigers that season all the way to the Final Four; the updated version became a book by the same title. Since then, McPhee has added 26 more books, all non-fiction, ranging on subjects from basketball and tennis to farming to the Merchant Marines to Alaskan wilderness to nuclear terrorism.
"I don't have a favorite," he says. "It's like children; you love them all equally."
It's a topic that he should know something about, as he and his second wife have eight children between them. In addition to writing his books, he is also a staff writer for the New Yorker, as well as a writing professor at Princeton. His time with Carril goes way back.
"I used to go over to his house, and Dilly [Carril's ex-wife, who passed away several years ago] would tell me he was up at the gym," McPhee says. "I'd ask her what gym, and she'd tell me 'the new gym.' They were building Jadwin at the time. I'd go up there and find him with a six-pack on a bench, watching them build it. 'Can you imagine putting a bad team in a place like that?' he'd ask me."
McPhee would frequently guard Carril in the lunchtime games at Jadwin - "he'd stand 30 feet from the basket, never move, have a cigar going the whole time and shoot 30-foot set shots" - and they have stayed friends since. Carril mentored Tiger lacrosse coach Bill Tierney in his early days at Princeton, but it wasn't through Carril that McPhee first met Tierney.
"We exchanged notes about something 15 years ago or so and have been in touch since," McPhee says. "It was last summer when he asked me if I'd like to be a Fellow for his team."
The players have received McPhee easily, and the Princeton media guide is his constant companion as he tries to learn more and more about them. As for the sport itself, it's something he's always liked.
"I admire the grace and the speed," he says.
As the tour wound on, McPhee spoke with Princeton rising junior Sam Hayes, a fellow Princeton native, about the public schools they both attended. Dan Cocoziello came over to ask him to be in a picture, and many of the other players quickly jumped in. He easily identified mysterious trees and answered questions about what kind of rock was on a ledge.
He walked up and down a winding spriral staircase and long ramps to get to the top of the fort, and there was no sign that any of this was taking a physical toll on him. When it was time to go back to the resort for dinner, he simply hopped on the bus with everyone else.
"I wish there was another game tomorrow," he said. "I like to watch the games."
There are no games tomorrow, though. The English team checks out early to return to London, as the 37 players who were here need to be trimmed to 23 for the European championships in Finland in August.
As for the Tigers, tomorrow is the last day in Spain. The destination is a large beach on the Mar Menor (meaning small sea), which has been looming in the distance since Princeton arrived here. The Mar Menor is separated from the Mediterranean Sea by the strip of land that includes the La Manga Club Resort.
Then it's on the Dublin. McPhee has spent much time in Spain before, including driving around in the early 1950s in an Army surplus jeep not far from where the team is currently staying.
"I've never been in Ireland before," he says. "Well, the other day in the airport for 20 minutes."
He'll fit in easily. He would, even without the name McPhee.