WILD IN THE SEATS

Whether he's shining at the L.A. Forum or screaming terms of endearment to his Lakers on the road, Jack Nicholson is the uneasiest rider on the NBA sidelines
November 03, 1986

Didn't really matter where—Asbury Park, Neptune City, Bradley Beach, anywhere in that part of Jersey—if there was a hoop and someone with a few bucks, Dutch and Chubs could get up a game. What they'd do is this: Dutch would be shooting around, missing everything, looking geekish, and Chubs would be just sort of looking like, well, like Chubs, which was enough. All you had to do was get an eyeful of Jack (Chubs) Nicholson and you knew he wasn't going to hurt you much—5'9", 180 or so, built low to the pavement, crazy eyes and slower than Sunday traffic on the Garden State. So Dutch and Chubs would look bad for a while, warming up, and then Chubs would say to a couple of guys, "Whaddya say? Play some two-on-two for a little money?" Most guys would jump at it like circus poodles. This was 1951, so the bet would be maybe $1 on the first game.

Dutch would miss everything, and Chubs would get a lot of Voit tattoos on his forehead and they'd lose. "So where's our money?" the marks would say.

"Got it in my sock," Nicholson would say. "You don't want me to have to take off my shoe and sock and everything, do ya? Don'tcha wanna play again?"

So they'd play again and the next thing you knew it was $3 a game, and all of a sudden Dutch is making like George Mikan, and Chubs is a little faster and draining that two-hand set shot and they just barely win. So make it $5. By the time Dutch and Chubs would start back down the railroad tracks for home, they'd have enough to paint the weekend red.

"Good thing you had that money in your sock," Dutch would always say, " 'cause I didn't have a red cent."

"Dutch," Nicholson would say, "the only thing I got in my sock is a hole."

Something is wrong with my jumper—it's going in. And I've got Jack Nicholson rebounding for me. I've got Jack Randle Patrick McMurphy Nicholson rebounding for me and feeding it back out like I'm one of the nuts in Cuckoo's Nest, and we're kicking the bejeebers out of the guards. Swish. Take that, Nurse Ratched.

"Heyyyyyy," Nicholson says in his renowned street-corner drawl. "Babe, you're hotter than a three-dollar pistol." Then he gives that larcenous grin; that $5 million-a-picture (plus a percentage) grin; that wide-angle-lens, ain't-it-a-bitch, Jessica-Lange-overheating-in-the-kitchen grin. We're just loafing around, shooting hoops in the driveway of his house overlooking L.A., next door to Marlon Brando's place. (You think maybe Marlon might want to come out for some H-O-R-S-E?) Only now the affliction has returned to my jumper, and nothing's going down, so it's Nicholson's turn to shoot, which ought to be a neat trick since he's got a cast on his right thumb, one of a roster of bones he has broken in the name of his 49-year successful project to have more fun than anybody on the planet.

"Silk," he says, trying to shoot like Jamaal (Silk) Wilkes, the ex-Laker. The imitation is flattering—the J from behind the head—but the shot is not. It misses the backboard and bounces off the white Cadillac in the garage. Doesn't much matter, since Nicholson hasn't driven the car in years. "Damn thumb."

The thumb was just another casualty in The Great War Against Dullness. He hurt it on Ajax Mountain in Aspen, Colo., where he owns two homes and can be found most nights at the Jerome Bar. As a skier, Nicholson is "just good enough to be dangerous," says his Aspen comrade, Bob Beattie. The late Spider Sabich taught Nicholson to ski, but not until the actor was 30. "Spider told me, 'Look, you're starting too late to be pretty as a picture. Just go for speed. Go balls out.' " And so he did.

"I was going for a little speed, like an idiot, and I was going around the people like I was flying and I landed on my chest and face. Babe, I was shook up. My ears were ringing and my neck was burning. I got what they call skier's thumb."

Nicholson wore a white cast with his black tuxedo that week at the Academy Awards, when he failed to win Best Actor for Prizzi's Honor, but he was so happy for the winner of Best Supporting Actress, Prizzi's Anjelica Huston, that he cried. She is the daughter of Prizzi's director, John Huston, and she's also Nicholson's 13-year, live-out girlfriend. "That's all we wanted out of the night," Jack says. "Just wanted one for Toots [Anjelica]. Babe, I was hysterical."

But as much as Nicholson loves the Oscars, had it not been for Toots's nomination he might have dumped them for the Lakers-San Antonio game that night at the Forum. Nicholson would rather guest-host Hollywood Squares for a week than miss a Laker home game. It's one of the six biggies—skiing and sex, art and acting, books and basketball—in his life, and nobody indulges his passions quite like Jack Nicholson. He spends at least three months a year in Aspen, has a reputation as a world-class womanizer, keeps a museum-quality collection of art in his house (the place is so stuffed that he hangs a Botero in the bathroom), is "one of the best actors Hollywood has ever produced," according to director Stanley Kubrick, can quote you everything from I Ching to Don King and, most of all, allows almost nothing to come between himself and his two $125-a-night seats at the Forum, three seats down from the visiting coach. And when the Lakers are on the road he's often there with them, front and center, wearing one of his 25 pairs of designer sunglasses. If he can't get to the game, the Lakers make him a tape—with Chick Hearn's broadcast voiced over—and express-mail it to him. Nicholson even has season tickets for the L.A. Clippers just so he can have a front-row seat when the Lakers play them.

He is the most famous, most visible, most audacious fan in NBA history. He has engaged coaches in yelling matches, was widely reported to have dropped his drawers to a Boston Garden crowd (although the story may have been distorted as it grew into legend) and so infuriated one coach that he tried to get the league to put a leash on Nicholson. And for all of that he is not just tolerated, he is celebrated, most recently in an award-winning NBA ad, for which he waived his usual (exorbitant) fee.

Nicholson is so good at what he does that he can practically foam at the mouth in the front row and not have to worry about what people will think. He is so rich that he doesn't have to pretend to be into opera. And he is so ribaldly rabid about his team that he has ventured into the Boston Garden, the very tabernacle of the Celtic faith, waving towels, giving the choke sign, gesturing obscenely to the crowd—and every year he makes it out alive. Two years ago, somebody outside the Garden was selling T-shirts printed with a garden-variety vulgarity and Nicholson's name: BLEEP BLEEP, JACK. Delighted, Nicholson bought them all. "I loved 'em," he says. "All my friends got one."

How can you hate a guy who buys up all your insults? Now that's disarming.

The truth about Nicholson is that if he weren't a movie star, he would probably be at the Garden anyway, screaming his larynx off, waving towels, giving the choke sign and worse. He's Jack Nicholson, illegitimate child, former horseplayer, ex-pickup-basketball rat from Neptune, N.J., and he's mooning the world.

And grinning his face off.

Koufax. Koufax kicks. He delivers. It's up the middle! It's a base hit! Richardson's rounding first, he's going for second. The ball's into deep right center. Davis's over to cut the ball off. Here comes the throw, Richardson's around first, he's going for second, he slides! He's in there! He's safe! It's a double! He's in there, Martini! Look at Richardson! He's on second base! Koufax is in big, bleepin' trouble! Big trouble, Baby! All right. Here's Tresh. He's the next batter. Tresh looks in. Koufax gets the sign from Roseboro. He kicks once, he pumps, he fires. It's a strike! Koufax's curveball is snapping off like a bleepin' firecracker! All right. Here he comes with the next pitch. Tresh swings. It's a long fly ball to deep left center! It's going, it's going, it's gone! (Mayhem.) Somebody get me a bleepin' wiener before I die! (More mayhem.) All right. Koufax is looking down at the great Mickey Mantle now! Here comes the pitch! Mantle swings! It's a bleepin' home run!

JACK NICHOLSON
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Ad-libbed off a box score of the 1963 World Series.

He lived above his family's beauty parlor in Neptune, with his mother, Ethel May, and his sister, June. Nicholson's grandfather, whom young Jack presumed to be his father, left when he was an infant. Not until he was 38 did he find out that June was actually his mother and Ethel May his grandmother.

But he suffered none for this. Nicholson had a surrogate father-hero in Shorty Smith, one of Neptune's first all-state high school athletes, and honored Smith with a spot on his bedroom wall, along with photos of Yankee reliever Joe Page, North Carolina tailback Charlie (Choo Choo) Justice, Columbia's Bill Swiacki making the catch to help beat Army 21-20 and Marilyn Monroe. A man's got to have his passions. "The 1950s were a great time to be a kid," Nicholson says today. "We had rock 'n' roll, and you didn't have to be grateful."

He wore a DA, blue jeans and a motorcycle jacket—a greaser down to the tips of his chukka boots. "It's crazy," says Gil Kenney, Nicholson's ex-teammate at Manasquan High School and now the Chief of Police in Brielle, N.J. "We never thought Jack would go anywhere. He was a clown, wasn't serious about anything."

That wasn't exactly true. Nicholson was dead serious about pool, hoops and horses. Whatever money he had as a teenager he would turn into a little more at the track. Then he would make a few dollars down at Kaplan's Pool Hall, where he was the "third best player in the joint, but it was good enough." And when he wasn't doing that, he and Dutch were playing the Game. They learned it out on Bangs Avenue in Asbury Park, N.J., where the basketball elite, many of them black, perfected the ultimate move out. "I grew up around black kids," Nicholson said. "Blacks didn't mean anything to me. It was just us, playin' ball."

He was reasonably athletic, the better part of his success depending upon courage. As a lifeguard, he once got his picture in the paper for rowing a boat out in hurricane surf and saving five people. "What they didn't see," he once said about the rescue, "was me puking my guts out afterwards on the shore." He played freshman basketball (guard) and football (same). Nondescript in football, he was the sixth man in basketball, the second-team point guard who "comes in off the bench, steadies the team," Nicholson likes to remember. "You know, quarterbacks it—another coach on the floor. Gets maybe 10, 11 points, and the rest of the time, just dish, Babe." That's the role he has always liked in the game, sixth man, Michael Cooper at 5'9". "I get the feeling that no matter where I'd have played—fifth grade, industrial leagues or the NBA—I'd be doing the same thing: 10, 11 points, shoot the ball maybe 5 or 6 times, otherwise, just dish."

He gave up on high school athletics after his sophomore year or, rather, it gave up on him. A loyalist, he avenged the beating of a teammate by sneaking into the enemies' locker room and attacking it with a Louisville Slugger. He was banned from Manasquan sports after that.

Funny, had he been less adroit at breaking and entering that day, we may have never known one of the most remarkable acting talents this country has ever produced.

"After that, Jack got into other things," says Dutch, a.k.a. Bernard Nichols, an assistant principal at South Pike High School in Magnolia, Miss., where he has been the girls' basketball coach for 24 years. "All of a sudden he was in every school play."

After finishing high school in New Jersey in 1954, Nicholson traveled west to Hollywood and took a job in the cartoon department at M-G-M Studios, then slowly nudged his way into the actors' pool. He labored in B movies and played the occasional cuckold in episodes of Divorce Court until finally, in 1969, Rip Torn backed out just before the filming of Easy Rider was to begin. Nicholson got the part and has been a leering presence in our consciousness ever since.

Yet he retained the best of the athletic ethic. Nobody is more prepared as an actor than Nicholson. Before Prizzi's, he spent days in Brooklyn bars mastering the gestures and dialect of the natives. When he noticed that Italian men don't like to move their upper lip, he stuffed Kleenex in his to immobilize it. He is a Hollywood rarity in that he is a team player. Actress Mary (Goin' South) Steenburgen has said that Nicholson "takes great delight in other actors' doing well." Says Nicholson, "I pick movies like guys pick teams. I don't want to be on a loser."

He is doggedly competitive. "I want to win more Oscars than Disney," he once said, only half-kiddingly, and he always votes for himself. And, most of all, like a true point guard, he never lets himself get painted into a corner. "You try to stay enigmatic," he says. "That's my job: to be other people."

Which is why doing stories like this makes him squirm.

"I don't want to be more than just a fan," he is saying over a mouthful of hamburger at his house in L.A. It's noon and he has just gotten up. There is a New York Daily News on the table (flipped over to the Sports section) next to a Salvador Dali original ashtray, in an Art Deco living room stuffed frame to frame with art and sporting paraphernalia. Only in Nicholson's house can a Matisse hang in odd harmony next to an autographed Cecil Beaton photo of Sugar Ray Robinson. On a counter is a shot of Nicholson mugging with Muhammad Ali. There is an entire wall of cassette tapes, an elaborate stereo, TV and two VCRs. Annie Martin, his secretary, answers the phone, and Kathleen Marshall, his housekeeper, bakes him tarts. "Byoootiful tarts, Babe."

"You gotta remember my line of work. Sports is the only place I can go and not know how it's going to end."

And he jealously loves them. He "bleeds for Johnny [McEnroe]" and always makes the U.S. Tennis Open. He's taking up golf, though he has an inherent problem with it because people tend to get him confused with Jack Nicklaus. After Nicklaus won the Masters last spring, Nicholson was moaning. "Ooooh, that was grim news for me, Babe," he says. "I knew there were 1,000 letters on the way from ladies in Scotland wanting to know, 'How do you hit the eight-iron?' "

Unlike McMurphy, he's no "goddam miracle of modern science," but he keeps in formidable shape considering his age and his hobbies (he once said he smokes marijuana four times a week). He runs a treadmill, works out on Nautilus, swims and skis over his head.

He loves to bet. An addicted fight fan, he flew from London to New York with a friend to see the first Ali-Frazier fight in 1971 (he saw them all) and bet the first-class plane fare on Frazier, who won. He also had Louisville at long odds to win the NCAA basketball championship, though "what I bet is the equivalent of you betting a dime," he says.

He's a disciple of the New York Yankees, though he calls George Steinbrenner "a nightmare," and the San Francisco 49ers, though he rarely attends a pro football game anymore, partly on account of a McMurphyesque melee he once got involved in at the L.A. Coliseum. At one point in the action. Nicholson grabbed a woman by the ankles in order to get to the husband behind her. "I finally pull her over the seat, get ahold of him, get the one real good one on him and then the police come," Nicholson recalls happily.

Since then, Nicholson has limited his McMurphy to the NBA. Lucky it.

"I've seen a lot of fans in my day," Boston Celtic general manager Red Auerbach says, "and to me there's a difference between being an ass and being a fan. When a guy goes up and moons to the crowd, well...."

Whether Nicholson is an ass or just has one he likes to display is the question. "I actually heard the L.A. people themselves were embarrassed," Auerbach says. "The players expressed to me a total disregard for his antics."

If they did then, they don't now. The closest thing to "disregard" comes from Laker coach Pat Riley, who says he likes Nicholson, except "if he'd take the moon back, I'd appreciate it."

But the funny thing about Nicholson's moon over Boston is that it was pure Celtic fan, not Laker. In fact, Nicholson's sporting heart beats more bawdy, rowdy Boston than cool, chic Los Angeles. In Boston if you love your Celtics you wear green T-shirts and green derbies and green underwear. In L.A. if you love your Lakers you wear Guess jeans, oversized paisley Perry Ellis shirts (fashionably wrinkled), no socks and $300 loafers.

Nicholson is somewhat displaced, like Brando running a cappuccino cafe. He once told the Boston Globe, "I should be a Celtic fan.... I admire the way they go out and fight for what they want." Says Boston's Larry Bird, "I heard he has green underwear and green blood."

It might be true. "They definitely have the most fun playing the game," Nicholson says of the champions. He likes their style. Once, flying to Los Angeles with the Celtics, Nicholson fell asleep during the in-flight movie, which just happened to be his own Terms of Endearment. When he woke up, there was a large piece of cardboard taped over the screen. It read: CLOSED. Nicholson suspects Bird.

He admires their grit. "Ainge thinks he's Randle Patrick McMurphy," Nicholson says fondly, "and Bird is completely unflappable." Once, when Bird was bringing the ball out in front of Nicholson at the Forum, Jack said to his teen-aged godson, Nicky Adler, "Bite the son of a bitch." Bird just winked.

Boston fans hate Nicholson on the outside, but they like him on the inside, because they're just like him. It is an East Coast, Marlboros-rolled-up-in-your-sleeve fraternity. This is not Prince Charles sitting in the owner's box, taking in a delightful evening of sport. This is a guy who 50 nights a year goes bonkers over grown men playing a game in their underwear.

Nicholson and Celtic fans share a convivial game of Can You Top (or bottom) This? In Boston during the finals two years ago, Nicholson was such a scene-stealer that there were actually more anti-Jack than pro-Bird signs, SEND JACK BACK SAD. HIT THE ROAD, JACK. JACK CHOKE ON YOUR COKE. Says Nicholson, "Until you've had 15,000 people in Boston Garden screaming, 'Bleep you, Jack!' you haven't lived."

But he had his loyalists, even in Boston. In the midst of the worst of it, Nicholson spotted two teenagers standing in the corner, wearing dark overcoats, dark hats and dark sunglasses. Just then, they flipped over a small cardboard sign that read: NICHOLSON YOUTH.

As obsessive as he is about his Lakers, Nicholson is not your typical Laker celeb. For one thing, he waits until after the national anthem to slip, sometimes unnoticed, into his seat. At halftime he slides down a back hallway with his cohorts—McEnroe and Tatum O'Neal, record mogul Lou Adler (the one with the odd hat collection), Adler's son Nicky, Chinatown writer Robert Towne and a few others. In the glitzorama at Laker games (Whoopi Goldberg, John Travolta, and a cast of thousands), Nicholson is odd in that he doesn't go to the locker room afterward to slap tall backs. He was in the locker room only once—last year—after the team won the world championship in Boston. The players liked that.

"You can come in here some nights, and there's 1,000 celebrities in here," says former Laker forward Mitch Kupchak, now an assistant G.M. for the club. "You can hardly sit down."

Nicholson is at so many games that some people have just stopped noticing him. While Travolta is having the baby tomatoes in peyote sauce at Mortons, Nicholson is at the Forum watching Phoenix slog along. Says Laker Kurt Rambis, "That's my idea of a true fan."

If you sit with him, bring a hard hat. Once, in 1980, when the Washington Bullets were playing at the Forum, Bullets coach Dick Motta screamed at an official and then walked toward the scorer's table. What happened after that is disputed legend.

"He grabbed my leg!" Motta says. "I said, 'You touch me again and you won't need a frontal lobotomy.' He said, 'You're breaking the rules. There's your [coaching] box.' I told him, 'If you want to coach, you can buy me a team and I'll make you an assistant coach.' And you know, he almost took me up on it."

Nicholson has a different version: "He was up screaming and out of his box and I was standing in his way and he said, 'Hey, sit down!' And I said, 'You sit down!' He said, 'This is my job, man!' And I said, 'I pay money for these seats!' Then he went out on the court, and I followed him out there. I told him it would take somebody bigger than him to sit me down—or something really intelligent like that.... Ever since then, he's been scared to death. You watch him, he don't even coach 'em in the Forum. He just sits in his little seat and never gets up." That's a cold cut; Motta is 4 for 18 at the Forum since then.

"I figure if we can make a plus-two or plus-three difference, that's enough," says Nicholson, and, over 16 years of Laker rooting, he has learned a few tricks of the trade:

1) Save your loudest decibel yelling for drowning out the visiting coach just as he's trying to give crucial instructions. This works with everybody but Kevin Loughery, who now stands directly in front of Nicholson when he shouts instructions to the players.

2) Disguise your voice to make a referee think that insults are coming from the visiting bench. "We've got a couple T's out of that," Nicholson says.

3) Make your taunts original, so they'll listen. For instance, whenever Oscar Robertson was in the game against the Lakers, Nicholson would holler, "Put Oscar Robertson in!"

Just trying to dish, if you know what he means.

"If you understand real flow and momentum, you've got to keep the crowd in it through them long TV timeouts," he says. "I know when to stay up. And when I stay up, they stay up. I just get a few of the Nicholson youth to join me." Grin.

Even if it's a minute amount, Nicholson is worth something to the Lakers. "He's kind of a distraction to the other teams," says Maurice Lucas, who played for L.A. last year. "Guys are always looking over and saying, 'Let's see what Jack is doing now.' Jack and his boys are always doing something. And he's always looking at you with those eyeballs."

The Lakers, of course, are as used to seeing Nicholson around as they are to seeing Chick Hearn. One time, in the middle of a fast break, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hollered at Nicholson out of the side of his mouth, "Nice socks."

They were lime green.

With a black suit.

If basketball is thrilled with Nicholson's company, Nicholson is equally thrilled with basketball's. "I think he appreciates what we do," says Kareem. "The way one artist appreciates another's work."

Ask Nicholson why he follows the NBA, and he usually gives it the "Well, it's the game they play at night." But if they played it at sunrise in Bakersfield, he would be there, because Nicholson has a serious crush on artists in high tops. "These guys make plays that are phenomenal," he says. "Like Coop [Michael Cooper]. I could watch this guy runnin' like a coyote, penetratin' with the ball, bounding so gracefully, comin' from behind to block the layup. I could watch him all day and all night. It's a vision.... The more you know about the game the more you enjoy it. That's why I call it the classical music of sport."

Nicholson also once said of basketball, "When you miss a play, it's a matter of microseconds. Little moments of truth. A game of the immediate."

Ever dogged in his pursuit of the truth, Nicholson has dedicated himself to missing precious little of it.

One night during halftime warmups, Larry Bird dribbled over to Nicholson and said, "Hey, Jack, when you gonna get an honest job?"

Nicholson just grinned back like he had a hole in his sock.

EIGHT PHOTOSBRIAN LANKER TWO PHOTOSANDREW D. BERNSTEINHis home base is the L.A. Forum (right, with Anjelica Huston), but Jack and his pals also hit the NBA road with the Lakers. PHOTOKEN GEIGER[See caption above.] PHOTOJERRY LODRIGUSSNichols and Nicholson blew a lot of smoke when they hustled playground games in Jersey. PHOTOUNITED ARTISTSWhen Nicholson's McMurphy led inmates against the guards' basketball team in "Cuckoo's Nest," it was a great moment in hoops history. PHOTOALBANE NAVIZET/OUTLINE PRESSNicholson spends three months a year skiing in Aspen, where he owns two houses. PHOTOALBANE NAVIZET/OUTLINE PRESSOn the slopes, Jack is "just good enough to be dangerous," says one skiing buddy. PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGHDuring the Western Conference finals in May, Jack followed his Lakers to Houston... ILLUSTRATION© UNIVERSAL PRESS SYND. 1986...where he was paid a soleful tribute. PHOTOBRIAN LANKERAs the Lakers prepare for the season, they support Jack as much as he supports them.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)