Late in the Game

Johnny Carson often had sports on his mind--and major players on his couch
January 31, 2005

On his penultimate night as host of The Tonight Show, May 21, 1992, Johnny Carson was asked by Bette Midler, "What are you going to with all of that free time? I mean Wimbledon [is] only one week a year." Carson, who died on Sunday of emphysema at 79, loved tennis players; he regularly popped up at the U.S. Open and the French Open as well as Wimbledon. And tennis players--like most Americans--loved him right back. When Jim Courier won the 1992 French Open two weeks after Carson's last show, he paid tribute to the entertainer (courtside at Roland Garros) by imitating the golf swing Carson used to close his monologues. Carson was never afraid to have a laugh at an athlete's expense (Carnac once divined the answer "Catch-22," then read the question: "What would the Dodgers do if you hit them 100 fly balls?"), but he also brought viewers closer to the sports stars he had on his show--and occasionally befriended them.When Carson sold his Malibu home to John McEnroe in 1985, he insisted that the purchase price include six lessons from McEnroe.

COLOR PHOTONBC/AP (WITH ABDUL-JABBAR) JOHNNY BE GOOD Carson (clockwise from top) stood up to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1980; took in the U.S. Open with his soon-to-be-wife, Alexis, and clowned with boxing promoter Don King in '86; and got a few pointers from Martina Navratilova in '83. COLOR PHOTODAVID WALBERG (U.S. OPEN)   [See caption above.] COLOR PHOTONBC/SHOOTING STAR (WITH KING)   [See caption above.]