CAN ANYTHING everreplace The Sopranos, which said ciao to HBO two weeks ago? Fuhgeddaboutit. Butthe network is trying with the spooky surfer drama John from Cincinnati, whichpremiered on June 10. Austin Nichols, 27, who plays the mysterious titlecharacter, has one thing in common with John, a brilliant surfer who seems topick up the sport out of nowhere. Nichols has made a living by picking upathletic skills on the fly.
Nichols was up for the part of a John McEnroe type in this romantic comedy,which meant he had to impress the film's tennis adviser, Pat Cash (a Wimbledonwinner in '87). His problem: He'd never touched a racket. "[At theaudition] they kept yelling, 'Swing hard!'" he recalls. "I didn't knowhow to play, so I just kept launching balls straight out of the court."Fortunately Nichols could act, and that got him the role opposite Kirsten Dunstand Paul Bettany. "When Pat saw my serve, he said, 'We can do it.' Therewas something about my motion that told him I was O.K." After four monthsof training for up to five hours a day, Nichols was ready for Centre Court.
When he was cast as a member of the 1966 Texas Western basketball team that wasthe first national champion with an all-African-American starting lineup,Nichols, never big into team sports, hadn't played roundball since he was aguard in junior high. Luckily, coaches like the Heat's Pat Riley and Western'sDon Haskins were at a preproduction camp in New Orleans to provide lessons.Haskins, then 74, led the cast through drills. "He singled me out andstarted riding my a-- bad," recalls Nichols. "It felt like LittleLeague all over again."
John fromCincinnati, 2007
Nichols, who grew up in Austin, comes from a family of water-skiers—his mother,Kay, was a national champ. He swam before he walked, and won waterskiing eventsas a teen. Nichols convinced the show's surf consultants that all he needed toget camera-ready was to "surf a bunch on his own." Now he (instead of adouble) is able to do about 50% of what the scripts call for—"but that willkeep growing every day." If John lasts as long as The Sopranos, maybe he'llend up being a pro, instead of just acting like one.
AUTHOR AND FORMER New York Times sports columnistRobert Lipsyte calls Dave Zirin "the best young sportswriter inAmerica," but readers don't turn to Zirin's columns in Slam magazine and onedgeofsports.com for scores-and-sweat stories. Zirin, 33, is more concernedwith sports' place in the political and sociological arenas, and in Welcome tothe Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports, he forcefully takeson what he calls the "athletic-industrial complex." Able to rantwithout losing a sense of reason, Zirin laments the political apathy of today'sstar athletes, argues that our games are still gripped by racism and makes astrong case that local governments court pro teams at the expense of the publicthey should be serving. Whether you agree with Zirin's politics or not, this isa provocative, sometimes chilling, look at sports and society right now.