Two young members of the Indiana Pacers, second-year forward Chuck Person and rookie guard Reggie Miller, zealously cling to superstitions that started in their high school days. Miller wears tape on his left wrist for luck. He also wears tape on his right wrist but. he says, "only to keep my shooting hand straight." He has two sweatbands over the tape on his left wrist but none over the tape on the right, because he feels it would throw his shot off.
Person's superstition is much sweeter—he must have two candy bars before a game. They may be two KitKats, two Snickers or one of each, but he has to have two of them. Before the Pacers' opening game in Philadelphia this season, Person was sitting on the team bus ready to leave for the Spectrum when he realized he didn't have his lucky bars. He fast-broke back into the hotel gift shop, bought them and got back before the bus departed.
John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, is one of those who insists that he had routines, not superstitions. Call them what you will, Wooden could be counted on to turn toward his wife, Nell, who always sat in the same seat at Pauley Pavilion, and give her the high sign with his right hand, just before the tip-off. And during the game he always clung to a rolled-up program. "I wrote my game notes on it," he says, routinely.
But Wooden would have a hard time explaining away one of his lesser-known rituals as routine. On his daily walk around the UCLA campus he would look for hairpins on the ground. When he found one, he would stick it in a tree. "There's a tree trunk on campus stuck full of hairpins," says the Wizard. "It must amaze people when they come upon it." Oddly enough, Adolph Rupp of Kentucky, another renowned college basketball coach, also used to scour the ground for hairpins. And these are two guys whose teams were known for their heads-up play.
Pins have always been considered magical, probably because they are made from shiny material. The rationale for picking up hairpins, writes Potter, "dates back to the days of witchcraft, when it was believed that witches used odd bits of metal to cast magic spells. If you didn't pick up a fallen pin, a witch might." As the rhyme goes: "See a pin and pick it up/All the day you'll have good luck." With a lifetime winning percentage of .813 in 40 years of high school and college coaching, Wooden certainly had his share of lucky days.
We mention this final basketball superstition somewhat reluctantly, only because it might become a presidential campaign issue somewhere down the road. USC coach George Raveling says that one William Warren Bradley, erstwhile Princeton Tiger and New York Knick and now the esteemed senior senator from New Jersey, would never go out on the court without washing his hands. What's the story, Senator? Was it a Lady Macbeth kind of thing? A spokesman in Bradley's office says, "He felt he had a better touch when his hands were clean." The Miami Herald may not let it drop so easily.
Aside from baseball players, no group of athletes is more superstitious than hockey players, particularly goalies. Former Vancouver Canucks goalie Cesare Maniago had lucky socks. Gary Smith, who played for several different NHL teams, would remove all 30 pounds of gear and put it back on again between periods. Even Ken Dryden—lawyer, author, intellectual, consumer activist—superstitiously avoided watching the referee make his pregame inspection of the goal judges' lights. "I just consider it unlucky to see the red fight before the game," Dryden once said.
Other hockey players, forwards especially it seems, are superstitious about the route they skate in pregame warmups. Former Buffalo Sabre forward Craig Ramsay explains his, ahem, routine: "I'd stay near the boards and not touch any lines. Then on the first pass I'd go between the face-off dot at center ice and our logo. The next time through, I'd go between the other side of the logo and the big face-off circle. It was quite involved." And just about everyone whacks the shin pads of the goalie before a game.
The Edmonton Oilers' Wayne Gretzky has undoubtedly influenced hundreds of junior players to tuck the right side of their jersey behind their hip pad, something the Great One has done since long before he was so great. It's pure superstition, unlike, say, Boston Celtic Larry Bird's practice of rubbing his hands on his sneakers, which, he says, actually gives him "a better feel" for the ball.
But Gretzky is not in the same league as former All-Star center Phil Esposito, now the general manager of the New York Rangers. Espo rose to the top of the superstition game during his playing days. He posted countless good-luck charms around his locker (a hemlock sprig, a shamrock, etc.). He always followed the same pattern of dressing. He always took his gum from a new pack and his tape from a fresh roll. And he was a strong believer in one of history's most storied superstitions, the evil eye, or malócchio, as it was known in the Italian neighborhood of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., where Espo was raised. If Espo cast his evil eye on someone, so he believed, bad luck would surely follow.