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February 2, 2012

Book Notes: Feinstein’s latest is sheer enjoyment


— Most people who follow sports have probably heard of John Feinstein. As a nationally known author, sportswriter, pundit and broadcaster, he has brought a unique angle to sports journalism. His groundbreaking book on Bobby Knight’s 1986-87 Indiana University basketball team, “A Season on the Brink,” still resonates today as an all-time classic.

Feinstein has followed up his transcendent best-selling debut with several more books on not only college basketball, but golf, baseball, tennis, and football. I have read several of them and they are always entertaining and eye-opening. Now, 25 years after his memorable season with Indiana, he has put together another winner, “One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats of the Game,” where he talks about meeting the famous, infamous, and unknowns who make sports what they are.

I’ll be the first to admit that two prerequisites to enjoying this book are appreciating Feinstein’s work and having at least a moderate interest in spectator sports. Feinstein has gotten to know many of the icons of sport and he has strong opinions about all of them.

His memoir is more than 500 pages long, but I found his stories flowed easily and I couldn’t put it down.

It is somewhat reassuring that many of the characters are as decent in person as they appear on TV. He is especially close to North Carolina and Duke basketball legends Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski (try pronouncing that one if you don’t follow colleg basketball!). They come across as better people than basketball coaches.

When Feinstein talks about the legends of golf, it’s nice to know that Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicholas are not stuffed shirts, but genuinely downto- earth. As can be expected, they are not easy to track down, but once they commit to something they are more than accommodating.

Contrast that with Bobby Knight and Tiger Woods. Feinstein doesn’t have much good to say about either of them. Unless you worship these men and believe they have done no wrong, you know they have developed unsavory reputations.

Knight was known for years for his over-the-top behavior at Indiana (he is probably best remembered for throwing a chair across the court and choking one of his players). He was finally fired after 29 years despite having three NCAA championships and players who actually went to class.

Woods carefully crafted a public persona of being the perfect golfer, husband and father, but that image took a tidal wave-size hit when he was caught cheating on his wife. The humiliation from that ordeal has been such that even his golf game has yet to regain elite status.

If you feel that both men are despicable human beings Feinstein only confirms it.

Fortunately, his positive role models outshine his negative ones. In his discussion of tennis, Feinstein feels the pro game today has lost its charm but focuses most of his attention on the “good” people in the game.

Mary Carillo is one of his favorites because she stays true to herself. She is a well-known and popular broadcaster at all the grand slam events and doesn’t shy away from controversy. She quit ESPN in the middle of the 2010 U.S. Open because she felt they were too reluctant to criticize the top players.

Ivan Lendl is another favorite because he is the opposite of his image. Lendl was known as a drab, robotic figure with no personality in his playing days back in the 1980s and early 90s. His problem was that he was extremely focused on his game and not comfortable with English (he’s from Czechoslovakia).

His interactions with Feinstein reveal another side to him that shows intelligence, warmth and a sense of humor. You can’t help but feel different about Lendl if  you followed him during hisplaying days.

The most touching anecdotes are clearly about the unsung heroes, the people you’ve never heard of. Two of his books, “A Civil War,” and “The Last Amateurs,” focus on the college athletes who will likely never go pro. “The Last Amateurs” covers a season in the Patriot League (which includes Colgate) and the players who play big-time college basketball away from the limelight. “A Civil War” is all about the Army-Navy football rivalry and really makes you understand who true heroes are.

Perhaps the most intriguing story is one Feinstein experienced in Czechoslovakia in 1986 while the country was still under communist control. He was there to cover the U.S. women’s Federation Cup tennis team but made an unplanned sojourn to interview the mother of a Czech ice hockey player who had defected to the U.S. Feinstein’s interview was disrupted by government agents and almost turned into an international incident.

He didn’t discover until years later whether the mother faced any repercussions for the interview.

Feinstein has his prejudices just like anyone. He’s more likely to praise an athlete who is cordial than one who stiffs him. That’s human nature.

But he has crossed paths with hundreds of athletes and his storytelling is compelling. If you have followed sports over the past 30 years be prepared for sheer enjoyment.