Dave's Sports Views

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Location: Dallas, Texas, United States

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Book Review: Feinstein on the Final Four

With a long plane ride this weekend, I devoured John Feinstein's latest book: "Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four." While the author takes some criticism for churning out books in rapid fire, often repeating topics and anecdotes, I have to say this is one of his better efforts of late. That's simply because the man loves college basketball, he's well connected in the game, and he can spin a great story even when he's on autopilot.

"Last Dance" is really a series of vignettes about people associated with the event. From Billy Packer and Dick Vitale on television, to long-time reporters Bill Brill, Dick Weiss and Jim O'Connell, to NCAA director of officiating Hank Nichols, to his favorite subjects -- the coaches, Feinstein tells the stories behind the crowning moment of the college basketball season. Yes, it's a little bit redundant; yes, it gets a little sloppy at times (in Mike Krzyzewski's introduction, he refers to Scott May's broken leg prior to the 1975 tournament, when it was a broken arm). But it still lures you in and makes you turn the page.

Feinstein is close with a number of great coaches, and he has significant material from each of the past five winners: Krzyzewski, Gary Williams, Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun and Roy Williams. He also sits down with two of the best ever: Dean Smith and John Wooden, to get their take on the event and the march to get there. He goes behind the scenes for the selection of the teams and the officials, particularly criticizing the team selection committee for its secrecy and its pandering to the power conferences by creating the play-in game in 2001.

Ideally, if the author simply wrote about basketball and golf, which the majority of his books are about, he'd produce enough to keep me entertained, and the paperback edition of this book should be interesting, since Feinstein usually writes a new afterword on events since the publication of the hardback edition, and he has a great story in this year's tournament with George Mason. Feinstein has demonstrated a knowledge and appreciation for the little guy in his work, and he's as well qualified to write about the Patriots' run as any journalist.

I've read the majority of Feinstein's nonfiction -- exceptions being "Play Ball," "Open" and "Let Me Tell You a Story." Here are my five favorites of his work:

5) The Punch -- These are my favorite kinds of books, where an author can take a single event and tell the stories surrounding it. Feinstein worked closely with the two main characters in an ugly NBA fight in 1977 -- Kermit Washington and Rudy Tomjanovich -- to tell the story of the incident (in which Tomjanovich suffered serious face and head injuries from a brutal Washington right-hand punch), how it changed both men's lives, and how it affected basketball.

4) A Civil War -- Most of Feinstein's work consists of his chronicle of a year in the life of some sports team, league, or group of individuals, which he is able to write by gaining complete access to his subject. Here Feinstein spends a year with the Army and Navy football teams, describing their season, the stories of the players' backgrounds, and the pageantry and challenges of playing for a service academy. This is where Feinstein shows his appreciation for all who play sports, not just the stars. Nearly all of the players featured would be more likely to fight in a war than play a down in the NFL.

3) A March to Madness -- The last three all come from Feinstein's two preferred sports -- college hoops and golf. He's done several books of going inside the college basketball season, and this one is better than "A Season Inside" or "The Last Amateurs." Feinstein, a Duke grad, had ties to the ACC and many of its coaches, and gained access to seven of the nine programs at the time (all but North Carolina and NC State). He followed the 1997 season, Dean Smith's final one at UNC and a year that also featured Mike Krzyzewski struggling to return to health at Duke, Gary Williams leading the Maryland program back from the dead, and the emergence of Clemson's Rick Barnes as a big-time coach.

2) A Good Walk Spoiled -- This book seemed to come out of nowhere in 1995 and is still the best presentation of the unique pressures of the PGA Tour. The golfers that Feinstein selects to follow run the gamut from elites like Davis Love and Greg Norman, to an aging Tom Watson, to Q-schoolers Mike Donald and Brian Henninger, to Senior PGA star-in-waiting Bruce Fleisher, to courageous Paul Azinger during his cancer fight. He explains the intensity of the major championships (perhaps better than in "The Majors", but more so he shows how difficult it is to get the chance to play on the Tour, how easily a career can rise or fall, and how golfers live with the weekly grind of having to play two solid rounds just to earn a paycheck. This is both a heart-breaking and uplifting book.

1) A Season on the Brink -- The book that launched the author's career, picking anything other than this for Feinstein's best would be saying something besides the Sistine Chapel ceiling is Michelangelo's best paint job. Feinstein got total access to Bob Knight's Indiana program, and produced a work that changed sportswriting by showing the context behind the headlines at a major college basketball program. Knight didn't speak to Feinstein for years after the book came out, but agreed to talk to him when Feinstein wrote his recent book on Knight idol Red Auerbach. That's just, because though Knight doesn't come across like a saint in "A Season on the Brink," he does come across as a man in full -- a great teacher and leader of young men with hypercompetitive instincts and stubbornness that often push he and his team over the edge. Not merely a great sports book, this is one of best nonfiction works ever.

DJ

1 Comments:

Anonymous Jason said...

Dave,

I'm about half way through the book right now. I have to admit I probably would have finished it much sooner was it not so repetitive and just about Duke and UCLA. Definitely not one of his finest efforts.

It is still a book that basketball diehards should read. There are too many inside stories and reflections on past final fours for a fan to miss.

6:45 PM  

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