The Last Amateurs: Playing for Glory and Honor in Division I College Basketball

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The Problem with Sportswriting

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.

—    Janet Malcolm

Writers are always selling someone out.

—    Joan Didion

Don’t ever make a friend in this business, you’re only going to have to fuck somebody in the end.

—    Jim Murray
1.
The open secret about Grantland Rice, America’s ur-sportswriter and the namesake of Bill Simmons’s omnibus sports/pop culture website, is this: he wasn’t a very good writer. He wrote a lot, and so was ubiquitous. His personal record, as recorded in Frank Deford’s Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter, amounted to 50,000 words over the nine days of the 1912 World Series. Rice labored, Deford tells us, under a 3,500-word daily quota over his 53-year career.

With some 17 million words to choose from, it’s not really possible to say whether the lead to his story on the 1924 Army-Notre Dame football game is the “best” thing Rice ever wrote, only that it’s the most quoted:
Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden.
As a young sportswriter aiming at literature, I was under the impression that Rice had a bead on the target. He was the first capital-S Sportswriter, the first commentator-as-personality. He was popular, but not because he was a good writer.  As Deford puts it in his memoir:
Perhaps the idea was to make mere games seem more important or artistic, but for whatever reason the writing grew more florid and rococo… Jonathan Yardley… wrote that old-time sportswriting was “like a bad dream by Sir Walter Scott.”
In Rice’s defense, it’s probably not possible to publish 17 million words and not engage in a certain amount of linguistic inflation. But that inflation has plagued the profession ever since, and it’s evident in each of the books considered here. In fact, I will now posit a corollary to Godwin’s Law, which holds that: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”

Stockman’s Corollary: as a sportswriter’s career progresses, the probability that he will needlessly invoke Nazis also approaches one. The “needlessly” goes without saying, or should. But each of the three writers here — Jim Murray, the daily journalist; Frank Deford, the magazine feature writer; and John Feinstein, the bestelling author — eventually invokes some aspect of the Hitler war machine.

Jim Murray was 4F in World War II and so spent the war scrambling up the ladder in his early newspaper gigs. As Ted Geltner assures us in Last King of the Sports Page: The Life and Career of Jim Murray — his biography of the Los Angeles Times columnist who, at the peak of his popularity, was syndicated in more than 200 newspapers — Murray tried more than once to sign up, but Uncle Sam wouldn’t let him.

In 1963, in advance of the first Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay fight, Murray predicted that the bout would “be the most popular fight since Hitler and Stalin — 180 million Americans rooting for a double knockout.” OK, pretty mild and pretty funny. And, Geltner argues, a representation of the two fighters’ general unpopularity with the establishment. But, after Clay’s conversion to Islam — and name-change to Muhammad Ali, which Murray waited more than a decade to honor in print — Murray compared Ali’s Fruit of Islam bodyguards to “the Gestapo in blackface.” Which is pretty gratuitous, and not a little racist.

But let’s give Murray the old “man-of-his-time” pass — his was a jauntily jingoistic generation, one that for all its faults produced the indisputably good outcome of stopping Hitler — and move on to Frank Deford.

You may best recognize the genteel Deford as the honeyed voice behind more than 1,500 sports commentaries on NPR’s Morning Edition. Throughout Over Time, his memoir of working for Sports Illustrated and other national outlets, he manages to keep a healthy perspective. “I can’t for the life of me, for example, imagine that any run-of-the-mill young person will want to read the old stuff I’m writing about now.” This he tells us once we’re more than a third of the way through a bunch of the old stuff.

Deford, too, falls victim to Stockman’s Corollary, with a throwaway line in a paragraph about how he works best by himself: “I just can’t grasp how two people could write something well together — collaboration, they call it, which always makes me think of weasels collaborating with the Nazis. I guess you have to have the right personality to be collaborative.” That’s right, you have to be Lieber/Stoller or Marshal Petain.

But among the writers under review, John Feinstein — avatar of conventional wisdom, perpetrator of sub-competent prose — takes the cake (as he might say) for not only fulfilling the corollary, but being the biggest hypocrite.

Early in One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game, the author’s bloated account of his various publishing successes, Feinstein shows himself standing up to Bobby Knight. This was during Feinstein’s reporting of his book A Season on the Brink, for which he spent the 1985-1986 season as an embedded reporter with Knight’s Indiana University men’s basketball team. That book was a wild success — and Feinstein dedicates a full 150 pages or more to its development and publication.

Feinstein was about three weeks into his “Bloomington sojourn” when Knight fired off a quintessentially crass crack at the reporter in front of his team: “‘You know, John,’ Knight said. ‘There are times when I’m not sure that Hitler wasn’t right about you people.’” Not funny at all, but then Knight is a dirtbag who choked his players, so this sort of crack seems entirely in character. Feinstein explains that he didn’t confront Knight in front of his team, because the coach would only have escalated things and refused to back down. So Feinstein waited until later than night:
…Knight and I were again in the car en route to a speech, and it was just the two of us.

“I gotta say something to you,” I finally said. “Because if I don’t I won’t be able to sleep tonight.”

“What is it?” he asked.

“I think you know I have no problem with you making jokes about me being Jewish or liberal or whatever,” I said.

“In fact, you’re really good about it,” Knight said.

“I think so,” I went on. “But I gotta tell you, Bob. Hitler wasn’t funny. Not on any level.”
Fair enough, and true enough, and Knight backs down and comes as close as a solipsistic asshole can come to apologizing. But the reason I quote that scene at length is not to show that Feinstein was a man of principle — possibly endangering his unprecedented access to this hothead basketball coach to rebuke him for a crass remark — but to show instead that he can be breathtakingly un-self-aware, not to mention a hypocrite.

In this case, 350 pages after he’s admonished Knight, he tells us about an incident at the Los Angeles Open golf tournament in which “the people in charge of security had tried to tell Larry Dorman of the New York Times and I that we couldn’t walk inside the ropes without a camera, even though we were wearing armbands that said, ‘media—inside the ropes access.’” This was eventually sorted out, but Feinstein “ended up telling the guy in charge that he and his men were a bunch of ‘brown-shirted Gestapo stormtroopers.”

You know, to smooth things over.

In light of this newly-discovered corollary, every sportswriter would do well to read the letter Jackie Robinson sent Jim Murray. They were friends, and, despite his early animosity toward Ali, Murray had lobbied to get Satchel Paige (who spent most of his career in the Negro Leagues) into baseball’s Hall of Fame and the PGA player Charlie Sifford into the Masters golf tournament. But, when Murray invoked Robinson’s name in a column that derided the efforts of some civil rights activists to get African American Olympians to boycott the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City — and compared the boycott, in passing, to Hitler’s insults of black athletes in 1936 — Robinson wrote an eloquent rebuke, the final clause of which should be stamped on every sportswriter’s laptop: “Olympics occur periodically. Justice must be practiced every day, and none of this has the faintest relationship to Hitler.”

2.
The most infuriating thing about Feinstein’s book, aside from its reading like a first draft (he tells us of someone’s disease that was “degenerative and kept getting worse,” or of the 1986 World Series: “People forget that the score was tied at that moment. …Buckner did not lose the World Series for the Red Sox, a fact many, many people forget.”), is his utter lack of perspective.

This is a sportswriter’s problem generally — great ones like Deford and Murray often transcend it. Feinstein almost never does. It’s not coincidental that Feinstein dropped the “brown-shirted Gestapo” line on a security guard (which is not even accurate: the Brown Shirts and the Gestapo were two different groups), he loathes security guards. There are no fewer than six instances in this book of Feinstein’s confrontation with gatekeepers at various venues.

An example, taken almost at random, emphasis mine:
I’ve had bad experiences with security guards around the world, but never more so than in Chapel Hill. Once, when I walked over before a game to say hello to Dean Smith, one of them started pushing me away until Dean saw what was going on and waved the guard off. Rather than just let me go as he had been instructed to do, the guard — who had to be a hundred — said, “You’re lucky Coach Smith was here.”

To which I replied — always calm when confronted — “You’re lucky I didn’t knock you into the fifth row.”
It’s a stunning failure of empathy. It doesn’t occur to Feinstein that this low-paid senior citizen was just doing his job — keeping people off the court. Furthermore, there’s a tincture of “don’t you know who I am?” in this reaction, and that’s what really grates.

Because, consider: what if Tiger Woods had done that? Or Kobe Bryant? Feinstein would be one of the first baying hounds on Charlie Rose to tell us that these athletes don’t know how good they’ve got it and they don’t care how many little people they step on, and that if it weren’t for the fans they’d be nobodies. Someone might remind Feinstein that if it weren’t for the security guards keeping everyone else out while he gets unrestricted access to players and coaches, he might not have a career.

In his way, Feinstein is a sort of modern Grantland Rice. He’s prolific (Deford calls him “‘the Woody Allen of sportswriting,’ because, just as Allen annually produces a new movie, so too does John somehow manage to write a major book almost every year,” which is a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever seen one). He’s also a hypocrite. Rice admitted that he wanted to build his subjects into heroes (see, for instance, the aforementioned “four horsemen” of Notre Dame’s backfield). And yet Rice also decried the perverting influence of money on athletics — money which had entered the game thanks in no small part to his mythmaking.

Late in this book — perhaps he figures no one will read this far; I didn’t want to — Feinstein admits to outright hypocrisy: “Since eleven years have passed, I can now reveal that for all the complaining I’ve done… about game times being changed for TV, I was responsible for a game time being changed…” Feinstein was researching his book The Last Amateurs, on The Patriot League, a scholarship-free, NCAA Division I athletic conference. Basically, he wanted to attend two games on a certain Saturday, one was at noon, one was at two p.m., and the venues were two-and-a-half hours apart. So, he asked the Holy Cross athletic director to change the time of its game with Lehigh. And, because Feinstein was by this time a perennial bestselling author whose book was sure to give the Patriot League and its schools unpurchasable publicity, the two teams acquiesced, and Feinstein — the reporter who was observing a typical season in the Patriot League — got his way. “You should be ashamed of what you did,” an assistant women’s basketball coach tells him. “I wasn’t ashamed and it was well worth the effort.”

Worth it for whom? I wonder. This is the heart of Feinstein’s hypocrisy. On one hand, he tells us that a young Andre Agassi reminded him of a “young Tiger Woods… everything he did was with one thing in mind: how will this affect my ability to make money.” On the other hand, the use of his heavyweight reputation to push around a couple of small-conference athletics programs leaves his conscience undisturbed. I wonder if that schedule change affected his ability to make money?

Deford, who left Sports Illustrated in the early ‘90s to head up the all-sports newspaper The National (an oral history of which can be found at Grantland), made Feinstein his first hire in that ill-fated endeavor. And yet, he has a refreshing candor about certain aspects of his profession: “Besides, everybody genially accepts that a considerable portion of popular American sports — college football and men’s basketball — is an outright fraud…” It’s unfortunate that this passes for a bracing assertion in sportswriting, but it does. Deford qualifies this by referring to himself in another context as “the piano player in the whorehouse.”

In this he’s more in line with Jim Murray — who, Geltner claims, was Deford’s first target hire for The National; Murray turned him down. Murray admitted near the end of his career: “I covered the circus. I felt privileged to have done so. …Sure, I helped keep the hype going, the calliope playing. I can live with that. It’s what I am.”

Both Deford and Geltner tell of that calliope player at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, when Magic Johnson interrupted a brusque official to say “The great Jim Murray is here, and he didn’t get to ask a question.”

John Feinstein would kill for that kind of recognition. Literally, I mean. He would kill seven security guards. But no, Murray and Deford possess a self-awareness about their professions that Feinstein does not. That is, that the most interesting stuff in the sports world has to do with its stories, not its scores.

I would like to say that all sports fans know that, but we do not. For evidence, I turn to the letters page of the July 30 Sports Illustrated. One C. Fred Bergsten from Annandale, Va. has written in to respond to a book excerpt the magazine ran on that 1992 Dream Team. Here’s the letter:
With all the hype of the 20th anniversary of the Dream Team… most fans are forgetting that there were two squads, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, that could have given the Dream Team a run for its money had their countries not dissolved just before the Barcelona Games. The Soviets were the defending gold medalist from the 1988 Games, and Yugoslavia was the ’90 FIBA world champion. It is a tragedy that colossal matchups among the three basketball superpowers never occurred in ’92.
Yes, the tragedy of the Yugoslavian civil war was not Srebrenica, it was that the reigning FIBA champs didn’t get a shot at the Dream Team.

Let’s close with a proper world-historical perspective. As Danny Boyle’s History of Britain tableau unfolded at the Opening Ceremonies of our present Olympics, as the workers of the Industrial Revolution literally rolled up the sod of pastoral England, I was put in mind of lines the truly great columnist Red Smith wrote the last time London hosted the games, in 1948 — and in the aftermath of, y’know, actual Nazis.

But, writing of those Opening Ceremonies 64 years ago, Red Smith both described them and put them in perspective:
The torchbearer dashed up into the stands, brandished his torch on high and dropped it into a tall concrete bird bath…

The crowd made with the tonsils. It was hokum. It was pure Hollywood. But it was good. You had to like it.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Bonus Link: The Best Sports Journalism Ever (According to Bill Simmons)

My Review of The Last Amateurs by John Feinstein

John Feinstein is one of the big names in sports journalism. He’s written books on a number of headline-getting sports stories and consequently can be heard often on sports radio as an expert guest. Feinstein’s background is as a newspaper guy, writing for the Washington Post among others. The Last Amateurs is about college basketball in the Patriot League, a (mostly) non-scholarship league that struggles to survive in the world of big time college ball. To Feinstein, this is one of the last bastions of unadulterated amateur basketball in the United States. These kids play for little more than the love of the game and the glory of winning the league’s one berth to the NCAA Tournament. He follows the seven teams from schools like Holy Cross, Lehigh, and Navy through a whole season, focusing on the personalities, on the struggles peculiar to this one of a kind league, and on the great basketball games that never came close to showing up on a Sportscenter highlight reel. Feinstein’s newsy writing and copious background anecdotes keep the book moving at a fast pace. It isn’t, however, the transcendent sports writing of a Roger Angell. Instead, the book reads like a dozen Sports Illustrated articles strung end to end. As such, this is a fantastic book for fans of college basketball, as it really captures what is best about that game.

A Reading Queue for 2004

I recently reorganized my bookshelves. I straightened and categorized the books, and I separated out all of the books that I haven’t read and that I hope to read sooner rather than later. These are books that I’ve bought at the store, received as gifts, and unearthed on bookfinding expeditions. There are 31 of them. For a while now, I’ve had a quite large “to read” pile, and I add titles almost every week, it seems. The problem is that stacks of books are constantly getting pushed aside while I read whatever book I’m most excited about at the moment. There’s not really anything wrong with this except that there are books that I really would like to read, but never seem to get around to it. So, since I obviously am not to be trusted, I have decided to take some of the decision making out of my hands: I have set aside a special shelf to hold my new “Reading Queue.” On it are all of the books that I own and would like to read but haven’t yet. From this shelf full of books, I will randomly select the next one to read. Before I get into that though, here’s my reading queue, some of the books that will keep me occupied during the coming year:Without Feathers by Woody AllenThe Summer Game by Roger AngellOnce More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader by Roger AngellGame Time: A Baseball Companion by Roger AngellAn Army at Dawn by Rick AtkinsonThe Sheltering Sky by Paul BowlesThe Hole in the Flag by Andrei CodrescuDon Quixote by Miguel De CervantesParis Trout by Pete DexterThe Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre DumasThe Last Amateurs by John FeinsteinA Season on the Brink by John FeinsteinLiving to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia MarquezLast Train to Memphis by Peter GuralnickThe Great Fire by Shirley HazzardRound Rock by Michelle HunevenThe Known World by Edward P. JonesBalkan Ghosts by Robert D. KaplanShah of Shahs by Ryszard KapuscinskiThe Price of Admiralty by John KeeganEverything’s Eventual by Stephen KingLiar’s Poker by Michael LewisThe Coming of Rain by Richard MariusThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLooking for a Ship by John McPheeMoviegoer by Walker PercyFraud by David RakoffThe Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver SacksEast of Eden by John SteinbeckQuicksilver by Neal StephensonMr. Jefferson’s University by Garry WillsOnce I had a full shelf to pick from, the only question was how to pick randomly. I thought about writing down names and picking out of hat, but that seemed like a pain, and I would have had to go look for a hat, so instead I located a random number generator to help me make my choice. I’m going back east tomorrow for two weeks, so I picked three books to take with me: Everything’s Eventual, Paris Trout, and Don Quixote. I’m guessing most folks will be pretty busy over the next couple of weeks, and so will I, so I’ll probably only post a couple of times while I’m gone. They should be good, though. Look for “My Year in Books” and a post about the books I gave as gifts. Happy Holidays, all.

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