Special treat today, kids – big-time author John Feinstein has stopped by to chat. He’s a rare breed in the sports journalism field – he’s outspoken – and possibly a name in contention for the backpage column Rick Reilly vacated at SI (one of his big pluses, should the SI honchos care: he’s big on golf). We couldn’t begin to rattle off all his accomplishments, and really, you’d probably rather hear his opinions on OJ Mayo, paying college athletes and of course, ESPN. **UPDATE: To those of you who were wondering, Feinstein has emailed his thoughts on the Duke lacrosse situation. His answer is at the very bottom.
Q: You were only 10 years out of college when your first book was published. It just so happened to turn into one of the best college basketball books of all-time. Can you talk us through the process of going from Duke grad to a year with Bobby Knight?
I’m not sure there is any process that leads to your first book. In the back of my mind–like most writers I think — I always wanted to write a book someday. The key was finding a good idea that I could execute. I got to know Knight covering the ’84 Olympic team and had always thought tracking a team with a famous coach for a season from the inside would be a good book. The three coaches famous enough at that point — to me — were Knight, Dean Smith and John Thompson. Knight was easily the most likely to go along with something like that if he trusted you, so I approached him with the idea. The hard part was finding a publisher. Five houses rejected the proposal before McMillian offered $17,500 as an advance. I took it — much to the dismay of my friends and family who thought I was nuts to take a leave from The Post to attempt the book. It worked out okay.
Q: Taking into consideration the politically correct atmosphere we live in today, do you see another Bob Knight ever emerging in college basketball?
They broke the mold when they made Knight. Plus, in today’s world, where every little bit of misbehavior is captured on tape in some form, a coach wouldn’t survive if he repeatedly went off a la Knight at the start of his career. He’d never get a chance to become Knight no matter how good he might be.
Q: You’ve written a slew of books, but is there one that has meant the most to you? Or one that has been the most fun?
The non-fiction book that meant the most to me was “A Civil War” – the book I wrote about Army-Navy because the kids I worked with were so special. I’m still in close touch with many of them and stay connected to the two schools — more Navy because I’m closer and do the games on radio — but I still have a lot of very close friends at Army. Doing the kids fiction has been lots of fun because my son Danny (13) has been involved almost from the start. He’s basically my first editor — reading as I write so I can be sure the plot can be followed by kids; is fun for him (and others) to read and that the kids sound like kids. He often corrects me in the kids-speak area.
Q: Do you think that, based on some recent hires, ESPN has the intention of wiping Sports Illustrated off the map? It almost seems unheard of … but could you see it happening?
ESPN would like to wipe all other media entities off the face of the earth and control the entire sports world. They haven’t done a bad job of it so far, although I have to say the Reilly thing baffles me just a little. I understand the money — and give Rick credit for being honest about it — but to me, as a writer, leaving SI for ESPN the so-called mag is like leaving The Four Seasons to check into a Hampton Inn. No, they won’t ever wipe out SI; it is too established and still too good to ever just go away.
Q: With all the power that ESPN has these days … do you think David (bloggers) throwing rocks at Goliath, trying to get him to be the watchable mid-90s version, is having any impact?
No, the little people will never have an impact on ESPN — they just have too much power and too much money. For crying out loud, schools are changing starting times to accomodate ESPN-U!
Q: You’ve written about one of the greatest coaches in sports history, Red Auerbach. Finish this sentence: If Red Auerbach were coaching today …
If Red Auerbach were coaching today he would be the best coach going. I never met anyone who understood change and adapted to it better than he did.
Q: Your wikipedia profile claims Tony Kornheiser gave you the nickname “Junior.” What’s the backstory with that one? And does Kornheiser have a nickname we don’t know about?
Tony put the “Junior,” label on me when I was 21 after I’d written a piece on McEnroe — whose nickname was Junior. I was the youngest person on staff at The [Washington] Post and, like McEnroe, I was from New York, left-handed and hot-tempered. I control my temper better now, though I still get pissed off (mostly by stupidity and arrogance) and I cannot tell you, at 50, how annoying it is when strangers come up and address me as, “Junior.” It gets old when you’re old. None of my nicknames for Tony are printable. (Just kidding. I love him even though he’s insane).
Q: The college basketball season is about three weeks away, and the player everyone’s talking about is USC freshman OJ Mayo. Any thoughts on the
young punk kid who recruited himself to USC and then offered to recruit for Tim Floyd?
One word for OJ Mayo: “Overrated,” mostly by himself.
Q: A topic that will always remain hot – should these college basketball players who are generating large amounts of revenue get paid for their services? More than the free room, board and tuition, of course.
No, I don’t think college kids should get paid but I do think there should be trust funds set up for players in the two revenue sports that are tied to graduation. In other words take, say 25 percent of a schools profits from that sport and put it in a trust fund. The day you graduate, you get your share pro-rated over how many years you were on the team. For the superstar, that 20-30-40K will be meaningless. For most kids, it would be an incentive to graduate. The cop-out artists say, “you can’t do it because of Title IX.” Wrong. You just write the legislation to say the players receive a percentage of any net revenues earned by their team. Thus, if the Tennessee women’s basketball team has net revenues, they’re in too.
Q: We can’t let you go without at least asking for extremely premature Final Four picks.
I stopped doing Final Four picks — or any picks — years ago. I have no idea on November 1 who will be healthy, who will be hot and who will be lucky in late March. The only thing I do know is that most of the so-called experts picking now will probably be wrong and I would be just as wrong if I made picks. This way at least there’s some doubt about my fallability.
Q: REGARDING DUKE LACROSSE …
Feinstein: I was very angry when the story first broke especially after (Athletic Director) Joe Alleva’s initial, ‘this is an unfortunate incident,’ comment. If, in fact, a rape took place it went way beyond an unfortunate incident. I probably got sucked in by the rather naive notion that NO prosecutor could possibly be stupid enough or reckless enough to indict people with ZERO evidence. I was certainly wrong about that. IF a crime was committed and IF kids were refusing to talk to the police — which was initially reported before they all submitted to the DNA testing — they SHOULD have had scholarships pulled. Clearly, Pressler was made a scape-goat and the Duke administration handled the situation horribly stem to stern. John Burness, the incredibly arrogant PR guy, was still working until he violated the terms of the Pressler settlement and the school announced his “retirement.” Alleva is still there; the President is still there; the dean of students is still there. What I know upsets people is that I won’t accept the notion of the players as martyrs. Were they put through hell by Nifong? Yes. He’s been disbarred. They have been given multi-million dollar settlements (deserved) and there will always be a segment of America that WILL consider them martyrs. One more thing: If I HAD tried to defend the kids or Duke at the time I would have been hammered as a Duke apologist. One of your posters is probably right — I should never comment on anything Duke (I’m always asked for obvious reasons) because if I defend the school it is because I’m a grad; if I don’t defend it I’m a bad guy for not defending my alma mater.