Interview with John Feinstein

When I was sent a galley of John Feinstein’s new book, One on One, my apartment complex failed to let me know it had arrived. A regular-sized book is too big for our tiny mailboxes, and we’re supposed to get a red notification slip when something larger comes. Didn’t happen. It sat in the main office for about two weeks before I went in to get another package and discovered it sitting on their shelf. “Crap,” I thought, “I’m going to have to read this book fast so he doesn’t think I’m an idiot.”

Lucky for me, that was the easy part. The harder might be explaining just how much it was to read One on One. I’ll start with this: it cost me about 14 hours of sleep over two nights. The book is not a memoir, per se, but it is an account of Feinstein’s first ten nonfiction books, starting with the incredible Season on the Brink and covering classics like The Last Amateurs (Patriot League basketball), A Civil War (the Army-Navy game), A Good Walk Spoiled (golf), and Hard Courts (tennis), among others. His idea is not only to tell the behind-the-scenes stories from the writing of these books, which would have been more than enough for me, but also to revisit the main characters to discover where their journey had taken them in the intervening years.

Feinstein’s vast experience and prodigious memory guarantee that One on One never suffers from a lack of stories. Triangle basketball fans will find plenty to read about Coach K, Dean Smith, Roy Williams, and even Jimmy Valvano. One of my favorite parts in that department was Coach K’s reaction when he found out Feinstein would be spending a season with Bobby Knight in Indiana: “Are you out of your fucking mind?” In fact, some of the more revealing sections of the book shed light on details of Coach K’s complicated relationship with Knight that weren’t widely known and often get lost in the narrative of their recent reconciliation.

But as great as the basketball stuff can be, it’s just a part of the experience. Feinstein has stories to tell about his contentious relationship with Tiger Woods, locker room disagreements with the likes of Deion Sanders and Jim Palmer, access fights with organizers and PR people from the NCAA and professional tennis, the real reason Mary Carillo left ESPN, and even a dust-up with the Czechoslovakian secret police. Yeah, really. And of course, the whole thing begins and ends with that singular personality whose story threaded in and out of Feinstein’s entire career: Knight.

One on One works if you’re interested in sports, it works if you’re interested in sports journalism, and it works if you’re just interested in learning about real people who have been turned into inscrutable icons by television and fame. When I say that you won’t put this book down, I mean it literally.

But Feinstein’s strength, as always, is his treatment of people. The best journalists turn their eye outward, and despite the surplus of excellent stories, One on One never feels gossipy or vengeful. I can’t recommend it enough, either for yourself or as a Christmas gift. And now I’ll shut up and let Feinstein do the talking. He was kind enough to speak with me on the phone for an hour the day after Coach K broke Bobby Knight’s record, and it only cost me a $1,000 for something called a “listener’s fee.” (Just kidding- it was totally free, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the experience and Feinstein’s generosity.)

Note: I thought about abridging the interview, but most of it was so interesting to me that I’ve left it intact. It’s long, so you may want to tackle this in installments.

Did you watch the game last night?

Yes, I did, I left Krzyzewski a message this morning saying that I felt bad for Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Mother Teresa, learning that they weren’t nearly the humans that he is.

It’s true. Even though I enjoyed him getting record, I’m eager for that part to be over.

Yeah. The whole pandering thing has just become way, way over the top. And the whole thing with Knight was a little sickening to me knowing the truth about their relationship as I do.

I kept thinking about that, after reading One on One, the whole week up, with these interviews where they’re complimenting each other and acting like they’re best friends. I couldn’t help but think of the whole thing with you. So that did feel a little weird?

Well, I mean, the irony to me when I saw them hugging was that they were 30 or 40 feet away from where Knight blew K off in ’96, and K said “that’s the period on the end of the sentence.” But, I mean, I’m glad they made up. I really am.

They made up with the Hall of Fame speech in 2001-

Mike called Knight, after he was elected, and basically said, ‘it doesn’t matter what’s gone on in the past, I wouldn’t be going into the Hall of Fame if I hadn’t played for you and coached under you, and I would really like you to give my induction speech.’ And Knight said yeah, he’d be honored to do it. And that was when they made up, from that point forward.

Would you call them friendly over the last ten years?

Yeah, friendly is the right word. I did have to remind K that it was Knight’s birthday this year, so it’s not like they sit around thinking about each other 24 hours a day, but they’re certainly friendly now.

One thing I really liked in the book was when you talked about Krzyzewski’s speech after Knight introduced him, and how Coach K had become Dean Smith rather than becoming Bobby Knight.

Yeah, that really struck me that night. Because Mike goes out of his way to be gracious to people. And Knight frequently goes out of his way to not be gracious to people. And Dean was always that way. And that’s why I said that the irony was, of course, that in 1993 Mike said “if I ever act like Dean, get a gun and shoot me.” But the fact is he does act like him. And it’s a good thing.

This may be a tough question to answer, but the fact that these guys have that gracious side to them that Knight doesn’t have, do you think that plays a part in their long-term success, whereas with Knight, you could say the game passed him by a bit?

I think Damon Bailey said it better when he said the game didn’t pass him by, but the people who play it did. And I think that certainly Dean and Mike are more adaptable human beings than Knight is. I mean, Knight is always ‘my way or the highway’ on everything, including wearing those stupid sweaters on the air. Whereas I think Mike and Dean both understood if they want to keep coaching and being successful…I didn’t mention this in the book, but Dean always had a rule on what you could do. Like when the players wanted to start wearing earrings, he said okay, if that’s what others on campus are doing, then you can do it. In other words, if that’s the style, then I’m not going to tell you not to look like the other kids on the campus. And he would have preferred they didn’t, but if he was going to be that way, he would probably lose them. That was just a small example. And I think K is the same way.

That reminds me of the part in David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game when he’s talking about John Wooden and how he eventually just let Bill Walton smoke weed after games when he told him he needed it to calm down.

Yeah, exactly. And I didn’t know Wooden as a coach, I only knew him after he was retired, but my sense was that he was like that too. Of course he was 63 when he retired.

He was young.

Relatively. Dean was 66, Mike is 64. And Knight got fired in 2000, so he would have been 60 when he got fired at Indiana. Which was really, for all intents and purposes, the end of the period when he mattered as a coach on a national level (other than when he broke Dean’s record). Did you catch that little thing last night when Shulman asked him how he felt when he went by Dean? And he said, ‘oh, I never thought about that, what was important to me was being the first one to 900.’ You know why he said that? Because they can’t take that away from him.

That’s a thing he always has even though Coach K passed him.

He’ll always be the first one to 900.

I didn’t even think about that. That’s good. In a sense, it doesn’t matter that he got passed, because he was the pioneer who put the flag down.

And that’s classic Knight.

I was listening to his comments trying to detect any sense of discord or anything. He’s a professional now so it’s not like that would be easy to hear, but one thing he said was that when he finished, he didn’t think it would be only four years until Coach K passed him.

I noticed that too. The other thing, did you notice the color of his sweater last night?

The green sweater.

(Laughter) I thought that was funny, actually.

Why do you think he wore green? (Editor’s note: I’m an idiot.)

Probably because he’s color blind, but the thought crossed my mind, what colors does Michigan State wear?

That’s funny.

You’re right, he is a professional- even though he doesn’t know the names of any of the players- but he’s a smart guy and he knew if he said anything that sounded like he was the least bit upset about K going by him, it would be noted. It was interesting to me his comment, ‘you did pretty good for someone who couldn’t shoot.’ It still goes back to Knight. Like, ‘I took this guy who couldn’t shoot, and look what he became.’

And the great quote in the book is, ‘the sound of his life is awkward laughter.’

That was Dave Kindred’s line.

It’s so true, even in those moments where you feel like he should back off and maybe dampen his ego, it’s always about him and there’s always some little joke someone’s got to laugh at or whatever.

Last night they were doing a promo for the tournament in Puerto Rico, and Knight said ‘maybe one of you should tell Hubert that he shouldn’t mention my name when I’m over there.’

Oh yeah, let’s bring that up, because that was certainly a proud moment in your life. But that’s who he is.

To talk about One on One, it’s about your first ten nonfiction books. The one thing that plays a huge part in every book, and even now, is access. And you were always fighting for access, right from the beginning. You had these NCAA rules made after you. You had that episode after the Temple-Lafayette game where you snuck in the locker room. So it was never easy, I guess, even though you were with a huge publication in the Washington Post, but how have you seen it change from them until now over the course of your career?

You mean for me specifically or for all of us in general?

I guess both, but I was asking it more broadly.

Well, to speak in general terms, it’s really awful what’s happened. When I covered the ACC, when I was first out of college, it was automatic every day during football and basketball season that you could go in the locker room before practice, after practice, talk to players. You’d watch practice if you wanted to. When Jerry Claiborne was the Maryland football coach, the only rule he had was ‘don’t talk to me during practice,’ which is not an unreasonable request to make as a coach. And so I basically never had to go through an SID to get an interview. If I wanted to talk to a kid I’d go in the locker room, and if he couldn’t talk to me at that moment, or if I wanted a longer sit down with him, I’d just say ‘hey, can we do something Wednesday, what’s your schedule,’ and they’d say ‘well, Wednesday I’ve got this and this,’ so you’d do it Thursday.

And it was never really a problem to get to an athlete or coach. The first time I ever encountered any serious lack of access was when I started covering tennis, when we weren’t allowed in any locker rooms except the US Open locker rooms. And when I was president of the tennis writers, I spent three years trying to convince tournament directors if you want more coverage, you’ve got to give us more access. And they were scared of the players. They all said, if we do it unilaterally then players won’t come to my tournament if the locker room’s open- which I thought was a bunch of hooey. So I went the route of trying to convince the tours to universally open their locker rooms. And they just wouldn’t do it. I still remember this one guy who worked for the ATP tour saying, it’s OUR locker room, and we decide who comes in. And I said no, Weller, it’s not YOUR locker room, because you guys and the players make the money you make because the public is interested in you. And we, for better or worse, represent the public. And I lost the battle. We never got any more access.

Nowadays, the invention of the interview room was the worst thing that ever happened to reporting. Because now everybody- you go to a Patriot league basketball game and they use a quote on quote interview room. There are four people there! And they sit up on a podium, and they want you to ask questions to people sitting on a podium. It’s ridiculous. And what they don’t understand- and this is what I’ve argued for years- it’s just as bad for the athletes and coaches as it is for us. Because they never establish relationships with the media, they never feel comfortable with the media, they never come across as human beings. The biggest difference to me in the perception between golfers and tennis players is that golf writers actually have the access to the players so they get to know them as people as opposed to guys sitting up on a podium giving pablum answers. And now, with websites and everything…Tiger Woods has not made any significant news in any way, shape, or form in years except through his website.

He’s his own journalist. Or he tries to be.

Yeah. Obviously someone writes it for him, but he never answers questions. That’s why as I said in that chapter about my having dinner with him, all these golf writers are always saying, ‘well, I know Tiger pretty well.’ And I’m like, no you don’t. Nobody does. I’m not sure Tiger knows who he is. In fact, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t.

But the answer to the general question is that it’s definitely 100 times harder now to do your job well as a reporter than it was when I first got in the business. Now, it’s very easy to do your job okay, because they’ll hand-feed you- you wrote about this on your blog last year at the ACC Tournament- about how they’ll hand-feed you all these quotes and give you every stat you could possibly want, they don’t give you anything that allows you to show any insight or depth or who the people are. But they’ll give you all the quotes about, ‘we’ve got to step up and give 110 percent’ until you’re blind. And a lot of guys accept that.

That was what was crazy to me, just how accepting everyone was.

A lot of guys are beaten down. And I understand that. And to be honest, at this point in my life, I’m spoiled. Because I’m used to the fact that most of the time, I can get people to call me back. If I want to have access, I’ll usually get it. But most guys who make a simple request like, ‘can I get 20 minutes with Coach K?’…well, you know what that’s like.

I’m working on a piece right now, and overall it’s been pretty easy, but if you ask to have a 15-minute conversation with one of the players, they’ll write back, ‘why do you want to talk to her?’ And I want to say, ‘I want to talk to her for my fucking story, man.’ It’s just funny. And it’s so small. There is just no media interest for this particular sport beyond a simple game story. You’d think they might appreciate the coverage.

And my response would be, ‘why would you not want me to talk to her?’ You know? ‘You should send her to my house.’ I covered soccer when I was first at the Post when I was a summer intern. And those guys would just about come to your house if you wanted them to. And I react very badly to stuff like that. Again, that’s part of the fact that I’m spoiled. When someone’s in a position like that, and they’re saying, ‘well, we don’t know if we can do this or we don’t know if we can do that,’ and I’m like, ‘what do you mean you don’t know if you can do this? How about if I don’t know if I can do this?’

That’s what I think too. Even after a game, all the reporters huddle in a little circle, and they bring the players over one by one for five minutes. It’s such a distant relationship.

Yeah, and I’ve always said, when I cover golf, I think I do my best work when I don’t have a notebook or tape recorder in my hands. I’ll just walk up and down the range, because you can, and I’ll stop and I’ll chat with guys. And half the time, I’ll start the conversation talking about a ballgame. Like if I was out on tour today, we’d be talking about, ‘did you see K get his 903rd, what do you think about the Paterno situation, you know, how’s your family?’ And then at some point you slide the conversation to something that’s really relevant in terms of what you’re trying to do. But by then, they’re looking at you as a human being, not as someone with a notebook or tape recorder in your hand.

And I guess the obvious follow-up there, in tennis and as things have developed in other sports, is why do you think they’re limiting access? Is it fear? Is it bad coverage? What’s the point there?

I think it’s two things. I think one, it’s control. They all want control. And two, because they can. If they’re allowed to do it, I mean, for years there were specific rules about locker rooms. When they opened, how long they were open for. But it was never a debate whether the locker room was open or not. It was when they opened. And then- and this was after I was a beat writer- it started in football, they started closing locker rooms. And somebody in the ACCSWA needed to stand up right then and say, whoa, whoa, what’s this about? I guess it never happened. And now, as far as I now, Duke basketball is one of the last open locker rooms.

At the ACCT they still open the locker rooms, but they’ll bring out the 3 main guys across the hallway because the locker rooms are so small. But at least there, if you have the patience, you can hang around and actually look a guy in the eye and talk to him. And I don’t mind that. As long as you get that chance, I feel like you’ve got a shot at doing some reporting. If it’s in the interview room, it’s a waste of time. Partly because of the comment Dave Kindred made to me all those years ago about what happens when you ask a question in an interview room. I never ask questions in there, and most of the time I don’t even bother going in.

What’s funny about that is because they’ve sort of removed this access, I think the beat writers are maybe beaten down, but the websites and the people who cover it online are like ten times as vicious as they ever would have been if they could ever sniff the real personalities of these guys. And I think the animosity is partly because of that. I don’t know if you agree with that.

And plus, because they’re not allowed to, they never have to face guys. When I was a beat writer, if you ripped somebody you knew you were going to be looking them in the eye within a couple of days. I had locker room confrontations when I was still at Duke. I mean, half the football team wanted to beat me up one year because I wrote that they sucked. And then that Saturday, I was in the locker room, and I remember the quarterback, who was named Hal Spears, came over and wanted to take me outside. He was pissed. And to his credit, we kind of went through everything I said, ‘here’s why I wrote this, here’s why I wrote that,’ and we ended up being friends. But that kind of thing would never happen now. To me, that’s one of the things about blogs and sports talk radio is that you’ve got guys lobbing bombs because they know they never have to face any of these people. And part of it is because they’re not allowed to.

It’s kind of one of those what came first, the chick or the egg, situations. Did they limit the access so these guys got angry, or was there some bad coverage and then they decided to limit the access? But from the way you tell it, it sounds like the limited access was more about control rather than a response to any kind of bad coverage.

Yeah. No, I think that’s true. I think that the closing of access happened before there were blogs and before the internet was big and maybe right around the dawn of sports talk radio, when it was just in its infancy.

It’s funny you mentioned the conflict with Spears, because I was going to ask you about that. In the book, the two main conflicts you had were with Jim Palmer and Deion Sanders. (Palmer took issue after mishearing one of Feinstein’s questions after a World Series loss, and Sanders was upset that he gave a private quote to another journalist.) That’s one aspect I haven’t had to deal with because I haven’t had much experience as a beat writer. But that sort of direct blow to the ego- and you hear it from a lot of reporters, where they’re confronted, and the athletes want to pull the high hat on a reporter- can you talk a little about that, how you deal with it, how you get over it, and keep going on?

Well, the Palmer thing, when it happened, was horrible. Because, first of all, it was Jim Palmer. It wasn’t just like it was some third-rate pitcher. It was Jim Palmer. And it was the World Series, so it was a packed locker room. And as I said in the book, thank God for Doug DeCinces.

He’s the one who said, “I heard what you asked him.”

He’s the one. But even so, it was a terrible feeling and I wanted to sort of stand up on a chair and say, ‘hey fellas, this is what I asked.’ But you know, you sort of just get over it. It’s certainly not something you forget. But you get over it and you move on. The Deion thing was different, because I did make a mistake, as I said. I should have kept the quote to myself until I wrote the book, if only out of selfishness as a reporter. I kind of have a big mouth and I was telling about what Deion said, because it was a funny line, and Terry Moore heard about it and gave me a call. And I’ve never ever said ‘no comment’ to a reporter in my life because I know how I feel when people say that to me. And it’s terrible when reporters duck one another or no comment one another. So I told Terry the story and as I said, Deion got pissed. That one I felt worse about because it was my fault. And Deion ended up being gracious about it when I said to him, ‘look, I shouldn’t have used it. You’re right. I’m sorry.’

It sounded like he basically accepted that.

Yeah, and he was good about it. And Deion’s a very smart guy. And I think he understood that the line was a pretty good line to repeat, and when I said I shouldn’t have repeated that, I should have just used it in the book, he was like okay, I get it. We’re cool. And like I said, when he was with the Ravens in ’04, I probably hung around with him more than anyone else. Partly because he was hurt most of the time, so we would stand by each other on the sidelines during the game.

And that’s another thing I wanted to ask. I don’t remember the name of the guy in Indiana in Season on the Brink, but basically the press guy who was always in Knight’s corner, he was Knight’s boy and would never say anything bad about him.

Bob Hammel.

Right. What’s interesting to me about beat reporting is that you’ve got to face these guys, and especially now there’s the possibility that they’re going to reduce your access or something like that if you write something negative. But yours was a case where it seems like you never backed down or were dishonest or anything like that, you were never scared of losing your access. And now you’re spoiled, you get good access, you’re able to write books even after Season on the Brink.

I think Season on the Brink helped my access, to be honest with you.

And if you look at it from a sense of fear or something, it seems like it shouldn’t work that way, but you were able to do good work and have all this access. What’s the secret there?

I don’t know if there’s a secret, but I have always thought that you can disagree with people you’re covering, but as long as you still have the opportunity to talk to them, like what I was talking about with Hal Spears, most of the time you can work it out where you can end up shaking hands and saying, ‘okay maybe we agree to disagree, but I understand why you wrote that, or I understand why you’re pissed off that I wrote that.’ And that’s what I always tried to do. If I wrote something like that thing in the book with Paul Azinger, and a couple guys said, oh, Azinger’s pissed at you. Well, I went looking for him. Because I knew it would be better to talk to him about it than to have it fester with him. And when I talked to him about it, he remembered. He said, ‘oh, Jesus, yeah, of course you didn’t make that up.’ And a lot of the times- and you’ll have this happen to you if you haven’t already had it happen to you- a lot of the times, when someone’s mad at you, they haven’t even read what you wrote. Somebody told them about it.

That’s so common.

And I’ll often say to somebody, ‘have you read what I’ve written?’ It’s like the conversation with Krzyzewski after Season on the Brink. Did you read the book? Well, no. So you’re not going to speak to me because Knight’s pissed off about a book he says he read one chapter of and which you read none of. You know? And even though that night it didn’t resolve things in any way, I think when he thought about it down the road he was like, ‘yeah, I mean…Knight didn’t even read the book and he says Feinstein’s a jerk, and I didn’t read the book, so maybe I’m overreacting a little bit here.’ And I always think it’s better to stand your ground. And you know what, if somebody says ‘well, screw you, I’m never speaking to you again,’ then fine. I mean, Tiger doesn’t speak to me. And I’m okay. I mean, I’m still employable.

You’re still working.

Yeah. I’m still working. Knight and I have barely spoken for 25 years now. I think I’m okay.

With Tiger, there’s that famous Charles PIerce story for GQ, and it was like, this is a story that did a pretty decent job, or at least attempted to show what Tiger was all about in a variety of ways, but of course everyone only remembers that Tiger told those jokes. But it’s interesting, that idea, the perception versus the whole overarching story is. And people always seem to pick at that one detail. It’s like you said, people aren’t even reading the book, but Coach K wont’ talk to you and Knight’s pissed or whatever.

But that happens all the time. When I read a review of one of my books, there can be 20 inches that say this is the greatest book ever written and then there could be one paragraph saying, maybe he should have written more about this or less about that, and I’m like, ‘son of a bitch!’ You know, I think that’s human nature.

So I don’t get upset when guys will pick out one graf from a story and grumble. It’s like the story I told in the book about Howard Garfinkel and the story I write about 5-star. I mean, there was never a story written that read more like a press release than that story. And his only response was, ‘what do you mean the food sucks?’ And that might be the title of my memoir some day. ‘What do you mean, the food sucks?’ And so to say to somebody, ‘did you read where I said this, did you read where I said that?’ No, they probably didn’t.

I think in my career I’ve gotten maybe a half dozen thank you notes from people for stories I’ve written. And that’s it. It’s funny because I vote in the AP poll, the basketball poll, and throughout the season every week when there are seven or eight Georgetown fans who post something saying, ‘you screwed us again, we should have been ranked higher, you hate Georgetown!’ Blah blah blah. Week after week after week. I could vote them number one, and they’d say that wasn’t high enough. And I did a piece last Sunday on Georgetown’s football team. And how they went from being 0-11 two years ago to being 8-3 this year and playing for the Patriot League championship. And what a nice turnaround that was, and how these kids deserver a lot of credit for hanging in there when they were 0-11 and getting it turned around. I have not heard word one- and I don’t expect to, that’s not why you write, as we know- but not word one from anybody connected to Georgetown. Except the SID, who did send me an email. It’s the nature of what we do. (After the interview, Feinstein received an email from Georgetown head coach Kevin Kelly.)

I don’t know if you’ve come across this, but to me Duke always seems like a fanbase where you can’t say anything negative. When I was writing about Duke for my blog- which had, you know, a medium following within the Duke fanbase- what attracted people to it was the fact that there was some honesty and criticism, but a lot of people hated it, and it’s so crazy to think about people who can’t read anything negative about their school. But it’s like you said, you can get caught up in that stuff and just go crazy

I think all fanbases are like that to one degree or another. But I think it’s more so when you’re talking about a team or a school that’s done well for a long time. So they’re not used to being criticized. So that when somebody- I mean there are a lot of Duke people who hate me because of what I said about Nan Keohane and what I said about the lacrosse situation and what I’ve said about football for years. And that’s fine. I don’t care.

But you know, today, I was on a radio show here locally and the guy, one of the hosts, he was one of these guys who goes around talking about how much he hates Duke all the time. And so he was like grudgingly asking some questions about why K was so good. And he says, ‘you know what makes me crazy, the slapping the floor and the fist pumps,’ And I said to him, ‘Danny, if Mike K was 11-42 against Gary Williams instead of 42-11, you wouldn’t even notice. That’s the deal. He’s good, so you hate him. And when Dean dominated the ACC everybody hated him.’

And he says ‘yeah, I guess you’re right,’ and then the minute I’m off the air, because when you go off the air you can still hear the show for a few seconds before you hang up, he says, ‘well, John might be right, but I still hate Coach K.’ I mean, that’s just the way it is. I have Maryland fans all the time tell me what a bad person K is. I say, ‘really, so how well do you know him?’ I’ve never met him. ‘Well, you’ve never met him, but you know he’s a bad person? How do you know he’s a bad person?’ Well, he’s arguing with the refs. Oh, now I understand, because Gary never argued with the refs! And they say, well, but, he wins all the time. A-ha! Okay. Now we’ve discovered the secret. Again, that’s the way fans are.

That’s one thing I actually didn’t know from the book, because I’ve just grown up with everyone telling me how many calls Duke gets and how the refs are on their side, but it was funny to read about how Coach K had the same complaints about Dean Smith early on.

And how that turned around, yeah. And the thing is, the best teams and the best players always get calls. A, because they make plays nobody else can make. And B, because refs are human too. So their perception is that if there’s a block/charge and it’s a team that’s 24-3 playing a team that’s 11-14, the chances are that somewhere in the recesses of their mind, they’re going to think the guy from the team that’s 24-3 made the play.

And that’s never going to change. As you keep writing, it doesn’t seem like you’re someone who has ever lacked motivation. Is that intrinsic to you, or is there something you do to keep the fires burning?

You know, it’s not anything I do, I think I said at one point in the book that people have always been baffled by how I can be my father’s son. My father was so into music and the performing arts and not into sports, and I of course am into sports. And I think it’s true that what I did get from my father is passion for what I do. You know, I still get fired up to go to a Lehigh-Georgetown football game. And when I heard the story this week about the kid from Yale passing on a Rhodes interview so he could play in the Yale-Harvard game was, ‘geez, I’d love to go do that story, that’s a terrific story!’ And because of time, and family, you can’t do every story you want to do, but I still get excited by a great story.

I think the only thing that has changed is that I don’t enjoy the big events the way I used to. And interestingly enough, the reason I don’t enjoy them the way I used to is lack of access, because when I first covered the Final Four, you could go in there on Thursday or Friday and talk to any coach or any player you wanted to, basically. Now everything is set up in these interview room settings, and everything is so generic and boring, frankly. And plus you can’t write a decent story or column, in my case now, because the game starts so late. When I first started covering the Final Four, the games were in the afternoon, so you could actually sit there and try to write something in English. Other than that, other than not enjoying the big events the way I used to, I still get fired up for a great story. Or what I think is a great story. And sometimes my perception of a good story is different than the majority. But I like doing what I do.

One thing I’ve always felt- and it’s hard to phrase this without sounding like I’m doing something wrong- but when you’re doing a story, it’s nice to feel a part of it in some way. And not with what you write, but just in the fact that you’re around these people, and you’re getting to know them, and you’re just involved in it. And with the access for the big events, it’s impossible to feel that way.

I think that’s a great point. Yeah, you’re 100 percent right. That’s why the two books that are the closest to my heart are A Civil War and The Last Amateurs because I was involved with those kids. I still remember, and I didn’t mention this in the book and I maybe wish I had- I did tell the funny story about the kid who wanted the two all-you-can-eat shrimp dinners when I took the Army seniors out…

That was amazing. That was so good.

Just a great story. But I obviously took the Navy seniors out to dinner too, and we were saying goodnight that night, one of the kids on the team, a guy named Andy Person, who was one of four brothers to play at Navy. A really terrific guy. I put my hand out to shake hands with him, and he just gave me a hug and he said, “I just want you to know what a blessing you’ve been to this team.” And I don’t know how I was a blessing in any way other than the fact that I cared about them as people, but that was one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.

And that’s why when I used to teach and stuff, people are always saying, ‘well, you’re not objective.’ Well of course I’m not objective! None of us are objective. And I think that’s what I said to you in my very first email to you. You understand that you’re not objective, but you try to be fair to everybody whether you like them or don’t like them. Last week, when the whole thing happened with Tiger Woods and Steve Williams, I said on the Golf Channel that I thought the one guy who had taken the high road in the whole thing was Tiger. And the host said, ‘what, you’re saying something nice about Tiger?’ And I said, ‘well, yeah, because it’s true!’ So I agree with you a hundred percent. You know, it’s like when Knight said to me, “one of the reasons I’m letting you stay around is because you root like hell for this team.” I did root like hell for that team! Because I liked the kids. You know, why wouldn’t you? They were a terrific group of young men.

And it’s funny because it seems like people, or reporters, they fetishize this idea of objectivity as a be-all and end-all, where it seems like ‘fairness’ would be the better word. Just because I root for Duke doesn’t mean I’d write stories disparaging Roy Williams when he doesn’t deserve it, or something like that.

Right. Well Duke people get pissed off at me, because I say I think Roy’s a hell of a coach. I like Roy. I knew Roy when he was Dean’s third assistant. I like him. And I’d like him wherever he coached. If Mike K went and coached Georgetown tomorrow, I’d be a Georgetown fan. Because I like Mike Krzyzewski.

And that gets back to something we talked about, this idea that it’s more important to write about people. Can you talk about that a little bit, especially in contrast to how there’s different approaches now, where it can be either schmaltz or very personal stuff that’s not necessarily about the people you’re covering.

Well, I think that was a lesson I really think I first learned when I was a night police reporter at the Post. Because more often than not, the stories that occurred at 2 o’clock in the morning did not involve the rich and the famous. And so if you wanted to get in the paper with something other than a four-inch story on a fatal accident or a 6-inch story on a shooting or whatever it might be, you had to figure out a way to find out if there was more to the story than just the police report.

And I remember there was a story, I’m not sure it got in the paper at all, maybe just 2 or 3 inches, but there was an accident late one night, a two-car accident, a guy swerved across the median and hit these two people. And they all ended up- none of them died- but they all ended up in DC General Hospital. And I don’t know, I was driving home that night at 3:30 that morning. And I wondered, how life changing is something like that? You know, you’re driving home and it’s 1 o’clock in the morning, maybe you’ve been to a party, maybe you’re coming home from work like I’m driving home from work right now, how would my life change if someone swerved across the median and hit me right now and I ended up in the hospital?

So just on a whim, I didn’t even talk to my editors about it, the next day I went to DC general hospital and I just walked in- most hospitals if you just walk in and look like you know what you’re doing, nobody stops you- so I just walked in and I had the names of the people obviously and I just said I’m looking for, I can’t remember their names now, but the guy and his fiancée, and they said ‘oh, room such and such and room such and such,’ and I went up and they were well enough to talk. And it turned out, it was just luck, but all three of them had fascinating stories to tell. And the couple had just found out she was pregnant.

Wow.

And they were holding hands saying a prayer of thanks to God at the moment that they were hit by the guy. They were thanking God for the fact that she was going to have a baby.

That’s incredible.

Yeah. And it was pure luck. It could have been that there was no story there. But the story ended up on A-1. And to me, the lesson was, like the Jeff Torborg line about, you know, is this the big trade? Yeah, to the guys being traded it is. There’s always a story- not always, but very often there’s a story if you just go looking for it.

And so I’ve always thought that, you know, I still joke with an editor of mine because a few years ago Mt. St. Mary’s made it into the NEC playoffs for like the first time in four years. It was one of those leagues with 12 teams and only the top 8 make it to the tournament. And I said, let me go up there and write a column about how they made it. They finished eighth. They were the last guys in and they had to win their last game and wait to hear if someone else lost to see if they were going to get in. And the editor said, ‘what are you talking about, who cares?’

And it turned out it was a great story, they were sitting around the locker room, they were on the phone with somebody at the game, I think Wagner was involved, and he was telling them play-by-play on the Wagner game, because Wagner needed to lose for them to get in, and when the game ended they all went running out of the locker room, and the students had stuck around and they put the score up on the board. And it was a neat column.

But it was, you know, I love stories like that. Like I said, I still do, I went and did a column on Howard football a few weeks ago because they hadn’t won more than a game or two for the last five years. And they’re 5-5 this year, and they brought back this star player from 25 years ago to be their coach, and it was a neat story. And so that’s, I’m going to do a book next year on Triple A baseball, and I know that’ll be fun because I know the stories will just grow on trees, about guys wanting to go up, guys going down, and it’ll be like the Q School book I wrote in golf. And those stories fire me up a lot more than whether Tiger Woods is going to come back win another major.

And the thing is, I think people like those too, which is proven by your book sales or the success of your columns or things like that. But it does seem like there’s maybe a perspective originally that if it’s not about Tiger Woods’ next major or something, people aren’t going to be into it.

You’re 100 percent right, because like I said, when I suggested both A Civil War and The Last Amateurs, my editors and my agent just ran screaming from the room. And I mean, it’s funny because I still fight this fight with the Golf Channel, the people there are great to me but it makes them crazy- and they tolerate it. Like when Tiger came back to Akron after his latest injury and I was up there and there were three other stories that first day that I wanted to talk about. ‘Nope, we need you to talk about Tiger, you’ve got to talk about Tiger.’ So I said fine, they intro me, and my opening line was ‘well guys, I have a major breaking news story here- there are 77 other players in the field this week.’ And the guy who’s the executive producer said, ‘you know, when you say stuff like that, I want to throw a rock at the television,’ and I said, ‘I know, that’s why I say it.’

(laughter) I guess there is some reality to the fact that a big name draws an audience.

Oh there’s no question. Just look at the TV ratings, they double when Tiger plays. There’s no doubt. And I get that. And I know that if I was willing to do it, if I wanted to go spend two years on a Tiger Woods biography, and I was willing to find all the people who would talk to me and dig up every old clip I could or whatever, I could write a book that would be a huge bestseller just because Tiger would be on the cover. I have no interest in doing it. But I know it would sell.

I’m sure it would be huge.

Yeah, and that’s why even when I was doing Season on the Brink, I knew there were only three guys in coaching at that point who I could even get a publisher to consider. As you know, five publishers rejected the idea anyway.

David Halberstam’s book Playing for Keeps, about Jordan, it sounded like even in the prologue and epilogue in that book, it sounded like it was kind of a miserable experience for him…

And I talked to him about that. I knew Halberstam pretty well. He was great to me. I actually went and through Bob Woodward got an introduction to him before I went to research Season on the Brink. The two guys I had lunch with before I went to Indiana were Woodward and Halberstam, which is not exactly bad training to have.

Jesus, yeah.

So Halberstam and I were friendly, and he said that it was a miserable experience because he got virtually no cooperation. And nobody else in the world could have taken the material that David had for that book and made it into a readable book.

And it was. I thought it was amazing.

Oh, terrific. Because it was Halberstam. You put that material in the hands of almost anyone else, and it would read like a media guide.

Yeah. Speaking of Halberstam, who are your favorite sports authors, and what are some of your favorite non-fiction sports books?

Well Halberstam is certainly right at the top of the list. Did you ever read a tiny little book he wrote called The Amateurs?

No.

It’s on guys in ’84 trying to make the U.S. Olympic rowing team.

No, I’ve actually never heard of it.

It’s probably not more than 150 pages long. It’s brilliant. It’s absolutely sensational. And you talk about detail, I mean, my God. The Teammates was a great book, and obviously ‘Breaks of the Game’ inspired how I tried to write Season on the Brink. So any of his sports books are at or near the top of the book. And interestingly the other guy who I think has done some great sports books was also a guy who’s first and foremost a political writer, David Maraniss? The Lombardi book, the Clemente book was terrific. David’s a huge sports fan, just really, really good at what he does. My first all-time favorite book was Ball Four.

I just read that for the first time about two months ago.

It’s great, isn’t it?

It’s amazing. He’s so funny.

So funny.

You don’t expect athletes to be that funny. Which is, I guess, a prejudice I have, but he was unbelievable.

Yeah, he’s unique. And he actually wrote a book 10 or 12 years ago now, and I’m in a block on the title, but you can probably look it up on Amazon under his name. It was about how he and a friend of his- because he lives up in Pittsfield, Mass. now- wanted to try to save this old minor league ballpark. And he wrote it in the same style of Ball Four, where it’s a like a day-by-day diary and its own way, it’s almost as good as Ball Four. It’s really, really good. And I loved Plimpton, particularly Paper Lion, less so The Bogeyman, but I liked it. A book that just came out a few months ago, Playing their Hearts Out, the George Dohrmann book. It’s amazing to me that it hasn’t gotten more attention. It follows a youth basketball coach and player and team from sixth grade on for eight years, and it absolutely tears the cover off what really goes on in youth basketball. It’s terrific. And Dohrmann, as you know, is a great reporter.

And to be honest, I had not heard much about it.

I am shocked that it hasn’t gotten more attention. Because it basically says what we all think, that everybody cheats. Only it’s documented. It’s right there. There’s no ifs, ands or buts.

Now the first two guys you mentioned had political reporting experience, Halberstam and Maraniss, and you had political reporting experience, you grew up around music, you’re not by any means just a sports guy. You write fiction as well. Do you think in your sports reporting that having these other influences have helped you in any measurable way?

Absolutely. I always, when people say to me they want to be a sports writer, or nowadays more often a sportscaster, unfortunately, I always say if you can get experience in hard news- politic, cops, courts, whatever- do it. Because first of all, it gives you an entirely different perspective. Going into a losing locker room is never hard when you’ve knocked on the doors of people who have just had a child murdered. Which I’ve done. And it also gives you a greater respect for the facts because you can’t be imprecise when you’re describing something that happened in a courtroom, or in a murder trial or something like that. Or a politician, or someone who’s running to be governor of Maryland, or whatever it is. You can’t get that wrong. You can’t get that a little wrong. It’s got to be right. And I think it makes you more precise as a reporter. And I think it also just gives you a different view of the world. You understand that the world isn’t built around Coach K getting his 903rd win. There’s a little more to it.

I interned at the Charlotte Observer this summer, and I was on cops and courts, and like you said, for the first time I had to call people whose kids had died in a train wreck. And it’s unbelievable. You’re certainly no longer scared to talk to a sports person. Because there’s so much at stake, writing those other kinds of stories.

It’s a shattering experience doing that. I used to get physically sick when I had to do something like that.

I did too when they told me I had to do it for this first one I did. And they offered me, they were super nice, ‘we can do it for you if you want.’ And even though I felt sick I felt at some point you have to stuff like that. It would be worse not to do it, in a way, and let someone else do it.

It grows you. There’s no question about it. I can remember, again, I still remember knocking on the door of a family. Their son had been going to college and a train had derailed and he was the one death on the train. There were 50 or 60 injuries, one person had died. And it turned out the one person who died lived in Alexandria, Virginia, and it was this 19-year-old kid who was going to college. And I had to go knock on their door, and I remember I stood outside for 20 minutes thinking, ‘maybe I can just go back and tell them that they wouldn’t talk to me.’ And then I said, ‘oh God no, I can’t do that.’ And I went and knocked on the door. And the thing, you probably found it too, is often as not people will talk to you in that situation because it’s cathartic.

I didn’t have that experience, but my experience was very limited. Have you ever had anybody get mad at you in that situation? Like, ‘how dare you?’

Oh yeah, I’ve had people slam the door in my face. And, you know, my attitude was, you’re 100 percent entitled to do that. It didn’t feel good, but I understood why they did it.

I guess that’s something you have to learn not to take personally.

No, because it’s not personal. They have no idea who you are. You’re just somebody knocking on their door at a horrible moment in their lives.

I guess the last thing I’ll ask you, and you kind of hit on this already with getting hard news experience and things like that, and as far as cliché questions go, this is the top, but what is your advice to young people getting into sports journalism?

As I said before, I do think it’s great to get experience doing as many different things as you can. And doing as many different kinds of reporting. When I was at The Chronicle, I was lucky. Because I did sports, I did hard news, I did movie reviews, I laid out the paper, I did just about everything you could possibly do at a newspaper.

So when there have been moments in my career- I was in National Airport when the Air Florida flight crashed almost 30 years ago now, and I was actually on my way to a basketball game, I was supposed to fly to Raleigh and go to an NC State-Carolina game that night. And as soon as they announced the airport was closed I called the paper and they said, well a plane just crashed into the 14th Street bridge. And I walked out to the bridge because it’s only a couple miles from the airport and just started reporting. I started talking to people. And that was where my police reporting experience kicked in.

Even more recently when I was doing the book on Kermit Washington and Rudy Tomjanovich. I could not find Kevin Kunnert. It was the guy who was involved in the fight with Kermit when he turned around and punched Rudy. And the NBA didn’t have any contact information, he wasn’t listed, I knew from Kermit he lived outside Portland, but couldn’t find him in the phonebook anywhere. So, again, I got in my car, and we drove to the police station in the township where he lived. And I said, “I’m looking for this guy,” and they said, ‘oh yeah, go down two blocks, turn left, turn right, whatever,’ and I knocked on the door and there he was. But if I hadn’t had that experience I wouldn’t have known that most of the time you walk into a police station and if you don’t look like you’re going to hold up a bank, they’ll help you. So that would be my first piece of advice. And the other thing we talked about is don’t think people have to be rich and famous to have a story to tell. There are so many stories out there if you just look for them. Not every place you’ll look you’ll find one, but if you look in enough places you will find one.

Well, thanks for the time, you’ve been very generous. I do appreciate it.

No problem, I enjoyed it. Good to talk to you, stay in touch.

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7 Responses to Interview with John Feinstein

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  1. Great interview. The only thing I have to say is that its probably hard for guys like Feinstein to understand that Tiger Woods has 100 million dollars worth of endorsements. He simply can’t go around saying things to reporters that could make him look like anything less than an a man of outstanding character. Reporters have no reason to make him look good and they shouldn’t. But the cost is that athletes with endorsements or those that represent universities have a responsibility to filter their access to the media.

    Also, I personally think its kind of weak that he wants to feel like part of the story. He’s not part of the story. Its hard not to read whats out there and feel like journalism is not even opinion oriented- but ME oriented. Anybody see that article about how the journalist/marathon runner has a harder schedule than the Duke team. Its just sickening.

  2. NastyEmu
    NastyEmu says:

    Fantastic interview, Shane.
    Feinstein’s A March to Madness is probably my favorite sports book, and anyone that reads this site would probably enjoy it.

  3. lecodecivil says:

    Great interview. A March to Madness is probably at the top of my list too.

    Feinstein is right about being part of the story. I think the vast majority of journalists probably shouldn’t include themselves in what they’re writing about because so few can do it gracefully, but there’s a difference in a story when the author is involved. Just an example, I don’t really like documentary films for the same reason – nobody acts normal around a camera, so this thing that purports to represent reality might as well be fiction, in my view. Likewise, why would I read a story where the writer won’t admit they affect what happens? Feinstein does it gracefully, keeps the focus on the subject, but admits that there’s a camera in the room.

  4. sanfransoxfan
    sanfransoxfan says:

    Score! Well done, Shane. And that ACC Tourney post last year has once again come through for you – dish best served cold, that’s for sure.

  5. bravo. i’ve only ever read SOTB, but it seems from your conversation like his new one (and may others) may be worth a read.

  6. Great job. Your questions obviously got him involved and talking. He is a true professional to be so candid and open with you. I personally think his work is excellent, insightful and real. Seems as you both have common characteristics. You both see through the garbage, are persistent and take pride in factual information and in depth reporting. I know someday in the future when Feinstein is retired, some young journalist will interview you so the next generation can continue reporting with integrity and honesty, whether it be in sports, politics, etc.

  7. Jacob "The Destoryer" says:

    Great interview Shane. I noticed he used a lot of the same examples when he was interviewed on Fresh Air.

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