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.)