'A March to Madness': Hooping it up

January 04, 1998|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A book review of "A March to Madness," by John Feinstein, in the Jan. 4 Perspective section incorrectly stated that the book omitted that former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith had retired in October.

The Sun regrets the error.

"A March to Madness: The View from the Floor in the Atlantic Coast Conference," by John Feinstein. Little, Brown and Co. 480 pages. $24.95.

In college basketball, every game is a test, every loss carrying the whiff of failure. Yet John Chaney at Temple likes to say that defeat is only "a bend in the river." The river continues to flow. The best coaches, like Bob Knight, ask from a player only what his talent mandates, knowing there are few Scottie Pippens out there who can do everything.


In the insular culture of college basketball, bordered by the other conference teams, the pressure to win remains so overwhelming that coaches can little afford expenditures of emotion outside the basketball culture. Obsessed, they live to outstrategize the opponent, hoping, for example, they have in place those three-point shooters who alone can break down John Chaney's pesky match-up zone.

"A March to Madness" focuses on the 1996-97 season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. John Feinstein ("A Season on the Brink") gets under the skin of the scrapping ACC. It's a coach-oriented book because the access is there, and the gossip is better; we learn whose marriage dwindled and who was arrested for DUI. Feinstein knows the game well; his best chapter describes a nail-biter in which Duke beats Virginia because of an error in officiating never made right.

Yet Feinstein writes about college basketball as a static phenomenon, even as the perspective of the current generation of players suggests a downward evolution in the game itself, not because of the tantalizing prospect of the NBA, available only to a few, but because today's players seem ambivalent about taking direction from another generation.

"A March to Madness" purports evenhandedly to feature each of the ACC teams. In fact a gushing Feinstein seems to be rooting unashamedly for Duke. He's contemptuous of Bobby Cremmins for his Bronx accent, which he portrays outlandishly, as for his intelligence; he seems to feel superior to Dave Odom for his zeal and to Herb Sendek for his earnestness.

Worst, he portrays Dean Smith as emitting constant malice, perhaps because, as Feinstein himself admits, he banned Feinstein from his locker rooms and even made him sit in the upper deck during practice!

Most disturbing of all is Feinstein's gratuitous settling of his scores with Bob Knight of Indiana (not an ACC school). He describes at great length a falling out between Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and Knight. What he doesn't admit to his readers is that this depiction is entirely one-sided.

Feinstein could not have interviewed Knight, who was famously disturbed by Feinstein's book about him. That there could be two sides to a breach between teacher and student, as between friends, doesn't occur to him. The nasty sniping at Knight, sprinkled through these pages, is unseemly, distracting and embarrassing.

Alas, it appears Little Brown wouldn't go back to press to allow Feinstein to include the biggest scoop of all: Dean Smith's sudden retirement at the beginning of this season. But balance has gone south in more than one respect here.

Among Joan Mellen's 13 books is "Bob Knight: His Own Man." She is also the author of an essay about John Chaney that won a prize from The Sporting News. She teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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