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Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four

John Feinstein

Little, Brown and Company/384 pages

The Super Bowl may be the king of all American sporting events, but the Final Four is a close second, certainly in terms of media coverage and revenue. Yet amid all the hype and participation of what the NCAA euphemistically calls "corporate champions," the event somehow remains engaging and even a little wholesome.

Few can resist the meritocratic single-elimination tournament structure or the emergence of a Cinderella team. National Public Radio commentator and sports author John Feinstein explores this spectacle in his latest work, Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four. He frames his story with the 2005 Final Four, but the book chronicles the history of the entire tournament.

Feinstein devotes particular attention to the symbiotic evolution of the NCAA tournament and sports broadcasting - a lucky coincidence of networks looking to fill air time and discovering something that could do it well. But Last Dance comes most alive with the excellent personal vignettes of the people who have participated in the event. Feinstein left no stone unturned in his interviewing - John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Gary Williams, Dean Smith, John Thompson Jr., Jim Boeheim, Lefty Driesell, Digger Phelps, Jay Bilas and Bill Bradley, to name a few. Feinstein also spent time with the athletic directors who make the decisions on Selection Sunday and the referees who make the calls on the court.

Last Dance is not a hagiography, though. The author has some harsh words for the heavy-handed influence of the major conferences in setting the field and the politicking around the play-in game.

Still, in an age when sports can seem entirely fueled by money and steroids, it is a pleasure to read about gratitude and sheer joy in competition. Last Dance touches on the stigma attached to top coaches who haven't won the title, but is more evocative when describing the emotions of the players - those who won and those who still go to business meetings 30 years later to be greeted with, "Are you that guy who missed that shot ... "

He notes that "the Final Four has become a gathering place not just for coaches but for players ... they still love the game and the feeling of the event they played in when they were young and convinced they would play forever."

Feinstein also notes that only perhaps 50 players have ever participated in more than one Final Four, highlighting the conventional wisdom that it is an extraordinary event, something that only comes around once, like youth itself.

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