John Feinstein is college basketball’s Boswell. In five earlier books, including his bestselling A Season on the Brink, he has chronicled, often with a fly-on-the-wall perspective, the passion and tension of the game. It makes perfect sense, then, for Feinstein to turn his attention in the current book to the “Final Four,” the seminal event in college basketball that identifies, often following a Darwinian struggle, the champion. Feinstein uses the 2005 event (referred to in hoop circles as the “Last Dance”) as the scaffold to take the reader through several interesting detours that reveal unequivocally why this event is followed with singular passion by basketball fans.
College basketball is often a petulant suitor. It gives the players few chances, usually just one, to climb the summit. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) allows college players four years of eligibility. With the National Basketball Association playing the siren song of untold millions to entice standout amateurs, the four- year eligibility is often reduced to just two. Given the single elimination format of the NCAA tournament, there is an urgency in teams “to do it this year” lest there be no further chances. While this brings tremendous excitement and following to the tournament, it adds tension and drama to the teams involved.
Feinstein captures this in compelling fashion by portraying the event through a wide gamut of characters – coaches, star players, benchwarmers, and organizers – and bringing the human element to center stage. In the 2005 event, Roy Williams’ University of North Carolina Tar Heels defeated the University of Illinois Fighting Illini in the championship game to finally give Williams his first title. Williams had reached the Final Four on several earlier occasions only to come up wanting and facing a lifetime of questions as to whether he had it in him to win it all. In contrast, Sean May, the cherubic star of the Carolina team, wins the championship two years after his freshman team suffered a losing season. In doing so, he emulates and even surpasses his father, Scott May’s, performance for Indiana University in 1976. In lapidary prose, albeit with an unexplained dose of repetition in several chapters, Feinstein describes what it takes to weather the vicissitudes of the game.
The circadian rhythms of the weeklong event (which took place in St. Louis in 2005) add to the reader’s enjoyment. Feinstein puts equal emphasis to on-court action as he does to what happens in the hotels, restaurants, and streets of the host city. As out-of-work coaches seek employment, radio show producers seek interviews of celebrity players and coaches, and the media reports on a continuous basis, the city takes on a festive atmosphere to cover what must certainly be a anticipation-filled time for fans. It is Feinstein’s little details – when a television commentator adjusts the tie of his fellow commentator, a radio announcer laments the riches that accrue to successful coaches who can afford thousand-dollar suits – that adds verisimilitude to the narrative and makes this a compelling read. While Feinstein uses the forum occasionally to skewer the NCAA for its ubiquitous double standards and criticizes some aspects of the event, the book rejoices in its humanistic portrayal of the protagonists. As told by someone who has a long and satisfying connection to the game, the book is rewarding in its contents and rich in its details.