Author John Feinstein returns to packed gyms to write about his first love, college hoops

John Feinstein, right, signs a copy of his boo “The Legends Club” during a stop Wednesday in Raleigh.
John Feinstein, right, signs a copy of his boo “The Legends Club” during a stop Wednesday in Raleigh.

When Army visited Duke on a Sunday afternoon last month, the author and columnist John Feinstein was there, but not on press row at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where he has covered countless games since he was a student there some years ago.

Feinstein was seated at the end of the Army bench, taking notes on a legal pad on the periphery of the Black Knights’ timeout huddles and listening in on the coaches’ halftime conversation in the cramped, dark staircase outside the visiting locker room.

Anyone unfamiliar with Feinstein’s work would probably assume him to be an assistant coach.

Anyone familiar with his work would assume a future book is in progress, and they would be right.

The prolific author confirmed that reporting for another college-basketball book is under way when he was back in the Triangle not long after to promote his latest release, “Quarterback” – an exploration of the pressure and privilege of the position, seen through the lens of a handful of quarterbacks: Doug Williams, Joe Flacco, Andrew Luck, Alex Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the fascination people have with the NFL,” Feinstein said. “Fourteen years ago when I was working on my book about the Baltimore Ravens, Kyle Boller was the quarterback. You’ll never meet a nicer or more tortured person. He was their No. 1 pick and supposed to be the savior who took them back to the Super Bowl. He wasn’t good enough – not terrible, just not good enough – and I remember thinking back then how no one is more scrutinized than NFL quarterbacks. They’re always the reason the team is losing.”

The result is classic Feinstein, behind-the-scenes details gathered via the full and willing cooperation of typically guarded people. Williams spoke frankly to Feinstein about his experiences breaking the quarterback color barrier. Luck was injured during the book’s time frame, which added a different perspective to the issues all quarterbacks face. Smith and Flacco came into the league as first-round picks. Fitzpatrick was barely drafted.

“The common thread is all five are smart guys, guys who were willing,” Feinstein said. “None of them ever backed off.”

It’s hardly Feinstein’s first foray into football – he spent a season on the sidelines with the Ravens for “Next Man Up” and one of his most popular books, “A Civil War,” is about the Army-Navy game – but college basketball has always been his primary muse (with golf a close second).

The book that started it all for Feinstein, “A Season on the Brink,” his in-the-room chronicle of a profane, tumultuous season spent with Bobby Knight, was immediately one of the classics of college basketball when it was released in 1986. Other books have been about one season in the ACC (“A March to Madness”) the rivalry between Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith and Jim Valvano (“The Legends Club”) and the Patriot League (“The Last Amateurs”).

Feinstein remains one of the statesmen of the ACC basketball media, one of its distinguished voices, even if he is no longer writing as frequently about the league for the Washington Post as he once did, a link to what are now considered the glory days of Smith and Valvano (which makes him sound far older than he actually is), even if back then that was just every day in the ACC.

So in many ways, the book-in-progress is a return to old and familiar territory, and not just Cameron. The focus is on teams that are out of the spotlight, especially ones that play so-called “guarantee games” to finance their programs (and sometimes their entire athletic departments), going on the road in November and December to offer themselves up to bigger programs for the paycheck, usually losing, occasionally winning.

“This is my kind of book,” Feinstein said. “I enjoyed the quarterback book. The guys were great. But I still love college hoops. I love walking into a packed gym on a winter night. I still love it.”

Which is how Feinstein ended up back at Duke and in the visiting huddle, somehow a new spot for him after so many afternoons and evenings spent in that particular arena.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.