I haven't reviewed a book in a while, mostly because I hadn't read any (and reviewing magazines sounds kind of lame). But now that the Final Four is set -- congratulations to LSU, George Mason, UCLA, and Florida -- we have a long week to wait out the end of the season. What better way to do it than to discuss a book that waits with you?
John Feinstein is a Duke grad who has written sports themed books of fiction and nonfiction. He's probably most famous for A Good Walk Spoiled (about pro golf) and A Season on the Brink (about Bob Knight when he coached Indiana). I've read the latter, as well as his accounts of the 1978 Duke men's basketball team, the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the Patriot League.
His latest, Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four, is ostensibly about the 2005 Final Four in St. Louis, but more specifically regards the changes in culture as the weekend event has grown more popular.
The idea is good, and sources are plentiful, as there are people who have attended all or many Final Fours in some capacity: referees, coaches, players, administrators, journalists, and announcers. Before it became the property of CBS Sports, the Final Four was a convention/retreat of sorts for coaches, who used the weekend to network, learn from each other, and reminisce. (Oftentimes you can find anybody in the lobby of a single hotel.) Now it's a time where the more famous coaches stay away from the public eye, and all the fun happens in private parties.
As for the teams actually participating in the Final Four, they play two things: basketball and the waiting game. Mandatory press interviews and public practices obscure the main event, and the players are forced to waste time in their hotel rooms watching pay-per-view movies, waiting for a nighttime tip-off. That probably explains why the championship games often start so sluggishly.
The execution of the book leaves a little to be desired. For those new to Feinstein, it's probably very brisk and informative. But the more familiar you are with his work, the more repetitive and disjointed this book comes across. He has a lot more anecdotes from his Duke and UNC sources than from anywhere else; the history of those schools take up large chunks of this book (even though Duke wasn't in the 2005 Final Four). Still, I learned about things he'd never written about before, like the officiating and the selection committee. I was also surprised to discover that Billy Packer, who was hired by CBS to start up their fledging college basketball broadcasts, is partly responsible for inventing Selection Sunday and the Road to the Final Four.
The author spends a chapter, and then some, ranting about the selection process for the tournament. He brings up the 2003 field, and I learned for the first time that the committee put the two best teams that year (Arizona and Kentucky) on the same side of the bracket for the same reason that they assigned BYU to a possible Sunday game: they weren't paying attention. Pathetic.
One thing Feinstein never addresses: why the Final Four returns to Indianapolis every few years. I know the NCAA is headquartered there now, and that the state has a rich basketball tradition. But come on now. How about some more interesting cities out West? That way the players don't have to wait as long for tip-off times on game days, and the fans can go exploring and find something besides a famous empty racetrack. Again.