Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four Paperback – Feb 2 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Feinstein is turning out the sports books faster than ever, as his whirlwind tour of the NCAA college basketball tournament follows quickly on the heels of his fall 2005 look at pro football, Next Man Up. Maybe that explains the somewhat rushed feel, as Feinstein skips briskly from one anecdote to the next. In his effort to depict the annual climax of "March Madness" from as many perspectives as possible, Feinstein collects stories from coaches, players, referees, sportscasters and others, more often than not finding the positive angle. Even Terry Howard's missed free throw during a 1975 semifinal game is turned into a reflection on what an honor it is just to be able to play in the Final Four. The closest Feinstein comes to controversy is when he criticizes the NCAA's recent decision to add a 65th team to the tournament. The account of last year's battle between Illinois and North Carolina for the championship is largely perfunctory; Feinstein is clearly much more interested in revisiting the past with coaching legends like Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski (who also supplies a brief foreword). Then again, in all likelihood, so are most readers. 8 pages of photos. (Feb. 7)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*Starred Review* For sports-challenged individuals, the Final Four is the culmination of the NCAA men's college basketball season and the number-two American sports event, trailing only the Super Bowl. The four best teams from an initial field of 64 meet on semifinal Saturday to decide the participants in Monday's championship final. Feinstein, arguably the best book-length sports journalist working today, employs the 2005 weekend as the catalyst to discuss the history of the event, the key people, and, most significantly, the effect that involvement in the Final Four has had on participants' lives. The book is centered almost exclusively on the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big East Conference. Feinstein's jingoism translates to lots of Duke, North Carolina, Maryland, and Syracuse, with scant attention to the rest of the country with the exception of UCLA and coach John Wooden. That caveat aside, this is a terrific book. Feinstein goes behind the scenes to examine such matters as the often-controversial selection marathon, and the sometimes-petty rivalries between coaches. The anecdotes are entertaining, and the insights into the tournament's logistics fascinating, but what will linger most are the remembrances of players, especially those who ended up on the losing side. The best books take us to places we've never been and let us feel what life there is like. Welcome to the Final Four, courtesy of John Feinstein. Wes Lukowsky
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
However, I felt there were two fairly significant flaws in the book. First, the book is remarkably repetitive. Within the first 15 pages of the book I learned that the Duke class of '86 was Coach K's first "great" recruiting class, that they had a great team in '85-'86 and were stunned, disappointed and impacted by losing in the Final game to Louisville. Great. But I did not need to hear versions of literally the same sentences 3 or 4 more times in the book. Likewise, outside of Harry Potter, I never thought I would see the phrase "Lord Voltemort" 3 or 4 times in a sports book. These were not the only examples.
It seemed that this was a very good 220 page book extended into 330 pages. The book felt like it was made of discrete chapters, but not to be read together due to the repetition. I am no literary critic, but I am curious about the editorial decision to compose the book in a way that so frequently repeats the same stories.
The second, and perhaps more disappointing critique, is that it is not as interesting as I had hoped. Missing from this book, that likely will be read by fairly serious college basketball fans, is any sense of basketball strategy that the Final Four coaches employed during the 2005 games. I presume Feinstein did not have access during the tournament or after to the coaches that could have added detail to the game flow and strategy. With a greater level of "technical detail" the book would have been more interesting to me.
In the same vein, there are a number of anecdotes about various major coaches...all of whom are generally viewed in a positive light. I am sure they are decent, good people and tremendous basketball coaches, but there is not much that grabs you. There were multiple references (again) to Rollie Massimino and his falling out at Villanova, but no flesh on the bones. The NCAA and to a lesser extent the media (sports talk radio) come off as bad guys, but the coaches are treated gently. Feinstein seems to capture all the right folks and hear their anecdotes, but is not as incisive as hoped.
The best part of the book, in my opinion, is where we see strong research and opinion from the author. The chapter on the referees is enlightening and humorous. The chapter on the selection committee is even better. While respectful of their efforts and challenge, Feinstein posits and defends opinions in a manner that is engaging and interesting.
All in all the book is enjoyable; a quick read and worthy of getting fans ready for Selection Sunday. However, I felt the book was unnecessarily repetitive, lacked a component of 2005 Final Four "game strategy" and was overly deferential to the coaching "storytellers".
The sporting event has become one of the biggest in the country, aided by increased media attention that now includes coverage of all the games, not just those among the teams fighting to be involved in the final face-off.
John Feinstein captures all the tumult in his typically illuminating fashion in LAST DANCE: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four. As in his other books, which encompass baseball, football, basketball, golf and tennis, he focuses on the buildup of the excitement leading up to the championship game rather than dwell on the athletic accomplishments of individual participants.
Feinstein has the ability to entice even those who don't consider themselves sports fans. He makes his subjects human, making them accessible to the level of the average person, while at the same time telling us what makes them remarkable. For example, this anecdote about legendary UCLA coach John Wooden:
"The lobby was still crowded and, as often happens when Wooden crosses a room or a lobby, people stopped what they were doing to watch the great man. At that moment, what they saw was heartbreaking: Wooden pushing his wife's wheelchair, everyone knowing that her time was short.
"To this day, no one is certain how it began, but someone started to clap. Then others did the same thing. By the time the Woodens had reached the elevators, everyone in the lobby was turned in their direction, clapping. It was one of those unrehearsed moments that become remarkable ones."
LAST DANCE is full of such moments, whether it's about coaches and the difficulties of building a winning program or athletes overcoming a range of problems from poverty to violence to academic disadvantages.
College basketball has changed over the years. There was more of a sense of camaraderie in the early days of the tournament. Players and coaches used to mill around the hotel lobby, swapping stories and talking strategy. Now, with hundreds of reporters and broadcasters constantly swimming the waters in search of stories, such innocence is long gone.
Like all high-profile events, the NCAA championships would not be possible without all those spear carriers in the background. Another characteristic of Feinstein's work is to give such supporting casts their due. Referees, college sports information directors (SIDs), boosters, selection committee members ("The committee chairman...is frequently referred to by those interviewing him as "Mr. Chairman," as if he were a member of Congress, not simply someone leading a group charged with picking teams for a basketball tournament."), even the ticket scalpers --- their behind-the-scenes work factors into the success or failure of the colleges' seasons, or the fans' ability to enjoy the spectacle.
Feinstein is most candid when he writes about the desirability (or lack thereof) of the selection of certain schools in the tournament, at least from the point of view of the television decision-makers. While most fans love a Cinderella story, TV is more interested in ratings that high-profile or large-market teams like Duke, North Carolina, Indiana, Syracuse, and Georgetown might bring than some tiny school in Iowa that got lucky.
Fans of college hoops, whether rabid or peripheral, will find LAST DANCE educational, entertaining, and a good way to keep in touch while waiting for the games to begin.
--- Reviewed by Ron Kaplan