John Feinstein's secret to developing relationships? Hanging around.
Imagine how history would have been different.
John Feinstein actually first approached Dean Smith, not Bob Knight, for the book that became “A Season on the Brink.” After North Carolina won the national title in 1982, Feinstein, then a young reporter for The Washington Post, pitched the idea of doing a behind-the-scenes examination of Smith and his program.
Smith initially didn’t shoot down Feinstein, saying he wanted to think about it. However, he ultimately decided to decline.
“He said, ‘I’m not ready to be as honest about some things as you’d need me to be,’” Feinstein said. “He was apologetic. He said, ‘I really feel badly about this. Can I get you some tickets to a game?’ That was so Dean.”
Looking back, Feinstein got lucky Smith turned him down. A couple years later, Knight accepted a similar proposal from Feinstein. He captured the volatile Indiana coach in all his four-letter glory in what turned out to be a mega bestseller.
“If I had done a book on Dean, it wouldn’t have done nearly as well,” Feinstein said. “Dean wasn’t the personality of Knight.”
Now after all these years, Feinstein finally is doing a book about Smith. It was Smith, not Knight, along with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina State’s Jim Valvano, who formed the roots of Feinstein’s prolific career. His 36th and latest book, “The Legends Club: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano, and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry” is a compelling story of the complex relationships and backyard rivalries of the three coaches who dominated college basketball during the 1980s and early ‘90s.
Feinstein writes in the introduction: “I wasn’t born to write (this book), but I lived it.” Feinstein recalls the February night in 1976 when, as a junior at Duke, he felt awestruck in interviewing Smith for the first time in the North Carolina locker room. It hardly would be his last encounter with the legendary coach.
After graduating, Feinstein then made a name for himself covering Atlantic Coast Conference basketball for The Washington Post. He spent countless hours with all three coaches, getting to know the intimate details of their lives.
Indeed, Feinstein said Knight repeatedly mocked the connection with the coaches by calling him “ACC boy.”
Feinstein’s latest book shows the core of his success as a reporter and author. For him, it always has boiled down to building relationships.
Relationships lead to terrific stories, and terrific stories lead to bestsellers.
It started early on when Feinstein, then a 19-year-old junior at Duke, approached Smith for the first time.
“I always made a point of waiting around to ask Dean a question one-on-one,” Feinstein said. “He always remembered me. He’d say, ‘How are things over at Duke?’”
Feinstein calls it “the importance of hanging around.” There is no substitute for simply being there.
It sounds like such an easy premise, but few sports reporters, if any, ever have done it better than Feinstein.
Feinstein recalled getting to know college basketball coaches in the 1980s while attending a summer camp in Pittsburgh.
“At night, they all headed to the Ground Round, and they’d sit there telling stories until 2-3 in the morning,” Feinstein said. “You got to know them and they got to know you. I’d collect all the phone numbers to their private lines. Then when I needed them for a story, they’d go, ‘Oh yeah, I remember hanging out with John at the Ground Round.’”
Feinstein, who has written several bestsellers on golf, always makes the point of working the driving range when he goes to a tournament.
“I almost never go out there carrying a notebook,” Feinstein said. “I walk up to guys and start talking to them about a basketball game involving their old school. I ask about their family, and I know their wives by name. You get to know them as people.”
Feinstein put this “hanging around” approach into overdrive in developing the relationships with Smith, Krzyzewski, and Valvano. He once persuaded a reluctant Smith to let him ride with the coach during a two-hour car ride.
For this book, Feinstein spent three days interviewing Krzyzewski in June 2014. You don’t get that kind of time with a coach of his stature unless there is a strong relationship.
“They developed trust in me,” Feinstein said.
Feinstein’s relationship with Valvano presented him with one of the most difficult dilemmas of his career. He became close with the colorful North Carolina State coach, often talking to him well into the night after games.
However, when problems at North Carolina State led to Valvano stepping down in 1990, Feinstein wrote in a column that the coach appeared to be almost “Nixonian” for not accepting full responsibility for what happened. When they met again, Valvano expressed that he was “pissed off” at Feinstein.
“I said, ‘If I had blindly defended you, people would say, Jim is your friend. It wouldn’t have meant anything,’” Feinstein said. “Valvano went, ‘It would have meant something to me.’ That really hurt. I felt bad.”
Ultimately, though, Feinstein realized he had a responsibility to write the critical column for the Post. A few years later, he encountered the coach again. This time, Valvano was in the late stages in a battle with cancer that eventually claimed his life.
“He said, ‘I owe you an apology for giving you a hard time about what you wrote. You were the only one of my friends who told me the truth,’” Feinstein said. “Wow. I’ll never forget that.”
The situation with Valvano influenced Feinstein’s thinking on objectivity in reporting. He doesn’t think it exists, at least not at an absolute level.
“We’re all human and we all have biases,” Feinstein said. “We all should just try to be fair.”
At age 59, Feinstein continue to try to build on existing relationships and build new ones. Of course, it helps being the bestselling sports book author of all time. Feinstein is a brand in his own right. Athletes and coaches want to talk to him.
But could a young Feinstein have built similar relationships given the access restrictions in today’s media environment?
“It’s harder, there’s no question about it,” Feinstein said. “When I first met Smith, it was because the locker rooms were open. That never would have happened today because the locker rooms are closed. We’re not in there.” Feinstein, though, thinks many young reporters are too accepting of the restrictions imposed on them. “They don’t fight it enough,” he said. “I used to fight my battles.”
That’s easier said than done. Plenty of sports media associations try to push for more access. However, the tide has turned with teams and athletes seeing a reduce value in dealing with the press.
Yet having said that, the best reporters always find a way to get around obstacles.
“I know it’s harder, but I think if I was a young reporter covering Maryland [one of his first beats for The Washington Post],” Feinstein said, “I would have the same kind of relationship with [current coach] Mark Turgeon as I did with Lefty Driesell.”