Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Engaging journey as writer looks back on sports greats

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STRIPPED down, One on One is a reporter's road trip, an engaging journey full of elite athletes and coaches John Feinstein encountered while transforming himself from Washington Post political reporter to bestselling sports author.

Feinstein's aim, in casting his eye back over 25 years, is not to crank out a career-ending compilation -- at 55, he says he's too young -- but to tell the untold story of how his sports-based books came to be written, in the process revisiting some of the "greats in the game" he met along the way.

But before you can revisit anybody, you first have to visit them. With his deft, dialogue-driven narrative and knack for describing an interview's atmospherics, Feinstein describes the genesis of each of his year-in-the-life books and the role the "greats" played in them: basketball coaches Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski for A Season on the Brink, tennis players Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe for Hard Courts, golfers Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson for A Good Walk Spoiled, and baseball managers Jim Leyland and Tony LaRussa for Play Ball. (As they say in The Sopranos, this is just a "taste.")

What to a lesser writer could become a boring exercise in point A to point B literary geometry is instead a revealing look at the "greats" beyond the limelight's glare. Whether the scene was a boutique restaurant with Tiger Woods or a drab Soviet-era apartment near Prague with Michal Pivonka's mother (and the Czechoslovakian secret police in tow), Feinstein was willing to go anywhere it took to get the story nobody else had.

As the title implies, Feinstein's preferred method of interview was the "sit-down," the coveted one on one (Feinstein knew that when you're with a group of reporters all interviewing the same athlete, you're getting the same quotes as everyone else, which often leads to writing the same story).

He would occasionally forgo pen and paper to make the player or coach feel at ease and then rely on his memory to recreate the scene and what was said.

Even before he started to write One on One, Feinstein had an idea of which players and coaches he wanted to update his readers with. Revisiting the past, Feinstein knew, could be a minefield.

"You might be disappointed by those you revisit: the way they react to you, what they have become, the stories they don't have to tell."

Feinstein, better than most, knows how people can hold grudges.

One who did, but who nonetheless played a pivotal role in Feinstein's early success, was Knight (who never forgave Feinstein for including his frequent use of profanity in A Season on the Brink). When asked for closure-like comments for this book, Knight replied, "No."

Others were much easier, like the college athletes, especially the "Indiana boys," and many of the Army Navy football players Feinstein met in writing A Civil War and stayed in touch with over the years.

It's this personal association for which Feinstein feels most fortunate, to have earned the trust of many great athletes and coaches to the point where they sit down, open up, and tell him what he's always looking for: a story.

Ross Hemphill is a Winnipeg writer and tennis pro.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 14, 2012 J9

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