One on One

Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game


By John Feinstein

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John Feinstein’s illuminating recollections from two decades of interviews with sports legends.

John Feinstein’s career is a sports fan’s dream-a lifetime of encounters with the great figures in sports, not just on the field, but in the locker room and behind the scenes with legends like Bob Knight, Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, and John McEnroe.

Since his days as a young Washington Post journalist, Feinstein has written twenty-eight books and countless magazine articles and newspaper columns, covering college basketball, golf, tennis, baseball, and very nearly every sport in between. He has told us of victory and defeat, of athletes and coaches we love — and love to hate. But some of his best stories have been left untold, until now.

One on One is an incredible portal into the sports we love-from the box scores and the pageantry of game night and into the hard work and intensity that turn players and coaches into legends.


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THIS IS NOT EXACTLY the book I thought I would write in 2011.

I always thought there might come a point in my life when I would go back and talk to all the people I encountered while researching A Season on the Brink twenty-five years ago. I knew exactly where the book would begin and where it would end. I would fill in the blanks in between by talking to the players and coaches I got to know so well in the winter of 1985–86 in Bloomington, Indiana.

But the more I thought about it the more I realized that a Boys of Summer book wasn't really what I wanted to do. What made that book unique—besides Roger Kahn's writing—was the bittersweet nature of the story line: young, powerful men twenty years later, stripped of that which made them powerful and dealing with the harsh realities of getting older.

There's really very little that's bittersweet about the characters in Season on the Brink. Sure, Bob Knight got fired after twenty-nine years at Indiana, but who among us was surprised to see him self-destruct—and then blame everyone else for his own failings? Most of the other people in the book had gone on to lead successful lives: a handful in basketball, some in law or medicine, while others had gone home to family businesses. If there was one thing Knight always did well as a coach, it was prepare his players for Life After Basketball. The kids in A Season on the Brink, all in their forties now, were a bright group who would find their way in life—probably in ways that were difficult for the old Dodgers of Kahn's book to accomplish. All are college graduates; most knew they probably weren't going to play in the NBA. Only one actually did play in the NBA—Steve Alford, who played for four years before becoming a college coach.

After a lot of thought, I realized how lucky I had been to write the books I'd written. I had come in contact with so many different people from across the spectrum of sports. I hadn't just been in Bob Knight's locker room, I'd been in Mike Krzyzewski's and Jim Valvano's and Larry Brown's locker rooms. I was never in Dean Smith's or John Thompson's, but I'd certainly had plenty of interactions with the two of them too.

I had also been in both locker rooms during an Army-Navy game (a distinction usually reserved, I believe, for those who hold the office of president of the United States). I had spent hours and hours with Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras and Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert—not to mention Joe Torre and Bobby Cox and Tony LaRussa and Deion Sanders. I even spent an evening once with Tiger Woods. Yup, seriously.

There were others, not nearly as famous but perhaps more fascinating, and at least as admirable: Paul Goydos, Bruce Edwards, Chris Spitler, and Steve Kerr, who is at least semi-famous. And then there were the young men I got to know and like so much while writing A Civil War and The Last Amateurs. I had dustups around the world with security people, Pravda, and the Czechoslovakian secret police. I learned from people like Bob Woodward, David Maraniss, and Tony Kornheiser, and battled with editors, notably George Solomon, who helped launch my career.

So why not go back and talk to all those people?

Going into one's past can be dangerous. 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. But I was lucky. I found the people I wanted to find and every one of them reacted to my reappearance in their lives exactly as I would have hoped—or in the case of Bob Knight, exactly as I'd expected.

This isn't meant to be a memoir. I hope I'm still a little too young to write one. What it is meant to be is a trip through reporting my first ten books, bringing me—and the reader—up to the present day.

One note about the way the book is written: Clearly, I don't remember word-for-word all the dialogues presented here. A lot of the quotes in the book are verbatim because they come from interviews—old and new—I have conducted over the years. But many of the conversations come from my memory, which is still, I'm happy to report, pretty good. The give-and-take in some cases isn't exactly correct but does accurately depict the gist of what was said. I do not, for example, know exactly how many times Mike Krzyzewski said to me, "Are you out of your f—ing mind?" that fateful night in Lexington, Kentucky, but I do know for certain that was the message he was trying to convey.

I'm happy to report that digging into my past and into my memory bank and old notebooks and tapes was great fun and brought back events I hadn't given any real thought to for a very long time. Seeing people I hadn't seen for years was terrific. Maybe I will do this again sometime down the road. Of course, the chances are good that Bob Knight will react to me then the same way as now.

Which is fine. I wouldn't want him to ever stop being Bob Knight.


How It Began

March 30, 1985, Lexington, Kentucky

WHEN THE SEMIFINAL DAY at the Final Four was still a day rather than the long day's journey into night it has now become, the first game tipped off at 3:40 in the afternoon and the second game was over by about eight o'clock. That meant even if you had to write about the second game, you were out of the arena no later than 9:30, if only because Saturday newspaper deadlines dictated you not linger over your story.

The matchups that afternoon were Villanova–Memphis State and St. John's–Georgetown. I had more or less stumbled into the unofficial role of being the Washington Post's Villanova beat writer. The Wildcats were the number eight seed in the Southeast Region, and it didn't appear the basketball committee had given them much respect from the start, since their first-round game had been against ninth-seeded Dayton in the University of Dayton Arena.

Villanova managed to beat Dayton, 50–49. Then, on Sunday, the Wildcats easily beat Michigan while Maryland—triple-teaming future star David Robinson every chance it got—came from behind late to beat Navy. That set up a Villanova-Maryland round of sixteen game in Birmingham the following Friday.

I took the train to Philadelphia on Monday afternoon to spend some time with Coach Rollie Massimino and his players. I hadn't dealt with Rollie much, but thought of him as prickly and difficult. That day he was a delight, telling funny stories and joking about his penchant for unraveling fashionwise during games. His players were bright and outgoing, especially Eddie Pinkney, the starting center, and Gary McLain and Dwayne McClain. The other player who was really helpful was Massimino's son R.C., who was a rarely used walk-on but had great stories about his dad.

Four days later the Wildcats beat Maryland in the regional semifinals—which was a mild surprise to me.

And then it was on to play North Carolina, who had beaten Auburn in the second regional semifinal on Friday night. Massimino had finished all of his postgame media and had walked to press row to scout that game just as Carolina came onto the court. A large chunk of the crowd, dressed in light blue, exploded.

"Hey, Rollie," said Mark Whicker, who worked in those days for the Philadelphia Daily News and had graduated from North Carolina. "Take a look: those are the Tar Heels."

Whicker and Rollie were good friends, and Rollie waved a hand dismissively at him. "Screw you, schmuck," he said, using one of his favorite words. "We'll see who cheers last on Sunday."

Even though the Tar Heels had lost Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins off their 1984 team, they were still, well, the Tar Heels. They had Brad Daugherty and Kenny Smith and Dave Popson and Steve Hale and, most important, Dean Smith. Back then, people who spent a lot of time around the ACC—myself included—figured if you gave Dean five guys who could walk, he would usually find a way to win. But Villanova pulled the upset, 56–44.

I wrote the next day about Massimino's emotions in the final seconds after Smith had ordered his players not to foul and Massimino got to hug his coaches and his players—including his son—as the final seconds ticked off the clock. "I hope every coach gets to feel what I felt once in his life," he said. "To know you're going to the Final Four is just an unbelievable feeling."

Six days later in Rupp Arena Villanova had pulled away from Memphis State in the final minutes of that first game on semifinal Saturday. Then Georgetown absolutely blew St. John's out of the building in the second game. That made my sidebar easy to write, and I didn't take very long with it, writing about the shock on the St. John's side after being manhandled by a team it had beaten in January. The theme of all the Post stories was pretty much the same: Georgetown was one game from a second straight national championship.

As soon as I had filed my second game sidebar, I headed out of the arena and walked several blocks to a nearby Italian restaurant. I can't remember what it was called, but I knew why I was going there: I had been invited to dinner by Bob Knight.

HE'D ISSUED THE INVITATION on the phone in February several days after his infamous chair throw. The orange plastic chair had skidded across the court at Indiana's Assembly Hall a few minutes into Indiana's game on a Saturday afternoon against Purdue.

Indiana was in the midst of Knight's most frustrating season as a basketball coach. The previous year the Hoosiers had stunned North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen. All you need to know about that game is that Dan Dakich spent most of the night guarding Michael Jordan—and Indiana won. Carolina had Jordan, Perkins, Daugherty, and both Smiths, Kenny and Dean. Indiana had Dakich, a freshman guard named Steve Alford, and Uwe Blab. That win had to be one of the high points of Knight's career and one of the low points of Dean Smith's, although he managed to maintain a sense of humor about it.

The next week, when I flew into Seattle for the Final Four, I ran into Dean at the rent-a-car counter. Seeing me, he smiled wanly and said, "I didn't think I'd be renting a car this week. I thought I'd be riding on the team bus."

Indiana lost to Virginia in the regional final after the win over Carolina, but still went into the following season ranked in everyone's preseason top five. Knight was coming off the best summer of his life—or so it appeared—having coached the U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal in Los Angeles. Only later did I find out how upset Knight had been by the Soviet bloc's boycott of those games. More than anything he had wanted to coach his country in the gold medal game against the Soviet Union.

Instead, he got Spain, a team coached by a good friend of his. The U.S. team won by thirty-three and Knight insisted he could not have been more thrilled. That wasn't quite the case: Knight wanted to crush the Soviets and he wanted to do it in the Olympics. Every chance he got when speaking publicly the next couple of years, he took shots at the Soviets and talked about what his team, led by Michael Jordan, David Robinson, and Patrick Ewing, would have done to them given the chance.

But they never got that chance.

The '84–85 season quickly turned into a disaster. Indiana wasn't as good as it had appeared to be in the Carolina game. Knight got frustrated and began feuding with his players. Mike Giomi, the leading rebounder, was thrown off the team for cutting classes. Marty Simmons, after a superb freshman season, put on weight and was benched. Winston Morgan, one of the team's three seniors, got left off the team plane on a trip home from Ohio State because Knight was so angry with him. Even though he had another year of eligibility left, because of an injury, Knight told him he didn't want him back.

In late January, Indiana played at Illinois. Knight couldn't stand Illini coach Lou Henson. He thought he was a cheat, and he didn't respect him as a coach. And so, angry with his team, trying to make a point on national television, he benched four starters—including Alford, who was already an iconic figure in Indiana. He had been Mr. Basketball in the state as a high school senior, Indiana's leading scorer as a freshman, and a part of Knight's Olympic team.

Illinois won the game easily and people began whispering that Knight was losing it, that he was exhausted from coaching all summer and then dealing with a disappointing team.

That's where I came into the picture.

"Go out and see if he'll talk to you," Post sports editor George Solomon said to me one morning in February. "He likes you. Maybe he'll talk. If not, stay out there and just write around it."

Knight did like me. I had met him on several occasions, often through Dave Kindred, who had been a columnist at the Post and had a good relationship with Knight dating to his days at the Louisville Courier-Journal. The first person to actually introduce me to Knight had been Lefty Driesell at a press conference prior to an Indiana-Maryland game in the second round of the 1981 NCAA Tournament.

What really jump-started my relationship with Knight, though, was a piece I wrote two years later in The Sporting News about the success his former assistants were having as head coaches. At that point in time, Don DeVoe was winning consistently at Tennessee, Dave Bliss was doing very well at Southern Methodist, Bob Weltlich was having success at Texas, Mike Krzyzewski, who played for Knight at Army and then coached there, was beginning to take off at Duke, and Gerry Gimelstob seemed headed in the right direction at George Washington—having gotten the job back in '81, soon after I met Knight.

Talking to the ex–Knight assistants for the piece was easy. Talking to Knight wasn't so easy. This was during the summer, and every time I called the Indiana basketball office I was told Knight was away either fishing or playing golf or recruiting. I would leave a message and get no call back. I was beginning to think I would have to write the story without Knight.

As luck would have it, the week the piece was due, I was in Chicago on an assignment for the Post. Walking into O'Hare Airport, I practically ran smack into Knight, who was walking out of the airport. I reintroduced myself, told him I'd been trying to get him on the phone, and asked if he had a few minutes. More good luck: he did. He was en route to play in a golf tournament and his ride—Digger Phelps—hadn't shown up yet.

The subject was an easy one for Knight, and he talked about how proud he was of all his protégés. I thanked him, wrote the piece, and didn't think about it again until I got a letter from Knight several weeks later. In it, he told me how much he liked the story and how well I had captured what he tried to do as a boss to help his assistants advance their careers. The last line was the most important one: "Anytime I can help you in the future, don't hesitate to call. Let me know anytime you're planning to come to Bloomington."

Coming from Knight, that invitation was a big deal. Dave Kindred had told me that Knight granted regular access to a small handful of reporters. Bob Hammel, his local guy in Bloomington, was a pal, and Kindred, Billy Reed in Louisville, Dave Anderson of the New York Times, and David Israel of the Chicago Tribune were often granted close-up glimpses of the inner workings of Indiana basketball. All I really wanted was the chance to talk to Knight when I needed to write about him. That appeared to be what he was offering.

That fall, the Washington Post Sunday Magazine asked me to do a story on Knight—most of it focusing on his selection as the Olympic coach, something that had surprised some people (including Knight) since he had gotten himself arrested in Puerto Rico in 1979 while coach of the U.S. Pan American team.

Knight was such a good coach that he overcame that incident to get the Olympic job. When I called Indiana sports information director Kit Klingelhoffer, to ask about coming out to spend some time with Knight, he sounded skeptical. "Let me get back to you," he said. The next day he did. "You should have told me you were on the list," he said.

"The list?" I asked.

"Yeah, the list of guys who he'll always talk to. He said come on out whenever you want."

So I did. I flew to Indianapolis on the Monday after Indiana had lost a close game to a Kentucky team that would go on to the Final Four that season. I rented a car and drove to Bloomington in a driving rain—a harbinger, although I didn't know it at the time, of the weather I would see for most of my winter in Indiana. I arrived just before practice began. Klingelhoffer escorted me down to the court and told me to wait in the empty gym. The team was in the locker room having a meeting.

A few minutes later, the players and coaches came onto the court. If Knight knew I was there or cared, he never showed it. I sat and watched practice. When it was over, everyone went back into the locker room and I was alone in the gym again. I waited a few more minutes, then walked across the court to where I knew the coaches dressed in a locker room separate from the players. Maybe, I thought, someone would be in there who could tell me where Knight was and whether he was still planning on talking to me.

Tentatively, I knocked on the door. It was answered almost immediately by Jim Crews, Knight's top assistant. Before I could begin to explain myself, I saw Knight sitting a few feet away in a comfortable armchair. "Jesus Christ, John, where the hell have you been? I thought you wanted to talk."

Welcome to Knightworld.

I ENDED UP SPENDING the evening with Knight, having dinner at his favorite Chinese restaurant, and filling up several hours of tape on my recorder. When he dropped me off at my car, still parked at Assembly Hall, he left me with one last thought.

"There's one thing I don't think people understand about the way I coach," he said. "I coach like I'm still at West Point, like the other team is always going to be more talented. When I get my players to think that way, we're good. When I don't, we're not as good. But I'm always thinking that way."

I covered Indiana in the regional that year when the Hoosiers pulled the monumental upset over North Carolina before the disappointing loss to Virginia. Then I covered the Olympic trials, which were in Bloomington, and the Olympics in Los Angeles. Knight was alternately hot and cold with me as with everyone. At times he would pull me aside, put an arm around me, and explain something to me about a certain player. At other times he would walk right by me as if not seeing me. Kindred explained that was just Knight being Knight, always letting you know that he controlled the relationship. My attitude was simple: as long as I could get in touch with him when I needed to, he was welcome to feel in control.

When George Solomon suggested I go out and talk to Knight not long after the Illinois benchings and the Giomi expulsion from the team, I decided not to call Knight. I called Klingelhoffer and asked for a credential for the following Thursday when Illinois was coming to Bloomington for a rematch.

"You going to try to talk to him?" Kit asked, knowing I probably wasn't coming to write a game story.

"Going to play it by ear," I said. "See what his mood is like."

"Probably smart," he said. "It hasn't been good very often this winter though, I should warn you about that."

I hardly needed warning.

I caught the exact same flight to Indianapolis I had taken in the past en route to Bloomington and drove—again in the rain—down State Road 37 into town. It was mid-afternoon on game day. Since I had gotten to know Knight's assistants a little during the Olympics experience, I figured it couldn't hurt to stop at Assembly Hall before checking into my hotel to see if anyone was around. My best hope was that Indiana would win the game and Knight would be in a good enough mood that he would talk to me afterward.

I knocked on the door of the coaches' locker room, which sits a few yards from the floor. Within seconds the door was opened—by Knight. He looked at me for a second and then waved me into the room.

"John," he said. "What can I do for you?"

He was alone. He sat down in his armchair, where he had been watching tape. I gingerly sat on the arm of another chair, not sure just how welcome I was, showing up unannounced.

"You show up unannounced to see Dean [Smith] and Mike [Krzyzewski] a lot?" he said, as if reading my mind.

"Only on game days," I said, going for humor.

If he was amused he didn't show it.

"We're a bad basketball team right now, John," he said. With that he launched into an explanation of everything that had gone wrong that winter. I waited a while before I took out a notebook. When I did, he kept on talking. And talking. The coaches began showing up as game time approached. I waited to be dismissed. I hadn't even picked up my credential yet.

"Come on, walk me over to the locker room," Knight said about thirty minutes before game time.

We walked the back hallways of the building to the far side where the players dressed. I could hear the band playing out on the court. Knight nodded to the various security people as we walked down the hall. I followed him into the locker room and found a place in a corner to stand. Knight went through the matchups and explained to his players how sick and tired he was of losing to Illinois. "I don't care how many f—ing All-Americans he [Henson] has out there," he said. "You boys play Indiana basketball tonight the way we coach you to play and we'll win the game."

There was a lot more, but I didn't have my tape recorder with me. It was a miracle I had brought my notebook inside. I trailed Knight when he walked out onto the court, an exercise that would become the norm for me the following season. No one stopped me since I was clearly with him. When Knight went to the bench I went to press row and found Klingelhoffer.

"Where've you been?" he asked. "I thought maybe you weren't coming."

"I've been with Knight since three thirty this afternoon," I said.

Klingelhoffer shook his head as he handed me my credential. "He really does like you, I guess," he said.

Illinois won the game easily. Knight got a technical foul and put his foot through a chair before it was over. He refused to shake Henson's hand at the end and didn't come in to talk to the media. I wondered if I should take what I had—which was plenty—or push the envelope a little bit further. I had told Knight that I was hoping to talk to some of the players the following day, and he had said that would be fine. I wondered if it was still fine.

So I went and knocked on the door again to the room I would eventually come to call "the Cave."

Knight was sitting in his chair when assistant coach Kohn Smith opened the door and looked at me as if to say, "Are you nuts?"

"Sorry you flew all the way out here to see that, John," Knight said. "We're ordering food. You hungry?"

I was starving. I hadn't eaten anything since getting off the airplane about nine hours earlier. I sat and listened to Knight talk to the coaches about how they needed to recruit junior college players in order to compete with teams as athletic as Illinois. I listened to him rail some more against Henson. I ate some chicken wings and watched some tape. Klingelhoffer came in and Knight told him to arrange for me to talk to the two captains, Dakich and Blab, the next day. It was 2 a.m. when I called it a night.

I almost felt as if I could fly home the next morning. I had plenty for my story. I stayed and talked to Dakich and Blab, who were brutally honest about how poorly the team had played. Dakich expressed concern. "We're so bad we might drive Coach out of the game," he said. "I've seen him mad, but never like this."

Knight was mad at practice that afternoon. I continued to have complete access: pre-practice talk in the locker room (which wasn't pretty), practice, postpractice talk. Then it was back to the Chinese restaurant for dinner, where Knight talked calmly and philosophically about getting through a season like this one and regrouping to come back next year.

I was on an early morning flight the next day thinking I had enough to write three stories. Indiana was playing Purdue that afternoon. I figured sticking around would be redundant, since I'd seen everything there was to see in the past forty-eight hours. Of course I was completely wrong.

I WAS ACTUALLY SITTING in George Solomon's office writing the Knight story a few hours after I'd left Indiana—it was a quiet place to work on a Saturday afternoon—when someone came in and said, "Your guy Knight just threw a chair."

I walked out into the newsroom just in time to see a replay. I hadn't even bothered to watch the start of the game, figuring I'd wait to see how the first half went and then watch the second. Purdue had jumped to an 11–2 lead, and Knight had gotten into it with referee London Bradley—one of many Big Ten refs he insisted shouldn't be reffing in the Big Ten.

Bradley had teed Knight up. As Purdue's Steve Ross walked to the free-throw line, Knight turned and picked up the orange plastic chair where he had been sitting and sidearmed it across the court. It skittered directly in front of Ross and lost steam just as it reached the far side of the court. What's funny to me all these years later is that if you watch the tape, no one on the Indiana bench moves or shows any kind of emotion—except for a manager who, without missing a beat, grabs another chair and puts it in the spot where the one Knight had thrown had been.

Everyone at IU had seen Knight throw chairs and all sorts of other things, so the sight of him tossing this chair was pretty ho-hum. Not to the rest of the world. Knight was ejected on the spot, and Indiana president John Ryan was in the Cave a few minutes later. Knight did something at that moment I'm guessing he probably hasn't done five times in his life: he apologized.

Needless to say the lead and the tone of my story had to be changed after the chair throw. There was certainly no defending what Knight had done, and I didn't defend him. In fact, the opening line of the story said this: "Maybe if he had counted to ten he wouldn't have done it."

But of course he didn't count to ten and he did do it. I ended up writing close to three thousand words—many of them coming directly from Knight—about his lost season and the dichotomy of the calm, measured man I'd had dinner with on Friday night and the crazed coach who had tossed a chair about sixteen hours later. The day after the story, my phone rang. It was Knight. I braced myself. About nine times out of ten when the subject of a story calls, it is to complain about something in the piece.

"I just wanted to tell you," Knight said as I readied myself to play defense, "how much it means to me that you went out of your way to tell both sides in that story you wrote. You could have taken me apart after what happened Saturday, like most people are doing, and you didn't do it."


On Sale
Dec 5, 2011
Page Count
544 pages

John Feinstein

About the Author

John Feinstein is the author of forty-five books, including two #1 New York Times bestsellers, A Season on the Brink, and A Good Walk Spoiled. His mystery novel, Last Shot, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for mystery writing in the Young Adult category. He is a member of six Halls of Fame and is a contributing columnist for The Washington Post. Additionally, he does color commentary for VCU basketball, George Mason basketball, and Longwood basketball. He is also does commentary for the Navy radio network and is a regular on The Sports Junkies in his hometown of Washington, DC.

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