When I heard the recent news of the passing of former longtime college basketball coach, my first thought was about a book.
That book is “A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers” by John Feinstein. Published in 1986, Feinstein’s book is a very inside look at the 1985-86 season of the Indiana University men’s basketball team, during which they finished second in the Big 10, and earned a No. 3 seed to the NCAA tournament before being upset in the first round by Cleveland State, an outcome I took great pleasure in as an Illinois native and future student at the University of Illinois.
It is considered one of the greatest sports books of all time, and I’m not inclined to disagree. Feinstein’s insider portrayal of the way a big-time college basketball program overseen by the mercurial and often abusive Knight worked was (and is) deeply fascinating, even as some of the details are disturbing. My most profound memory of the book is the way Knight psychologically manipulated his superstar guard Steve Alford, in Knight’s attempt to drive Alford to greater heights.
“A Season on the Brink” is a literal fly-on-the-wall narrative, as Feinstein had secured Knight’s trust and nearly unfettered access behind the scenes. The portrait of Knight is warts-and-all, but at the same time, it’s clear the Feinstein, deep down, affirms Knight’s “right” to act as he does, given his status and track record of winning.
As I thought about “A Season on the Brink” I realized that we don’t see a lot of sports books like this anymore, books that literally give us previously hidden insights into what’s going on outside the court. Whenever this kind of reflexive nostalgia kicks in, rather than stopping at lamenting that, gosh darn it, we just don’t do things as good as we used to, I decided to spend some time thinking about what’s changed.
For one, following “A Season on the Brink,” the NCAA passed a rule disallowing providing privileged access to individual reporters. Either team activities were open to all the press or not, no more flies on the wall.
Another change has been the rise of the long form sports insider documentary.the documentary about the Chicago Bulls championship era and the final run to the last title could do things retrospectively that would be impossible for a book, including two great books that came out during the Michael Jordan era, David Halberstam’s “Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made” and former Bulls beat writer Sam Smith’s “The Jordan Rules.”
But perhaps most importantly, online media has altered the landscape of how we receive our sports-related news. The relentless demand for content and scoops means reporters take to social media the second they have even a minor morsel to share. Additionally, online media conveys a power not previously available to players, as they can present their own stories directly to audiences.
The balance of power has shifted, most significantly for college athletes thanks to their right to make use of their own names, images and likenesses. Star guard Alford had to live under a Knight dictatorship. Today, Caitlin Clark, the marvelous women’s player for the Iowa Hawkeyes makes more money than her own coach.
On balance, I see these changes as a positive. Sure, we may not get explosive sports exposés like years gone by, but I’m a fan of a world where athletes have agency over their own lives, rather than being fodder for coaches and journalists to use them as they see fit.
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read.
1. “The Golem of Brooklyn” by Adam Mansbach
2. “Okinawa” by Susumu Higa
3. “Liar, Dreamer, Thief” by Maria Dong
4. “Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom” by Ilyon Woo
5. “American Street” by Ibi Zoboi
— Laura F., Oak Park
This is a very interesting and challenging list. I hope my recommendation is up to snuff. Mieko Kawakami’s “Breasts and Eggs” is a novel I would not have read if someone else hadn’t insisted on it, and it was a strange and even singular experience. I’m passing this recommendation on to Laura.
1. “The Martian” by Andy Weir
2. “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
3. “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance
4. “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens
5. “Hello Beautiful” by Ann Napolitano
— Larry G., Buffalo Grove
What I see here is an interest in stories of adventure. Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” is a dark adventure, but it is very much an adventure novel.
1. “Belfast: The Story of a City and its People” by Feargal Cochrane
2. “Dead Mountain” by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
3. “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
4. “The Boys from Biloxi” by John Grisham
5. “The Ferryman” by Justin Cronin
— John C., South Elgin
Lots of history and mystery here. Zadie Smith’s new book, “The Fraud” fits both of those criteria quite well.
Get a reading from the Biblioracle
Send a list of the last five books you’ve read and your hometown to.
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