We have always admired John Feinstein as a writer. Even when he wrote for the Chronicle his voice practically leaped off the page. It was clear from the beginning that he was an extraordinary talent: he was a natural.
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That’s become clear over the years as he has written dozens of books and maintained a presence with the Washington Post.
His most famous book remains "A Season On The Brink" which documented a turbulent season with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers – and which infuriated Knight (side note: we wrote Knight after we read it and said that we liked him better after reading the book. He sent a nice letter back which was very kind of him).
So when we saw his new book, "The Legends Club", we grabbed it.
Of all of his books that we’ve read it’s by far the most disappointing. And it’s not that it's uninteresting – there are lots of things about Coach K, Dean Smith and Jim Valvano that we never knew.
One of Feinstein’s personal strengths, which sometimes helps him as a writer and sometimes hurts him – is that he’s an incredibly loyal friend. The portraits in this book, the stories he tells, are all affecting and insightful. He’s a highly skilled writer and he’s been doing it a long time now. And maybe that’s where this book had a problem. Maybe he just thought he knew the material so well that he didn't have to check it again.
He should have. This book has a lot of mistakes and errors.
Some of them are minor and quibbles. Some are factual and simply wrong.
Quibble: in one of his previous books he used the term "Carolina Piss Factor" which he repeats here on page 16.
We’re pretty sure that no one but Feinstein has ever used this phrase and in so doing he shows how little he understood how the term was used in the 1970s, at least in 'Durham. We can't be sure, but we think it was a pretty local expression.
It was never the "Carolina Piss Factor." It was just piss. As in: "Aw man, Walter Davis just pissed that shot in. That was nothing but piss."
It may have been a term used mostly on basketball courts, but it was never anything limited to Carolina. As a matter of fact, a lot of Carolina fans used the term themselves, and not about the Tar Heels. We haven't heard it in years so maybe it's disappeared into the world of archaic slang.
When we saw the phrase again, it was…well, irritating. It’s not that modern sin of cultural appropriation but it does show a certain lack of cultural understanding. Unlike a lot of people from Durham, we always liked the kids from Up North and were glad they were in town. It enriched us. But maybe it wasn't reciprocal in Feinstein's case because for whatever reason, he didn't understand the term and evidently wasn't curious enough to find out how it was used. We marked the page and wondered what else would bug us.
In another mild quibble, many of you will know the story of Terry Holland’s dog Dean and that he claimed to have named it Dean because it whined a lot.
Feinstein said this: "Legend has it that Terry Holland, the coach at Virginia, named a dog Dean Smith because, he told friends, 'the dog whined all night.'"
Whatever the story, he didn’t call the dog Dean Smith. Try this: here, Dean Smith! Here boy! Come here, Dean Smith! We're pretty sure he didn't name it Dean Smith either.
Later in the book, Feinstein gets it right and calls the dog just Dean.
These are relatively minor concerns but they indicate a sloppy and disengaged writer. Other errors are much more significant and are not just sloppy but simply wrong. Take the story of Gene Banks and the roses.
In his senior game, against UNC, Banks came out with roses. In his book, Feinstein says Banks laid one at each corner of the court. But in another book, An Illustrated History Of Duke Basketball, the late Bill Brill says Banks threw the roses into the crowd. We asked several people who were there and they all said that he threw the roses. Again, not a crucial failing but as far as we can tell - and Brill was a stickler for accuracy - Feinstein got it wrong.
Incidentally, he has the same account in his book "Forever’s Team," about Duke’s joy ride to the title game in 1978 - Banks lays the roses down.
On page 80, he says David Henderson is from the "tiny town of Roxboro." Not true: Henderson grew up in Warren County. Roxboro is in Person County. End of the world? No. Factually incorrect? Yes.
On page 124, he says that in 1983, Sidney Lowe stole the ball from Wake Forest's Rodney Rogers.
Rogers wasn't even in high school in 1983, much less at Wake Forest - he was born in 1971 and was 12 years old (no wonder Lowe stole the ball from him).
On page 227, he refers to Sarah Palin as a sportswriter and mentions her 1987 fling with Michigan star Glen Rice when Michigan played in the Great Alaskan Shootout.
Palin was a sportswriter for Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, but we're reasonably sure that when she was covering the Shootout, she did so when she was working for either KTUU, which is in Anchorage and would have certainly covered the tournament. We don't know what happened earlier but currently, the paper only publishes three days a week.
That's a minor quibble but we're pretty sure it's right. Among other things, the Shootout was then played in Sullivan Arena, which seated 7,987 for basketball. That doesn't leave a lot of room for papers like the Frontiersman when the New York Times, The Washington Post or the local papers and TV stations from places like Ann Arbor, the Triangle, and TV stations covering every other team in the field, not to mention ESPN - want passes.
On page 243, he says this: "While Smith and Carolina were recruiting six players from the high school class of 1990, Krzyzewski and Duke were recruiting only one: [Grant] Hill."
This will come as interesting news to Antonio Lang, who was also in the class of 1990, as was Marty Clark. And for that matter, Christian Ast, who didn't finish at Duke, and Kenny Blakeney, who came in the same class but finished in 1995. You can look it up here. It's also here though Duke somehow listed Joey Beard as a senior in 1993-94.
By the way, this was also Rodney Rogers' high school class; he beat Hill out for ACC Rookie Of The Year.
After the 1991 upset of UNLV, Coach K got on the bus to go to practice on Sunday and saw Clark and Ast wearing goofy hats. According to Brill, who co-authored "A Season Is A Lifetime" with Krzyzewski, Coach K told then-assistant Mike Brey to go tell the players to take them off: "Coach K sent Brey to the back, quietly, (emphasis ours) to tell the players: 'Get rid of those damn hats.'"
According to Feinstein? It was senior Greg Koubek and freshman Clark and Krzyzewski took those hats off their heads himself: "Krzyzewski took the hats off their heads and stood in front of the bus." (page 258).
According to Brill, Coach K confronted his team in the locker room; according to Feinstein, it was the more dramatic confrontation on the bus.
In another glaring error and one that is as bad as the one that sees Rodney Rogers playing against State at the age of 12, Feinstein refers to an SI cover of Jim Valvano: "There was a photo of Valvano on the cover..."
This refers to an iconic cover of Valvano as he was dying of cancer It was a dignified image of a man fighting for his life.
But it was not a photograph.
We remembered it and knew that but it took us, literally, 10 seconds to check. And it's not even our book.
On page 294 a small error as he quotes Florida State's Sam Cassell's famous line about UNC having a "wine and cheese crowd."
What he actually said was a "cheese and wine crowd." Small, yes, but the mistakes add up.
On page 343 he says that Duke played Butler in 2000. This is indisputably wrong: Duke first played Butler on January 30th, 2003, winning 80-60. You can verify that on page 187 of this year's Duke media guide.
On page 353, he says that Lance Thomas "has played briefly in the [NBA]." Perhaps a better word is intermittently. Thomas has played five seasons in the NBA although you could toss out 2013-14, when he played just five games. Overall though he's played in 168 games over five seasons. He may even be eligible for an NBA pension by now.
By any reasonable standard that's more than briefly. He's also won a lot of respect from coaches and teammates alike. He's a well-respected man in his profession.
We didn't set out to find mistakes in this book; they just jumped out at us. And the more we saw, the more irritating they became. We asked a couple of other people who said they had noticed errors as well.
There were some other things we wondered about but would have taken considerable effort to verify. We weren't proofreading (apparently no one else was either); we just noted things that seemed obviously wrong.
But it's such a disappointment to hold Feinstein in such high regard and then to go through this and to think, well he didn't put very much effort into that - and then charged nearly $30 for it.
"The Legends Club" is significantly flawed and was not carefully edited or proofread. However, if you can accept it with these limitations, the comments by Coach K, Dean Smith and Jim Valvano and others are wonderful and at times deeply affecting. There is a lot of great stuff here for basketball fans and fans in the Triangle particularly. And mistakes aside, Feinstein is an evocative writer, and as always, he writes with great love about things and people he cares for.
But the mistakes may jump out at you as they did for us.