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Going 'One On One' With Sports' Greatest Stars

Dec 1, 2011 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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Some of the most talented and temperamental athletes and coaches in the world have opened up to John Feinstein.

The acclaimed sportswriter's latest book One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats of the Game details his conversations over the years with notoriously difficult coaches like Bobby Knight and star athletes like Tiger Woods and John McEnroe.

On today's Fresh Air, Feinstein talks about some of his favorite encounters with athletes throughout his career. He also explains how the business of sports journalism has changed over the 30 years he's spent covering the pros. Now, he says, teams are banning reporters from locker rooms and shuttling them to interview rooms — where athletes aren't likely to be as candid.

"If you think the answers in a locker room are rehearsed and canned and cliched ... it's 50 times worse in an interview room," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "At least in a locker room, if you have the time or the patience and outwait the hoards and get can get with a guy one-on-one, you might be able to get a better answer."

Feinstein says he does some of his best reporting without his notebook, when he's simply talking to athletes one-on-one.

"[I do better] when I ask about their family or about last night's ball game and then eventually work my way towards last night's ball game or a real question, rather than just walking up with a notebook or a tape recorder in my hands," he says. "You establish common ground and become a person and not just a reporter."

In 1985, Feinstein was given an all-access pass to the Indiana Hoosiers and their legendary coach Bob Knight. Feinstein's resulting book, A Season on the Brink, chronicled a rebuilding year for the Hoosiers and explained the methods behind Knight's madness.

"There were moments when I saw a side of him — because I was allowed to be up close — that you couldn't possibly see without having total access," says Feinstein.

In one instance, Knight berated his basketball team after two straight losses, telling them that they couldn't be good basketball players if they were selfish people, says Feinstein. But Knight wasn't simply talking about basketball. He looked at his players and asked if they had written thank-you notes to a family who had hosted them for Thanksgiving. No one had.

"Knight then repeated, 'You are selfish people and as long as you are selfish people you can't be good basketball players,'" says Feinstein. "That told me that he knew his team. He knew his players. It was one of the great teaching meetings that I've seen and it wasn't even about basketball. ... I remember one of the assistants looking at me and saying, 'Now that was coaching.' And that's a moment you can't see, you can't report, unless you have the type of access that I have."

Feinstein is a commentator on NPR's Morning Edition and a regular on ESPNs The Sports Reporters. He is also the author of Living on the Black: Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Season to Remember and A Good Walk Spoiled: Days & Nights on the PGA Tour.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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