John Feinstein's A Season on the Brink is about the Indiana University basketball team's 1985-86 season. Now if you know anything about college basketball in the States, I bet two words are in your mind already, and those two words are "Bobby Knight". And sure enough, the book is really about the Hoosiers' mercurial, brilliant, abrasive, hard-driving coach. Still only two-thirds of the way through the book, I wonder already at how any young player stands for the kind of pressure Knight brings to the game.
And yet, how do you motivate young men to practice hard, play hard, get up for even the gimme games? Knight's answer to that is fear. No doubt there will be people who will argue with that. Yet it's hard to argue with Knight's stellar record at Indiana, both in terms of graduating his players and winning games. Just one example of that last: in his first thirteen years as coach, Knight's Hoosier teams put together a 99-12 record in home Big Ten games.
The next season (1984-85), of course, they went 3-6 at home in the Big Ten. That terrible season, of course, was the reason Feinsten chose to follow the team in 1985-86 and write this book.
But this is not a review of the book. This is the third Feinstein book I've read (A March to Madness and Hard Courts) are the others. Excellent, both. But even so, and even though this one is apparently "the best-selling sports book of all time", it's getting me just slightly irritated, as irritated as I've ever been with a book, and I've finally figured out one reason why.
It goes back to something I used to notice, watching sports -- and especially college hoops -- back in the States. There'd be these play-by-play guys -- colourful Dick Vitale, sometimes -- and they'd be talking about some guy who just made a particularly good play, and this is what they'd say: "You know, this guy is as good a point guard as anyone in college ball" (or "in the conference", or "in the country"). And they'd nod to each other in appreciation.
And I heard this once, twice, innumerable times, and I began thinking, why can't they use a superlative and be done with it? Why not just say, "this guy is the best"? Or if he isn't really the best, why not just say, "this guy is up there, he has potential", something like that? After all, it's not as if someone's going to take them to court over such opinions. Yet it was almost as if they were hedging their bets, saying something about this player in this game that they could say again about someone else in the next game, three days later.
"As good as anyone", give me a break.
Feinstein's book is full of this stuff. "Each was about as good an athlete as Knight had ever recruited." "Louisville, as it was to prove in March by winning the national championship, had as much talent as anyone in the country."
Well, excuse me, but if Louisville won the national championship, it's a good guess that they had more talent than anyone in the country. Why not just say so?