John Feinstein: The Sporting Life

Bethesda Magazine interview

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At 55, John Feinstein is the definition of a multimedia sports journalist. If the former Washington Post reporter isn’t working on yet another book, he’s commentating for the Golf Channel, hosting his CBS Sports Radio show or writing a column for the Post or Golf Digest.

It was his first book, A Season on the Brink (Macmillan, 1986), that helped turn the rumpled but respected sportswriter into a virtual industry. A New York Times best-seller, it chronicled a season behind the scenes with volatile Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight, and it’s still considered by some to be the best book ever written about basketball.

At his large, cluttered home office in Potomac Falls, two bookcases that frame a view of the tennis court are filled with copies of Feinstein’s 28 subsequent books, six of which are sports-themed novels for children. His 30th book, Where Nobody Knows Your Name, about Triple-A baseball, is due out in September, and he’s finishing up his 31st, Foul Trouble, a kids’ mystery.

In addition to two desks, the office features a web camera for his TV appearances and a microphone for his radio shows, along with awards, photos and souvenirs from a nearly 40-year career that began when he was a freshman at Duke University in Durham, N.C.  

Feinstein doesn’t only write about sports: His desk overlooks the pool where he practices for U.S. Masters Swimming races.  

Feinstein and his wife, Chris, a former book editor, have a 2-year-old, Jane, and he has two children from a previous marriage, Danny, 19, and Brigid, 15, both of whom are frequent presences in his expansive home.  

We spoke with Feinstein over lunch at The Hunter’s Inn in Potomac as he battled a cold recently.

Q & A

You were raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan by two music professionals—your mother taught music history; your father spent 25 years as New York cultural impresario Sol Hurok’s top assistant before going on to run the Kennedy Center and Washington Opera. How did you become a sportswriter?

There’s musical ability on both sides of the family, and I got none of it. I got the ability to listen. I have loved watching and playing sports for as long as I can remember. We played baseball, touch football, basketball, stickball and punchball in the schoolyard and in Riverside Park, which was across the street from where we lived.

Since you rooted for the Mets and the Jets, 1969 must have been a great year for you, with the Jets winning the Super Bowl in January and the Mets winning the World Series in October. Any special memories?

The day of the Super Bowl, my parents went to a concert. This was when the Super Bowl was still played in the afternoon. When I watched at home, I would pace up and down like I was a coach. I’d be telling the players what to do. My parents came home from the concert, and my father comes in and says, “What’s the score?” I say, “The Jets are winning 16-0.” He was stunned because he knew the Colts were supposed to kill ’em. So he says, “Really?” and sits down because he was kind of curious. Pretty soon he says, “Would you sit down already? You’re making me crazy with the pacing.” I say, “Dad, it’s my good-luck thing.” He says, “They’re up 16-0. Sit down.” So I sit down and [Johnny] Unitas takes the Colts the length of the field for a touchdown. My father says, “Go ahead and pace.” I did, and they won 16-7.

So you always loved sports. Where did the writing part come from?

I was always a semi-decent athlete, but I realized in ninth grade that I wasn’t going to be the Knicks’ point guard. I had never swum competitively in my life, but Ed Brennan, the swimming coach at my school, saw me in a swimming class and said, “You’re naturally buoyant. You’re not going to get a college scholarship as a basketball player, but you could as a swimmer.” You couldn’t play varsity basketball as a freshman anyway. The first time I swam the 100[-meter] butterfly, I barely finished. I went 1:24, which was 23 seconds behind everybody else. It was humiliating. By the end of the season, I was at 1:03. The next year I broke a minute, and my junior year I started hearing from colleges.

I broke an ankle my freshman year [at Duke]. That’s when I started working at the student newspaper and got hooked. I was already kind of burned out on swimming, but I had stuck with it because I needed to get into college. I didn’t swim again competitively for 20 years.

Why did you want to work for the paper?

A friend of mine, Paul Honigberg, who’s now a lawyer here in Washington, told me it was a good place to meet girls.

Your first full-time job was as the nighttime police reporter at the Post. Was that a scary job?

What happened when I was covering Prince George’s County cops and courts [in the late ’70s] was scarier. I stumbled into a story about a bunch of cops who in the ’60s had basically conspired to kill black teenagers. They were called “The Death Squad.” When I started asking questions, John Hoxie, the PR guy for the department, called and said he needed to talk to me. It was my day off, so I asked if it could wait until tomorrow. He said it couldn’t. I said, “Is somebody threatening to kill me?” He said, “Yes.” Of course I went right in, and John told me that Joe Vasco, who was the No. 2 guy in the department and had basically been in charge of The Death Squad, was someone I should be afraid of. I told my editor, Bob Woodward. He marched me into [then-Executive Editor] Ben Bradlee, who sent me over to Edward Bennett Williams, who was the Post’s lawyer. He calls John Rhoads, who was the chief of police [in Prince George’s County], and says, “You need to tell Joe Vasco that if John steps off a curb and twists an ankle, I’m coming after you.” I’m 22 years old and can’t believe this. They assigned another reporter, Gene Meyer [a contributing editor for Bethesda Magazine], to work with me, and we eventually got the story. 

Do you have a favorite moment during your career?

It’s hard to pick one, but the [1995] Army-Navy game when I was writing A Civil War [Little Brown & Co., 1996] was the most draining day I had as a reporter. I was emotionally invested in both groups of seniors because I had gotten to know them so well. I didn’t want the Navy seniors to lose because they had never beaten Army. I didn’t want the Army seniors to lose because if they did, coach Bob Sutton was going to get fired. It was back-and-forth all day. Army drove 99 yards to win 14-13 after stopping Navy on the 1.

After the game, I walk up the tunnel with [Navy captain] Andy Thompson. We walk in the locker room and the team is kneeling down to pray. This security guard puts his hand on my shoulder and tells me to leave. Before I could show him my all-access pass, Thompson says, “He’s with us! You get outta here!” Then I went down to the Army locker room. They were celebrating, and Jim Cantelupe, the Army captain, asked me how Andy was doing. I told him that Andy couldn’t stop crying. Jim asked if it was OK if we went in the Navy locker room. He found Andy, who jumped up, threw his arms around him and cried on his shoulder. It’s one of the more unbelievable things I’ve ever seen, and that’s how I started the book.

Other than the Army and Navy players, who has been your favorite interview?

John McEnroe, because he would always tell you exactly what he thought.

Anyone you want to interview but haven’t had the chance to?

If I could interview anyone, my first choice would be Jesus Christ because I’d like to know the real story. If it’s someone living, I would pick Barack Obama because I don’t think we’ll understand what a historic figure he is until many years from now.

Like Obama, you’re a big basketball fan. Is college basketball still your favorite sport to cover?

Yes. College hoops, one. Golf, two, and probably baseball, three.

How long have you been living in Potomac?

I moved to Potomac Falls after living in Avenel for 16 years. I discovered the neighborhood when Brigid was a baby and I would drive her around to try to get her to fall asleep. I thought it was beautiful, and when we had the chance to buy here in 2004, we did. 

In your home office, you have an autographed photo of Michael Phelps. What’s the story behind that?

I swim in masters competitions and have made a lot of friends that way. One of them is a guy named Jim O’Connor, who swam at Maryland. Jim worked out for years at North Baltimore Aquatic Club and got to be friendly with Phelps [there] when he was a kid. I swam on a 200-medley relay years ago with three really, really fast swimmers, and we broke the world record in our age group. O’Connor got Phelps to sign the photo, “From one world record-holder to another.”

Why did you get back into swimming?

I went for a checkup shortly after my son, Danny, was born [in 1993] and the doctor said, “Do you have any interest in seeing your son grow up? You’re not going to unless you make some changes.” I was in my 30s and I was 25 to 30 pounds overweight and my cholesterol was sky-high. My blood pressure was high. This was right after my mother had died. I hadn’t really worked out since college, but I thought I would try to swim again.

The first day, I got in the water to swim an “easy” 200 to warm up and I could barely finish, I was so out of shape. But I hung with it, started losing some weight. I’m extremely competitive, to put it mildly. I needed a carrot to keep me going. I had heard about masters swimming and I joined. I did halfway decent at a little local meet and then I met these guys who swam for a team called the Ancient Mariners. They liked to have fun and they were good swimmers. We started going to masters nationals together. It became a big thing for me.

You seem to make a habit of coming out on top. Your first book, Season on the Brink, was quickly a best-seller. How did you end up writing it?

I had a pretty good relationship with [coach Bobby] Knight. I was writing a piece for The Sporting News on his coaching protégés in the summer of ’83. I couldn’t get him on the phone and was going to write the piece without him when I ran into him at O’Hare. I told him that I had been trying to reach him. He was waiting for [Notre Dame coach] Digger Phelps to pick him up so they could go play in a golf tournament. Thank God Digger got stuck in traffic, so we sat and talked for 15 to 20 minutes. Later I got a note from Bob saying he had liked the piece. The Post asked me to write a story on him before the Olympics, so I went out to Bloomington, Ind., and spent two days with him.  

The season after the Olympics, Indiana was having a terrible season, and Knight wasn’t talking to anyone. [Post Sports Editor] George Solomon told me to go out there and see if he would talk to me. They were playing Illinois that night, so I went to the coaches’ locker room, figuring I’d ask one of his assistants to have him call me. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon and Knight opens the door. The first thing he says is, “John, would you just show up on [North Carolina coaching legend] Dean Smith’s doorstep?” I said, “If I didn’t think he was going to call me back I would.” He laughed and said, “What can I do for you?” We started talking. I was with him until 15 minutes before game time. He let me stay in the locker room while he talked to the team. He took me out for Chinese food after the game, which they lost. I went to practice the next day and talked to the players. I flew home Saturday morning. That afternoon he threw the chair [onto the court, earning an ejection and a suspension].

I wrote the story, and he called me again and said, “I’m getting killed by everybody around the country, but I thought your story was really balanced and I just wanted you to know I appreciate it.” I thanked him and said it was balanced because he had given me so much time. He then invited me to come to a dinner he threw at the Final Four every year with his current and former assistants. This is when the semifinals were still in the afternoon.

I hung up and thought, “He’s asking me into his inner circle.” I’d always had this idea in the back of my head to spend a season with a basketball coach. There were only three coaches back then who might get a publisher interested: Dean, [Georgetown’s John] Thompson and Knight. Dean had told me he wouldn’t let his mother in the locker room. Thompson and I were not exactly bosom buddies. But Knight’s inviting me into his inner circle.

After [the dinner] was over, I asked him if he had a couple of minutes. I said, “Next year’s going to be a big year for you. …I’d like to see if I can get a contract to write a book about the season.” He said, “If you can get a publisher, come on out.”

The first time I called my agent, Esther Newberg, she said, “Don’t waste your time or my time. Basketball books don’t sell.” [Post colleague] Sally Jenkins, who knew Esther because Esther was [her father] Dan’s agent, called Esther, who called back and said she would be happy to read a proposal. She liked it. Five publishers rejected it. Then Macmillan offered me $15,000. Esther worked it up to $17,500, and off I went.

David Elfin is the web columnist for 106.7TheFan and the author of seven books, most recently, Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History (MVP Books, 2011). A Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School alumnus, he lives in Bethesda.

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