Friday, November 28, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: November 2014

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the tomes they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers
Author: John Feinstein
via Amazon
If you're a college basketball fan, you already know who Bob Knight is.  For the more sensible among you, he is the former, notoriously bad tempered, highly successful coach at Indiana University, one of the most storied programs in the country.  He coached other places, too - six years at Army, seven at Texas Tech, one gold medal summer at the Olympics - but he'll always be best known for his 29 seasons in Bloomington, coaching the Hoosiers.   From 1971-2000, his Indiana teams won eleven Big Ten titles and three national championships, including an undefeated 1975-76 campaign, the last Division I team to run the table.  For all those extraordinary achievements, his most enduring public image has him throwing a chair across the court in fury during a 1985 game against Purdue.

For the 1985-86 season, Knight granted extraordinary access to sportswriter John Feinstein.  The result was a publishing sensation.  Beyond all reasonable expectations, A Season on the Brink skyrocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.  It also drew a firestorm from Knight who took exception to his frequently unflattering portrayal.

When the book came out in 1986, I was falling in love with college basketball.  From 1985 to 1989, every national men's final was a gem.  During the same period, nearly every NFL Super Bowl was a joke so my previous enthusiasm for football was being overtaken by college hoops.  I also had the benefit of growing up in suburban Maryland with two prominent programs - Georgetown and Maryland - in close vicinity.  In January of '87, I went to my first live game: a Georgetown-Syracuse game that still ranks very highly among the most exciting contests I've ever seen.  I was hooked.

I didn't read Feinstein's book at the time but I followed the controversy.  The extra-wide spotlight on the team, while not entirely welcome, did bring very good luck.  Indiana won the national title in '87, the last for both Knight and the school.

I've read a few of Feinstein's other books about college sports before and they have certainly changed my attitude towards that world.  It's a bit like learning how the sausages are made.  True, college sports provide opportunities for many students who wouldn't have them otherwise but at the highest level, they are rife with corruption and hypocrisy.  Knight took pride in running a clean program and has little patience for those who don't.

That is not to say, however, that Bob Knight is a paragon of virtue.  He may have toed the line in terms of recruitment and academics but his tyrannical (at best) and abusive (at worst) coaching tactics are far from endearing.  Feinstein's book reveals a moody, manipulative, vulgar, profane, obsessive man.  Even Knight's most accomplished coaching colleagues worry about his inability to handle defeat.

According to Feinstein, Knight's main objection upon the book's publication was the fact it did little to hide the coach's swearing.  Feinstein argued that he did tone down the language as much as he could but that Knight swears so much he hardly knows he's doing it.  In fact, the author has praise for his subject, too.  Knight is an undeniable genius and a loyal friend.  To be sure, Knight's protests only helped to drive book sales, drawing ever more attention to his less redeeming qualities.

The book is beautifully written.  As with all of Feinstein's work, pages turn quickly.  I don't know if it would be worth much to someone who doesn't love basketball but it certainly brought me new insights into the game and the personalities I'd observed in my youth.  The text is not over-burdened with game synopses, often the downfall of sports books.  However, the chapter on the '86-'87 season - added in later editions - gets a little tedious.  The book put me in the awkward position of rooting for Indiana, something I never would have done at the time.  A loss meant a very angry coach and it's impossible not to feel sympathy for his long-suffering players in that situation.

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post December's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is December 26th.


34 comments:

  1. I think I'll pass. My brother, though, he might like it.

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  2. I'm sure this would be very interesting to read.

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  3. I'm well-versed in the Indiana legend...being from Illinois and hating everything Hoosier-esque by birth right. Still, I grew up watching Bob Knight and his team rally through their seasons. My dad was a huge college hoops fan and we watched a lot of games together. Knight was such a force on the court, I cringed in fear from a screen away. There was no doubt of his passion, but the fire seemed too hot, in many cases. And, it's funny how you mention that Knight almost didn't notice his abusive language. I know so many people like that!

    I'm not a reader of memoirs/biographies, however, so this one won't be making my list. Thanks for sharing.
    Veronica

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    1. My wife's a Hoosier, though she rolls her eyes over basketball in general.

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  4. Looks like you aren't getting a lot of support on this one. I'm like the others who tend to not be drawn to biographies, and I am not a sports buff. But sounds like it's great gift for someone who might be interested in this history. Thanks for the review!

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    1. Every once in a while, I come along a sports book that I think a non-fan would enjoy. The Sports Gene was the last.

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  5. I don't think this is my cup of tea but I know a few people on my gift buying list who might like it.

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  6. I'm not a big sports fan either so I probably wouldn't read this but it does sound like an interesting book, especially for someone who likes sports and/or college basketball.

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    1. I doubt it would appeal to a non-fan but I enjoyed it.

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  7. My husband praises Knight's genius but I could never get past what a vulgar ego-maniac he is.

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    1. Comparisons are made to Ahab - not flattering comparisons.

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  8. I'm an English gal and don't know anything about basketball or other typical American sports so it would not be for me but your review would make me read it if the subject matter was more to my liking.

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    1. If you're in the market for a good book about English sports, Fever Pitch is really good.

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  9. I don't read many sports books, but I can see why you liked this one so much. :) Definitely one to think about for sports fans.
    ~Jess

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    1. Definitely a good choice for a basketball fan.

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  10. I'm not familiar with sports and Bob Knight, but I enjoyed reading this.

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  11. I'm not really into sports, and I knew Bob Knight's name, but couldn't quite place him until I started reading your wonderful review. Reading it, I couldn't help but wonder why the University would such a loose cannon around, but I suppose he got results, and that's pretty much all that matters in college sports.

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    1. Sadly, a coach or an athlete will be forgiven quite a lot if s/he wins. The last straw for Knight at IU was when he was caught on tape grabbing a player by the throat.

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  12. I love this book. We used to take Favorite Young Man to Steve Alford's basketball camp. I would never have taken him to Bob Knight's camp. The man's behavior can be so out of control.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. As you've read it, you know how much abuse Alford takes in the book. I didn't like him as a player back in the day. He played for the bad guys. I see him as a far more sympathetic character now.

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  13. Tyrannical and abusive coaches seem to be all too common. What a shame.

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    1. It seems to be happening with progressively younger players, too.

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  14. Thanks as always for hosting the Coffeehouse! :)

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  15. Interesting review of a really interesting person (for better or worse!). Great overview of the book and topic :)

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  16. In general, although I don't gravitate to sports themes, I love a well written biography that is REAL. I'm old enough to have figured out that everyone has a demon or two.

    Very good review, well written and told me just what I wanted to know to make a decision about this book! Thanks, Squidamus.

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    1. Thanks, Cherdo! The book is definitely well written. I'd say Knight's demons number in the dozens.

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  17. When I was growing up, we closely followed our local Basketball team (Perth Wild Cats ;) ) but it seemed to drop off in favour of AFL (Aussie Rules football) in later years. Now I rarely watch basketball except during Olympics, but I do think it's a great game.

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    1. Aussie Rules! Now, there's a crazy sport!

      Actually, I had friends in Japan who played in an AFL league. Bones were broken...

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