In the 1970s, a young reporter, new to the newsroom of The Washington Post, caught the eye of the paper’s most celebrated journalist. He had watched the young reporter snag five bylines in a Sunday issue as an intern and break a story about the Washington Diplomats, a soccer club, firing their coach. A year later, he had watched the rookie cover the Prince George’s county court system, delivering some of the nation’s best trial coverage on a 15-year-old boy who killed two police officers. The young writer wrote “long, perfect stories with perfect pitch” while covering the incident, the celebrated journalist noted. He gave the reader the relevant facts and added in just the right amount of courtroom color. Most impressively, he did this all on deadline.
Now, this young reporter, John Feinstein, wanted to become a full-time sports writer. The celebrated journalist, Bob Woodward, was stunned. Woodward actively encouraged Feinstein to not go into such a silly thing as sports journalism.
“You have a chance to do something in this business,” Woodward warned. “You’ll never be heard from again.”
“And he said, ‘Fuck you. This is what I want to do, this is what I am,’” recounts Woodward, laughing.
Feinstein’s choice was a brash move.
Just a few years earlier, as a Duke undergraduate, Feinstein had joyfully run down the hallways of Wannamaker dormitory upon hearing the news of Spiro Agnew’s resignation, brought on by the reporting of Carl Bernstein and Woodward himself. Now, he was spurning a personal appeal by Woodward himself to stay in “hard news,” and he was doing it to become a reporter in what some in the journalism business call “the toy section” of the newspaper.
Thirty-four years later, Feinstein is one of the most successful sportswriter of his or any generation. He has written 28 books. His first work, A Season on the Brink, is the second-best-selling sports book in history. His seventh book, A Good Walk Spoiled, is the first. His millions of printed words reveal a man who is one of the most prolific writers not just in sports but anywhere today. “John’s brilliant,” his friend Mike Krzyzewski told me. “He’s one of the great writers in our country.” Feinstein’s friend and mentor at the Post, Dave Kindred, put it this way: “He’s the John Grisham of sportswriters.”
Feinstein has been more than merely prolific, though. As is made clear in his most recent offering, the professional memoir One on One, he has kept that fiercely independent streak of his youth. Feinstein remains outspoken, unflinchingly confident, never one to shy away from his opinions. In an age when many of his colleagues have retreated from the written word, enamored by the bright lights of television or chummy relationships with high-profile athletes, Feinstein is at heart a sportswriter, even with the traditional definition of the word melting away.
On a snowy January afternoon, in one of the dining rooms of Congressional Country Club, Feinstein tears into a hamburger cooked medium rare. He is wearing a black Bethpage Black sweatshirt and sitting near a roaring fire, which is keeping the powerful patrons of one of the nation’s most exclusive country clubs in Washington, D.C. warm. He is looking back on how he ended up here, how he made it in a profession that so many have envied over the years.
“To do this day, I feel comfortable at a ballpark, at a game,” he says. “My wife says I always come home in a better mood after I go to a game whether it’s baseball, basketball, football. I just enjoy myself there.”
Feinstein was born in New York City in 1956 to two parents heavily involved in the arts scene. His father would one day become head of the Washington National Opera and executive director of the Kennedy Center, and in his household, various acting and music luminaries came and went at all hours. As a kid, he always had the best seats at the ballet, opera and theater. But he took the train to Shea Stadium and Madison Square every chance he could, sitting in the cheap seats by himself when none of his friends would join him. He kept meticulous notes of the contests he watched and always kept score at Mets games. In fourth grade, he even created his own elaborate scoring systems for hockey and basketball, keeping the records in binders called his “Sports Records.” (He would one day show them to his first wife. She did not, he was surprised to note, immediately run from him.)
In almost every way, Feinstein’s childhood showed the signs of the sportswriter he would become. He exhibited an unusual passion for sports, going so far as to write about them while he watched them. He started drinking coffee, that stalwart institution of the newsroom, at the age of 13. And he showed a remarkable confidence and fearlessness to all who came into contact with him.
Feinstein matriculated to Duke in 1973. At the time, Duke was a predominantly Southern university, not the national power it would soon become. A self-described “liberal Jew from New York City” did not fit in well “landing on Planet Duke.” But near the end of his first semester, he summoned up the courage to wander up three well-worn flights of stairs into the hallways of The Chronicle, looking for a writing assignment. The editor, Ann Pelham, was a smart Southern belle, barefoot and wearing cut-off blue jeans. Feinstein took a look at her and thought, “This is a good place to work.”
Pelham told Feinstein he would have to report about more than sports if he was serious about journalism. Feinstein agreed, but he soon talked to The Chronicle’s sports editor anyway about covering games. The editor told Feinstein to cover a wrestling match in Chapel Hill, so Feinstein drove to the meet. He was in for a surprise when he arrived. The wrestling coach looked at him with one question: What are you doing here? “I didn’t know that I was just supposed to call him and get the scores,” Feinstein says, laughing.
Feinstein rose rapidly through the student paper. He covered the basketball beat essentially by himself as a sophomore. He was elected sports editor of the newspaper as a junior and re-elected the next year. He also began stringing for local papers, including the Durham Morning Herald, picking up so many assignments that there were Duke games for which he wrote four different stories. Before he even left Duke he considered himself a full-time reporter and worked tirelessly to make his Rolodex mimic a professional’s.
He knew what he wanted to do next: He was aiming for The Washington Post.
When you ask any of Feinstein’s friends to describe his personality, brace for the inevitable chuckle, then an explanation.
Jim Cantelupe, a captain of the Army football team in 1995 and one of the protagonists of A Civil War: “John’s very opinionated, not afraid to give his opinion. He’s real.”
Krzyzewski, Duke head basketball coach: “John has great passion for what he does; that makes him very out-spoken. He’s very opinionated.”
Dave Maraniss, another of Feinstein’s mentors at the Post: “[My job] sometimes means stopping him from saying something that will get him fired. I think he’s been fired three or four times. He’s an incredibly outspoken, argumentative, wonderfully colorful guy.”
Woodward: “He’s an independent horse in journalism and sports coverage. He writes and says, ‘This is what I think.’ There’s no hedging. He very much believes that sports should be pure. He goes after whoever is not doing it properly.”
Feinstein himself: “I’ve always been fast. I was fast when I was at The Chronicle. And I think in writing like I talk, I tend to be opinionated when I talk, so my writing is opinionated. When I was writing straight news in the news section, I had to back off from that. But in sports obviously even when you’re not a columnist, you have more liberty to voice your opinion.”
Not everyone responds well to those opinions. Feinstein has probably angered every one of his regular readers at least once. It’s not just them, either. He and former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson held screaming matches with each other over various things he wrote in the Post in the 1980s. He and Tiger Woods no longer speak. He and Krzyzewski have clashed over things he’s written. After Krzyzewski’s third year, Feinstein wrote that if he did not show improvement, a lot of people did not think he’d come back. “Mike said, ‘I get it from these Carolina assholes! I don’t need to get it from you,’” Feinstein recalls.
“He has many opinions that I have not agreed with,” says Krzyzewski, “but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good friend. He’ll listen to reasons why you have that opinion. He might not change it, but he’ll listen.”
Feinstein never appears on ESPN, even though the Worldwide Leader in Sports has become a forum in recent years for regional writers to find national exposure. Feinstein has resisted this sea change. “The last time anyone tried to exert control like this was the old Soviet Union. Misbehave at ESPN and they send you to the Gulag,” he once wrote. “ESPN is, for the most part, a celebration of mediocrity.” His difficulties with ESPN began, he writes on his blog, with a disagreement over the movie treatment of A Season on the Brink. “The general consensus is that it was one of the five worst movies ever made,” he wrote. He accused an ESPN executive of trying to blackmail him and refuses to return to ESPN to this day. He won’t even appear on his old friend Tony Kornheiser’s radio show anymore, because it is an ESPN affiliate.
He also has no problem lighting into television analysts. “There’s a difference between TV and what I do,” he says. “There’s no question. If there was ever a battle for TV people to behave like journalists, it was lost long ago. They do commercials. They’re not allowed to say certain things on ESPN. I get upset when TV people say they’re journalists. They’re not.”
In a world of broadcasters doing Applebee’s commercials, Feinstein refuses to even “back-up,” or talk about, promotions that are read by the play-by-play man while broadcasting games on the CBS College Sports Network. As Maraniss puts it: “John doesn’t pick fights with people who won’t handle themselves. He doesn’t pick fights with the weak.”
In his junior year at Duke, Feinstein applied for a summer internship at the Post. He didn’t get it. He spent the next year working to prove the Post wrong and succeeded, partly based on an article he wrote for The Chronicle in which he called every coach in the ACC to get a quote. “I admired that story,” says Ken Denlinger, a sportswriter at the Post who helped make the decision. “I felt at that age it required initiative and a great deal of confidence.”
Upon getting the job, Feinstein broke up with his girlfriend, telling her he was going to work too much to have time to date. His unusual move paid off. He was hired as a night police reporter at the end of the summer, calling it “the greatest moment of my life.” The only problem was that the sports section was filled, and the Post’s leaders weren’t sure if he wanted to leave sports. “I said, ‘I’ll wash the floors here,’” Feinstein recounts telling his editors. “‘It’s The Washington Post, for crying out loud.’” He worked two years outside of sports, then got the opportunity to make his declaration to Woodward and move on from news.
But Feinstein’s ambitions weren’t limited to the ink-stained pages of the Post. One day while on the sports desk, he visited the newspaper’s cafeteria with Kindred and told his colleague that he wanted to write books. Then he said something else that took Kindred by surprise. “I want to be the James Michener of sports books,” he told him. Michener was a Pulitzer Prize winner known for his historical epics. Kindred responded to the young man: “Huh. James Michener.”
Come 1985, the opportunity to do that fell in his lap.
Feinstein had grown close to Indiana’s famous, inflammatory coach Bob Knight during the Hoosiers’ 1981 run to the national championship. According to Feinstein, Knight was trying to get one of his assistant coaches a new job, and he solicited Feinstein because he represented the national media. The two slowly developed a mutually beneficial relationship, and Feinstein soon came up with an idea. What if he spent every minute possible with Knight and the team? What if he became a completely embedded reporter, one who the coaches and players would soon even forget was there, allowing him to see the team as it really was, not the face it wanted to present to the media?
The seeds of the book were planted by his time as a police reporter. “You’d ride along with the cop, and that was about as real as it gets,” he says. “A lot of it was drudgery, but I was there for a shooting one night. It was the first time a female cop shot someone. It was a big story. We were riding back to the station and I remember being pissed when the homicide detective cut me off, made me leave.... That stuck with me, that loss of inside access.”
He pitched it to Knight while visiting him in a hotel room after the Final Four dinner in 1985. Incredibly, Knight agreed. Once the door was firmly shut, Krzyzewski, who had been in the room for the conversation, stared at his friend. “Are you out of your fucking mind?” he said.
Feinstein survived the season and wrote the book, A Season on the Brink, over seven weeks at his parents’ vacation house in Shelter Island, N.Y. It’s a classic, one of the most illuminating sports books ever written. To read it even 25 years later is to read a study in fluid, direct, uncomplicated writing that never overshadows the subject. Knight unquestionably propels the narrative. His tragic flaws and terrifying demeanor are on full display, and Feinstein dutifully recounts the ups and downs of his electric personality. “It was a very honest portrayal of Knight,” Kindred says. “It was also an act of friendship. I had been around Knight enough to know that what he used in the book was one-tenth of what he had actually done.”
A Season on the Brink became a sensation. It shot to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list and earned the distinction of being the best-selling sports book in U.S. history. Knight immediately disavowed the book, angry at the inclusion of the profanity as well as other instances that put him in a bad light. The two, who had grown so close, didn’t speak to each other for many years. As Feinstein tells me, “You have to be ready for the battles that come afterward.” (Knight declined to comment for this story.)
With A Season on the Brink, Feinstein essentially invented a new genre, one that has been copied countless times: Reporter spends time with team, then writes down what happens. What’s surprising about A Season on the Brink is how new the idea was at the time. “What John did was much harder than [The] Boys of Summer and Ball Four,” Kindred says, referring to two of history’s more iconic sports books. “It was an up-close and personal book that had never been done.”
Woodward added: “He has the capacity to win the confidence of people he writes about. A Season on the Brink, the classic example of that, was like The Selling of the President was about Nixon.”
Feinstein’s ease in gaining trust is even more remarkable because high-profile athletes and star coaches often feel burned by the media. How does Feinstein establish such unabiding trust? “You have to develop relationships,” he says. “I think I do my best work frequently without a notebook out. I go to the driving range, and I’ll never ask a golf question. I might ask about their families, the game. They see you as a person, not a notebook. Then I’ll always ask if they want to go to lunch or dinner.”
Feinstein does not press questions. Frequently during Krzyzewski’s early days, he would go and sit in his office after losses, not saying anything. “It’s unusual to develop those types of relationships,” the coach says. “You have to trust somebody that much to let them into those relationships. They understand what to write because they understand the situation.”
The success of A Season on the Brink more or less ensured that Feinstein would be able to do whatever he wanted for the rest of his career. Frequently, those hunches paid off, even when most publishers would say the subject he chose didn’t have mass appeal. Feinstein found his most success in 1995 with A Good Walk Spoiled, a book about a seemingly boring subject, the PGA Tour in a time after Jack Nicklaus but before Tiger Woods, when golf was far from the major sport it is now. The book still outsold A Season on the Brink. Feinstein’s ability to turn subjects that interest maybe only him into nationally appealing figures is the subject of envy for even successful writers.
“Publishing is not easy,” says Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis, Trinity ’92. “When you have the kind of success he’s had, the only thing you ever crave is freedom. John has been able to write about what interests him.”
In the mid-1990s, Feinstein took a chance on something other than writing: He taught a weekly journalism seminar at Duke. Constantly pacing across the class, full of energy, Feinstein clued in his students at the beginning of the course that he wasn’t a typical journalism teacher. “There is no such thing as objective journalism,” he would say. “Everyone has their biases that they have to deal with.”
Davis, who was a student in Feinstein’s class, remembered one time, while planning aloud the course schedule for future weeks, when Feinstein mentioned a conflict of his own. He was in the middle of reporting yet another book, and a class conflicted with a major interview.
“Oh, man, I am really fucked,” he said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a professor say that,” a student responded.
“You’ve never had a professor who’s fucked like this,” Feinstein said.
One of the books that Feinstein wrote after his teaching gig was A Civil War, his first book that focused on lesser-known athletes: the Army and Navy football teams. The book is full of Feinsteinian stuff. As a reader, you’re in class with the players, the locker rooms for rousing speeches, even players-only get-togethers in which the only people in the room are the cadets and this liberal Jew from New York City, who graduated from Duke and spent a year with Bob Knight. It sold well, even though it represented the least-known subject Feinstein had written up to that point. “I think Army-Navy was more about being tired of the bullshit,” he said, referring to the unpleasant truths that sometimes come with high-level athletics. “To this day, I’m still saying, How can I do another book like that?”
Feinstein writes easily and works tirelessly. He’s published books that took him two years to write. But he’s equally proud of Caddy for Life, about Tom Watson’s longtime caddy Bruce Edwards, who was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. That book was born and hit stores in one year. Feinstein sticks to a strict routine while writing. He wakes up early to take his 18-year-old son to school, then comes home to read over what he wrote the night before. He typically edits that for two hours before breaking for lunch. Then he picks back up writing at 1 p.m. and works until the late afternoon. “I’m 68 years old,” Woodward said, “and he’s already written much more than me.”
This quest to turn around books quickly has met criticism. Blogs like Deadspin and The Big Lead have been critical of his gradual shift toward writing more golf books, and a few reviews of his later books haven’t been kind. “Sometimes he’ll catch a little flak for writing too often,” says Maraniss. “At times the prolific nature has hurt the writing. But at the same time, the body of work—it’s Feinstein.”
Feinstein doesn’t buy the criticism. “I am able to write fast,” he says. “I’ve never walked away from a book thinking I gave it a half-hearted effort. If someone were to read all 28 of my books, I would be surprised if someone came away and said he didn’t do his reporting job here.”
One would think that Feinstein would slow down soon. He isn’t pleased with much of the current sports media landscape, in which many professional athletes disdain print journalists—or worse, ignore them. Then there’s the fact that athletes are able to communicate with their fans without the middlemen they once needed. “The basics of reporting have been changed by the Internet, sports talk radio, the power of television and ESPN, to be specific,” Feinstein says as he orders a cup of coffee. “They never get asked a real question.”
Feinstein now has a 15-month-old daughter with his second wife, Chris, whom he married in 2010. And he’s also three years removed from a septuple bypass surgery, required after doctors found multiple heart blockages during a routine checkup. The procedure was successful. He now swims enough to sneak in the occasional burger and fries, but he admits he still needs to lose a bit of weight.
Still, despite the odds, it doesn’t seem like he’s going to slow down anytime in the near future. He is currently reporting a book on the minor leagues, in the tradition of A Civil War. He has two new books of fiction coming out in the next few months. Rush for the Gold, the latest in his successful children’s sports series, comes out in May. A new fiction series, about two highly-ranked high school basketball players, debuts early next year.
And he has many ideas for future projects. One book, which he calls his dream assignment, would be to go to New Hampshire a year before its primary, then write about what he sees in the lead-up to the Granite State’s moment in the spotlight. He doesn’t think his family, nor publishers, though, would comply. There’s also an elusive project that would bring him back to North Carolina once more. He wanted very badly to write the definitive book on a personal hero of his, Dean Smith, but the former Tar Heel coach’s battle with dementia has rendered that impossible. That leaves that other North Carolina coaching legend to write about: Mike Krzyzewski.
Krzyzewski says he doesn’t want to comment on a possible book with Feinstein. But Feinstein doesn’t want to leave that door shut.
“I could see, after he’s retired, sitting down with him and doing the biography I wanted to do with Dean, when it’s all over and you can be totally honest about things,” Feinstein says over a second cup of Congressional coffee. “And I can say, ‘Fuck it.’ I’m old, too. So what?’”