Posted by: mdegeorge | July 17, 2010

Summer Reading: “The Last Amateurs” by John Feinstein

One of the great joys of childhood was always summer vacation. And like any proud intellectual (read: nerd), one of the highlights of that eight-week nirvana of a hiatus was the plethora of time available for tearing into my summer reading list. The days spent sprawled out on lounge chairs in the shade delving into the offerings of the local library are one of the great joys of adolescence lost.

Now, as an underemployed college grad with plenty of time on my hands, what better way to while away the days then by giving my library card a work out? My grandparents’ suburban home and spacious decks have been replaced by a sweaty one bedroom apartment, but the aim is the same. So, all summer, I’ll be posting brief synopses of the latest book to tickle my fancy.

The use of the word “amateur”, or more comically, “student-athlete”, rings quite hollow for the majority of college basketball players in the NCAA’s power conferences in a day and age where each of the NBA draft’s first 23 picks were used on players departing college in fewer than four years (we won’t even bring up the topic of progress towards a degree).

For those disenchanted (or worse) with the current reality of college basketball, John Feinstein’s “The Last Amateurs” is the perfect read. Feinstein chronicles the 1999-00 college basketball season in the Patriot League, a conference sandwiched between mounting pressures in the world of college athletics.The league, which at that time consisted of Army, Navy, Lafayette, Lehigh, Bucknell, Holy Cross, and Colgate (American University has since been added), was known far more for the academics of its esteemed institutions than its athletics. At the time, the conference that included some of the most prestigious academe outside of the Ivy League still counted among its member three schools—Colgate, Lafayette, and Bucknell—who didn’t offer athletic scholarships. Holy Cross and Lehigh had only recently instituted scholarships.

In addition to adherence to the principle of need-based financial aid only, the universities also believe in strict observance of the school’s admission guidelines, only allowing exceptions in special cases. The result doesn’t always yield the best product on the court. But it fields a league of upstanding students, citizens, and characters for Feinstein to track throughout the season.

Even through the obvious difficulties of traversing the Northeast for an entire winter, connecting the various far-flung outposts in the Patriot League, Feinstein gives the reader the impression that he is everywhere all at once: in each huddle, each locker room speech, each team meeting. He delicately weaves the personal stories of a litany of protagonists, from Holy Cross walk-on and character extraordinaire Chris Spitler to Lafayette’s Romanian biologist center Stefan Ciosici with the surgically repaired knee, into the narrative of the season. Feinstein shares as many of the wealth of stories about the intelligent, exemplary, true student-athletes as he can and leaves no team out of the spotlight.

What’s most amazing is that Feinstein manages to highlight the drama and excitement in a season that, at least for the neutral fan, has no antagonist. In the end, six of the seven teams, the players and coaches of which the reader has been intimately acquainted with and, dare I say, rooting for at one juncture or another, end in disappointment. For the majority of the good guys, there isn’t a happy ending. Even the winner of the conference tournament (I won’t spoil it!) doesn’t have a parade waiting for them.

Perhaps it’s the looming specter of the big bad business of college basketball on the fringes of the Patriot League waiting to hammer its champion in a 1-16 or 2-15 game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament that puts the winners and losers into perspective. It could be the knowledge that despite even with their tremendous passion, the final score of a game isn’t the final score of their worth as the future of society, a measure the analog scoreboards of their small sweaty gyms can scarcely quantify. Or perhaps it’s that readers are also members of the all-too selective club that believes the word “student” should come first, literally and figuratively.

Things certainly have changed. Of the coaches that Feinstein brings to life in his pages, only Emmett Davis of Colgate and Fran O’Hanlon of Lafayette have survived the last decade at their posts. The players are long gone, not to the ranks of pro basketball (with the exception of Sitapha Savane of the Naval Academy, who is playing in the top league in Spain) but to the corporate world as directors, partners, vice presidents, and CEOs. All six of the conference’s non-service academies have given into the idea of athletic scholarships, with the final holdout Lafayette finally succumbing to the pressure in 2006.

But the message, one that is regularly lost in a sea of sports drink endorsements and signing bonuses, rings as true as ever.

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