College Basketball

Book Review: Last Dance by John Feinstein

If you think that the four days that make up the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament are the greatest days on the calendar — like Christmas, New Years, Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving rolled up into one, then Last Dance is right up your alley.

Last Dance centers around the 2005 NCAA tournament which culminated in the championship game between UNC and Illinois.  It’s not a perfect book; hell, no sports books are, but it’s a good read and will show you a side of the NCAA tourney you haven’t seen before.  The most interesting parts of the book are the history lessons it gives.

For example, most people don’t know that Billy Packer and a lot of luck was instrumental in making the tourney as popular as it is.  Packer came up with the idea of making Selection Sunday an event.  Previously, the field and seedings were just faxed or wired to news agencies and that was that.  This could explain why Packer has been insufferable in recent years.

CBS also got very lucky after it pried the rights to the NCAA tournament from NBC in 1981 for (a then shocking) $48 million.  The run of finals it had from 1982 to 1985 made the Final Four a must see event.  In 1982, you had UNC beating Georgetown with Michael Jordan hitting the winning shot; In 1983, you had Jim Valvano and NC State beating heavily favored Houston; in 1984 Patrick Ewing and Hakeen Olajuwon battled for center supremacy; and in 1985, you had the best Cinderella story of all time with Villanova upsetting Georgetown.  Those four years cemented the NCAA tournament as the most important amateur sporting contest in the country. The expanded field of 64 and the betting opportunities didn’t hurt either.  Either way, CBS’ $48 million ended up being a bargain.

Sometimes, a little knowledge is a bad thing.  After reading the chapters on the refs, the committee and the players, you’ll actually feel bad for them or have a sense of how tough their jobs are.  It’s a lot more fun to complain and bitch about the officiating than see them as humans.  You’ll also start looking more at the reactions of the players who get knocked out as opposed to the winners cutting down the nets.

“Bilas is forty now, a very popular and well compensated television analyst who also has a law degree and works during the off-season in a law firm in Charlotte.  He’s married with two children, and his adult life has been, by just about any standard, a complete success.

And he still hasn’t gotten over losing the 1986 national championship game to Louisville. “It’s the difference between being remembered and being forgotten,” he said. “We won thirty-seven games that season, and people were writing about and saying we were one of the best teams of all time.  Now when I see lists of the best teams of the last twenty years, we aren’t even in the top ten. That’s for one reason: we lost.”

I can’t believe I actually feel sorry for a Duke player but Last Dance drives home how important winning the championship has become, both for players and coaches.  For me, that made watching the NCAA tournament this year even better.  You realize how very few chances these players have to be part of history.

The only drawback of Last Dance is that it tends to get repetitive.  In the first couple of chapters, you’ll read how much of a chore “the lobby” has become for coaches during the Final Four weekend about 10 times.  And anecdotes about particular players and teams seem to get repeated at least once.  If I weren’t such a Villanova fan, I’d be sick of reading about the ’85 Nova-Georgetown game.

In the end, I’d recommend Last Dance to anyone who has more than a passing interest in the NCAA tournament. What’s another $15 on top of the $20 you throw away on your bracket?

3.5 out of 5 stars.

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