Lafayette Takes Center Stage In Feinstein's The Last Amateursby Scott D. Morse
Every once in a while a stroke of public relations fortune strikes a collegiate athletic conference. In most cases at the major college level, the fortune occurs in the form of a major television package, advancing more teams than usual into postseason play, or even major corporate sponsorship dollars.
Rarely does it happen that a best-selling author decides to write a book about a league doing what is right in college athletics, especially in this day and age of billion dollar athletic programs, agents and sneaker executives at every turn, and the mass exodus of student-athletes leaving early for the professional ranks.
In the summer of 1999, nationally renowned author John Feinstein telephoned then-acting Patriot League Executive Director Todd Newcomb to describe his project for the upcoming college basketball season.
Feinstein, who is a commentator on ESPN's "The Sports Reporters" and columnist for both the Washington Post and Golf Magazine, would travel extensively to Patriot League campuses for practices, games, and - sometimes - just to interview the student-athletes and coaches. He would request full access to locker rooms and even team huddles on the bench. He would attempt to experience all he could with Patriot League basketball.
The end result: a book - what reviews are already calling "excellent … another best-seller" - offering a look at college basketball in its purest form, in a league in which the young men perform in educational environments where athletic prowess is respected but not worshiped.
One year, 57 games, and more than 26,000 miles later, The Last Amateurs will be on the shelves of bookstores this month.
Lafayette College plays a huge role in Feinstein's latest creation. The Leopards' second straight Patriot League Championship and accompanying bid to the NCAA Tournament field of 64 assured tremendous "ink" for the College.
"I figured from the beginning of the season that I wanted to write a lot about Lafayette," said Feinstein, who has now penned 12 books, including A Season on the Brink, A Good Walk Spoiled, and The Majors. "I got lucky because sometimes the team needed to write about isn't always the team that's the most interesting. Lafayette had all these characters. Stefan Ciosici, with his character and his background and the way he evolved as a student at Lafayette. He was a great story the way that he came back from his knee injury.
"Tim Bieg wasn't recruited for basketball by any Division I school other than Lafayette. He was recruited for baseball by three Ivy League schools, but he comes in and he's a starter.
"Obviously Brian Ehlers, who the coaches thought was grounded as a freshman, because as it turned out he had an iron deficiency, was a great story.
"Then there were guys like Mike Homer who hardly played as a senior, who was a very good story because as he had adapted to the role of being a backup player, and who was still happy to be part of the team."
Feinstein quickly developed a strong admiration for Lafayette.
"There were several things actually that I really enjoyed about Lafayette," he explained. "It was just the atmosphere at the games. I think Kirby Sports Center is just a great place to watch a college basketball game. It is intimate, it's enthusiastic, and the students are into it. The fact that the team has had success recently but isn't spoiled by success, even in the terms of the players themselves or the students or the fans, makes it a great atmosphere.
"I always enjoyed being around Lafayette's team both in pre- and postgame situations and the kids always were ready to play and the fans wouldn't have it any other way. Under pressure, and even after the games, it was just enjoyable to sit around and talk to the kids usually about anything but basketball."
Feinstein, who is known for handling this type of sports journalism better than anyone, did a tremendous job of presenting the rhythm of the season, sidebars on the Patriot League schools' basketball histories, and each team's stories through the eyes of the student-athletes. His vivid description of the season, especially the conference tournament - the goal to which the players have devoted their basketball lives - is simply wonderful.
And the best part for Feinstein was that he truly enjoyed the entire experience.
"It was a lot of fun to be around those kids," said Feinstein. "I enjoyed being with the Lafayette team. Sometimes you can be involved in a reporting experience that's good because it is a story that you enjoy. With Lafayette and really with the whole league, I got to have my cake and eat it too, because it was a good reporting experience, but it was also a lot of fun for me."
With an initial printing of 125,000 copies, Feinstein and his publishers - Little, Brown and Company - expect the book will primarily have to sell by word of mouth.
"That's the way A Civil War (book on Army-Navy football) sold," explained Feinstein, "because it's not going to get any huge publicity. Unfortunately, I'm not going to be on the "Today Show" talking about it. It's going to have to be people saying 'hey look you don't have to be a Lafayette graduate to like this book.' Over the past year and a half, a lot of people were asking 'why are you are doing this?' I hope when people read the book the answer would be obvious."