Author Interviews
11:41 am
Thu December 1, 2011

Going 'One On One' With Sports' Greatest Stars

Some of the most talented and temperamental athletes and coaches in the world have opened up to John Feinstein.

The acclaimed sportswriter's latest book One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats of the Game details his conversations over the years with notoriously difficult coaches like Bobby Knight and star athletes like Tiger Woods and John McEnroe.

On today's Fresh Air, Feinstein talks about some of his favorite encounters with athletes throughout his career. He also explains how the business of sports journalism has changed over the 30 years he's spent covering the pros. Now, he says, teams are banning reporters from locker rooms and shuttling them to interview rooms — where athletes aren't likely to be as candid.

"If you think the answers in a locker room are rehearsed and canned and cliched ... it's 50 times worse in an interview room," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "At least in a locker room, if you have the time or the patience and outwait the hoards and get can get with a guy one-on-one, you might be able to get a better answer."

Feinstein says he does some of his best reporting without his notebook, when he's simply talking to athletes one-on-one.

"[I do better] when I ask about their family or about last night's ball game and then eventually work my way towards last night's ball game or a real question, rather than just walking up with a notebook or a tape recorder in my hands," he says. "You establish common ground and become a person and not just a reporter."

In 1985, Feinstein was given an all-access pass to the Indiana Hoosiers and their legendary coach Bob Knight. Feinstein's resulting book, A Season on the Brink, chronicled a rebuilding year for the Hoosiers and explained the methods behind Knight's madness.

"There were moments when I saw a side of him — because I was allowed to be up close — that you couldn't possibly see without having total access," says Feinstein.

In one instance, Knight berated his basketball team after two straight losses, telling them that they couldn't be good basketball players if they were selfish people, says Feinstein. But Knight wasn't simply talking about basketball. He looked at his players and asked if they had written thank-you notes to a family who had hosted them for Thanksgiving. No one had.

"Knight then repeated, 'You are selfish people and as long as you are selfish people you can't be good basketball players,'" says Feinstein. "That told me that he knew his team. He knew his players. It was one of the great teaching meetings that I've seen and it wasn't even about basketball. ... I remember one of the assistants looking at me and saying, 'Now that was coaching.' And that's a moment you can't see, you can't report, unless you have the type of access that I have."

Feinstein is a commentator on NPR's Morning Edition and a regular on ESPNs The Sports Reporters. He is also the author of Living on the Black: Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Season to Remember and A Good Walk Spoiled: Days & Nights on the PGA Tour.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who has the day off. You might recognize the voice of our guest, John Feinstein, from his regular appearances on MORNING EDITION. He's one of the nation's leading sports journalists and the author of 28 books. The two best known are "Season on the Brink," about his year shadowing the volatile Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, and "A Good Walk Spoiled," a behind-the-scenes look at the pro golf tour.

Feinstein's known for his insight and his inside portraits of some of the world's most talented and temperamental characters. In his new book, he writes about how he got access to those athletes and coaches and about his sometimes stormy relationships with them.

The book is called "One on One: Behind the Scenes With the Greats in the Game." Well, John Feinstein, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want to talk with a basic staple of sports reporting, and that's the locker room interview after the game, when guys gather around athletes. And I want to just call on my limited experience here.

Back in the 1980s, NPR relied on its member stations for a lot of its sports reporting, and although I mostly covered politicians and elected officials, I did cover some big sporting events. And what I noticed in the athletes' locker rooms was how relatively timid the sports reporters seemed to be about asking a tough question.

And it occurred to me that elected officials and politicians need the media. They have some obligation to talk. Athletes really don't need sports journalists, do they?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: No, it's a very good point, and they behave that way a lot of the time because they're not trying to get elected to anything. They're not trying to sell a program to anything. They just have to perform on the field, on the court, wherever they might happen to be, the golf course.

And there is a great disdain for the media among many, if not most, in sports, and the locker room is their domain. Now, things have changed since the '80s in that for the most part we're pretty much banned from locker rooms nowadays.

The creation of the interview room I think is one of the worst things that's ever happened to sports journalism, because if you think the answers in a locker room are rehearsed and canned and cliched, stepping up, giving 110 percent, wanting to win for my teammates, it's 50 times worse in an interview room.

At least in a locker room, if you have the time and/or the patience and kind of out-wait the hordes and can get with a guy one-on-one, especially if you know him a little bit, you might be able to get a little better answer than that. But more and more now, teams on the college level certainly and more and more on the professional level are banning the media from the locker rooms after games and saying go to an interview room and we'll bring you somebody and put him behind a microphone.

DAVIES: Right, and a lot of your book is about the business of getting meaningful access to players and coaches, moments in which they may be candid. How did you learn that?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I think it goes back to my first days as a reporter, when I was still in college. It became apparent to me that the more you could see what was real, as opposed to what was served up to you, whether it was in a locker room or in a practice or if you could get somebody to let you into a team meeting, or if you could get an athlete away from their domain and put them in a restaurant for lunch or dinner or anything - but I think I really learned about that not covering sports but covering news. When I was first at the Washington Post, I spent several years covering cops and courts and politics, and I learned from that that the less formal the situation was, the more you learned.

And that's why I made the comment in the book that I think I do some of my best reporting without a notebook in my hands, when I'm just talking to someone, and I ask about their family or about last night's ballgame and then eventually work my way towards a real question rather than just walking up with a notebook or a tape recorder in my hands, because when you do that, that's what you are: You're a notebook or a tape recorder. You're not another person.

When you walk up and say, hey, can you believe what happened in last night's game, then you establish common ground and you become a person rather than just a reporter.

DAVIES: Right, but then the athlete thinks he's having a conversation when he's in fact giving you on-the-record comment. Is that an issue?

FEINSTEIN: You know, it's never been for me, because what I have always done is if someone says something to me that I think might be controversial in some way, or it's something I didn't know that would thus be news, I will say to them - usually at that point I'll take out a notebook or something, and I'll say let me make sure I have this, get this right, or do you mind if I quote you on that or - I don't want there to be any doubt.

I don't want anybody I'm working with to be surprised. And I have only once in my career had an athlete claim that he thought he was off the record with me, and that was 30 years ago, when I was a young reporter at the Post. I got sent to the home of John Riggins, the star running back who was holding out, and he was in Lawrence, Kansas, and he was refusing to talk to anybody in the media.

And I was the low guy on the totem pole at the Post, and my boss said just go knock on John Riggins' door and see if he'll talk to you, which I did. And John Riggins basically said get out of here, I'm not talking to anybody. And I said to him: Look, John, if I go back with nothing, I'm going to be fired.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEINSTEIN: And he looked at me and said: I'll call your boss and tell him that I wouldn't talk to you. And I said that's not good enough. Can't you just tell me what it is you want? And he started talking about that it was the Redskins' move, and Bobby Bether(ph), the general manager, needed to do this and that.

And I never took out a notebook, and I stood there, and I asked him more questions, and we talked for, I don't know, 10 or 12 minutes, and I went back to my car, wrote down everything I could remember, didn't quote him specifically but paraphrased everything that he had said to me in the story.

And when another TV reporter called Riggins the next day and said why would you talk to that guy when you're friends with us, and you don't even know him, Riggins said, well, I thought we were off the record. And when the guy called me from the TV station and said John said he thought you were off the record, I said: Did he really think I flew to Lawrence, Kansas because I was personally curious about his contract?

And that's the only time anybody has ever said to me, geez, I thought we were off the record.

DAVIES: Now, the other issue you have is you establish friendly relationships with athletes, and then you have to sometimes be tough on them. How do you handle that?

FEINSTEIN: It's the hardest thing you have to do, at least for me. And I have run into it, specifically as I wrote about in the book, with Jim Valvano, who I had a very close relationship with. I would sit in his office when he was the coach at North Carolina State and had won the national championship at 3:00 in the morning and listen to him talk about looking for the next thing in his life, and he felt as if he'd done coaching at the age of 37.

And then came this scandal, for lack of a better word, at North Carolina State, where the NCAA came in and investigated, and Jim eventually was forced to resign. And I wrote at one point that he sounded Nixonian when he was making his excuses for what had gone on at NC State. And he was furious with me.

And he said: How could you write that about me? And I said because A) I thought it was true, Jim, but beyond that, if I just blindly defended you, then when I legitimately defend you, it'll have no meaning. And he said it would've meant something to me. And that hurt because I liked Jim Valvano.

And I understood the point he was making: I thought you were my friend, and then you turned around and called me Nixonian. And it was a very hard thing for me emotionally to deal with, and we did, before he died of cancer in 1993, we mended the fence. And in fact Jim, the last time I ever spoke to him, said: You were probably a better friend to me than the people around me who were telling me I hadn't done anything wrong.

But it is a very hard line to figure out which side of it you belong on.

DAVIES: Let's talk about some of the people that you covered and experiences. Your first book was about Bobby Knight, the legendary college basketball coach, who is remembered for scowling at people, tossing chairs across the court and at one point manhandling a player, I mean a very, very volatile guy. How did you - you managed to get him to give you total access to write a book about his season. What do you think, why do you think he took you into his confidence?

FEINSTEIN: I think the reason he did it, Dave, and the irony, because as you know, he hated the book, is that the book did exactly what I think Bob Knight wanted it to do. He wanted an outsider to come in, have the access that I had and basically report back and say there is a method to the madness. There are reasons why he does this. He's not just crazy. Now, Dave, there are moments when he was just crazy. But there were also moments when I saw a side of him because I was allowed to be up close, that you couldn't possibly see without having total access.

They lost two straight games at the start of the Big Ten season that year and he was beside himself. And in the middle of a taped session, when he was just berating the players over one misplay after another, all of a sudden he just stopped the tape and he looked at the players and he said, I tell you all the time you can't be successful as basketball players if you're selfish people. And I'm not just talking about passing the ball or getting back on defense, it's more than that. And he talked about the fact that the players on Thanksgiving had gone to the team doctor's house for Thanksgiving dinner, because basketball teams are always on campus during the holidays.

He said, now, Mrs. Rink - the doctor's name was Larry Rink - cooked for you guys, cleaned up before you got there, cleaned up after you were there, did everything she could to make a good Thanksgiving for you. Anybody in this room who wrote her a note, sent her flowers, called her on the phone to say thank you, raise your hand. And not a single hand went up. And he said that's what I'm talking about. You're selfish people, and as long as you're selfish people, you can't be good basketball players.

Now, what that told me, Dave, was one, he knew his team, he knew his players. And it was also one of the great teaching moments I've ever seen, and it had nothing to do with basketball.

DAVIES: You said he got up and stalked out after saying you're all...

FEINSTEIN: He just walked right out of the room. Just walked out of the room. And I remember one of the assistants, Kahn(ph) Smith, looking at me as we walked out and saying, now, that was coaching. And that's a moment you can't see, you can't report unless you have that kind of access that I had, and it did show that other side of Knight and showed, because the question people always ask about Bob Knight is why do the players put up with it? Why did they deal with it? And that moment was one of the answers. And so ironically the book did show what Knight wanted it to show, that kind of moment, and yet he was unhappy with it. And in one of the great twists, because I didn't take out all of his profanity - and reporting that Bob Knight uses profanity is like reporting the sun is going to rise in the east tomorrow.

DAVIES: He lost his job finally when he what, shoved a player?

FEINSTEIN: No. Actually it was two things. It was a build-up of things. But the last two straws were, he was accused of having grabbed a player - a former player - name Neil Reed by the neck. He denied it. One of his former assistants who he'd had a dispute with actually had a practice tape showing Knight grabbing Neil Reed by the neck. He released it. It was seen. Knight was given quote/unquote "zero tolerance" by the school president, the late Miles Brand, at the time. And then a few months later, when an Indiana student was walking by him somewhere and the kid said, Hey Knight, what's up - and I know from personal experience that it drives Bob Knight crazy to be referred to as Knight. He wants to be called Coach. And when the kid said hey Knight, what's up, Knight turned around and grabbed him by the shirt and pushed him up against the wall and said, you show respect for me. You call me Coach Knight. And that turned out to be with zero tolerance, because of past incidents, the last straw, and he was fired at Indiana.

DAVIES: So the bottom line on Bobby Knight, reading your story and many others about him, it's hard not to characterize his conduct as abusive to a lot of people, including his players.

FEINSTEIN: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: He obviously also got results. He, you know, he won a lot of games. Where does he stand? Is this conduct that should be tolerated? Is it really character building or it, does he deserve the disgrace that ultimately befell him?

FEINSTEIN: It's a great question and it's one that I've wrestled with honestly for 25 years. In the conclusion on "Season on the Brink" I told the story about Dave Kindred, who was a mentor of mine and a friend of Knight's, writing a column about another Knight incident. I don't even remember which one. But at the end of the column Dave said: And once again the question is raised with Bob Knight, does the end justify the means? And Knight called him and said you should have added one more line and said: The answer is, yes it does. And in the book, in "Season on the Brink," I said that I agreed with that statement, that the end did justify the means because Knight did touch many lives in a positive way.

Twenty-five years later, I'm not sure I feel that way. And it's not just because of the way he treated players, but because of the way he treated people like Mike Krzyzewski, who he didn't speak to for nine years because Krzyzewski had the nerve to beat him in a Final Four game. And then he didn't speak to Steve Alford, who was the star player on the team when I was writing "Season on the Brink" for a number of years for more perceived slights. I just have trouble with the way he treats not his enemies but his friends.

And one of his ex-coaches said to him one time, you know, Coach, your biggest problem is you treat your enemies better than you treat your friends. And I think there's a lot of truth in that, sadly, for Bob Knight.

DAVIES: John Feinstein's new book is called "One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats of the Game." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with veteran sports journalist John Feinstein. He's written many books. His latest is about his experience in covering athletes and coaches. It's called "One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game."

You know, while we're talking about college coaches, I have to ask you about the scandal at Penn State where, you know, the former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, is accused of abusing kids. And Joe Paterno, the legendary head coach, has been fired for not doing enough about what he knew. You know, I know that you were a great admirer of Joe Paterno.

FEINSTEIN: Yeah.

DAVIES: Tried to get him to cooperate in a book for many years. What's your take - how do you regard Joe Paterno's conduct and his responsibility for this?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I don't think there's any way to excuse it, unless there's something we don't know. He had a graduate assistant come to his home, no doubt quaking in his boots because he had to go see Coach Joe Paterno to tell him what he had witnessed in the shower in the football building involving Jerry Sandusky and a young boy and tell him what he had seen, and he basically passed the buck. I mean he told his athletic director about it.

And one thing I can tell you for sure is that no one at Penn State had more power than Joe Paterno, including the president. He once threw the president out of his house when he went there to try to convince him to retire, Graham Spanier, who has also lost his job in the wake of this scandal. And Paterno had an obligation. To me, and again, it's easy to sit here and second guess and armchair quarterback, but to me, somebody describes what was described to Joe Paterno, you make two phone calls at that moment. You call the president of the university to let him know and you called the police, and you try to, you have to find that young man and you have to - the boy - and get him protection and you have to get the police over to Jerry Sandusky's house that moment, not days, weeks, months, years later.

DAVIES: You know, I guess what I'm getting at is whether you can square the Joe Paterno that you understood him to be - somebody who cared about student athletes as students and people, not just as ballplayers - and square that with his inattention to this horrific circumstance.

FEINSTEIN: There are many sad elements to this story, obviously. And the saddest, of course, is what happened to those boys and how it no doubt affected them and their families. But one of the other sad aspects to me, Dave, is Joe Paterno often said to his son Jay before he had children, before Jay had children, when Jay would ask him about his protectiveness of his players, and he would say you have to understand that when you're a parent, your happiness in life is generally speaking dictated by the happiness of your least happy child. And as a father of three myself, I can relate to that comment. And that's why we have a responsibility when a kid comes to play for us at Penn State to do everything we can to make that child as he grows into a man as happy and as productive as we possibly can. We make a commitment to their family when we recruit them. And that the sad thing about this is that Joe Paterno forgot about the parents of those children who, if what we have been told is true, were sexually molested by Jerry Sandusky.

DAVIES: You wrote a book called "Civil Wars," I think, about the rivalry between Army and Navy. And you return to some of the athletes in the epilogue to this book, and it's clear you have a deep emotional connection with some of the kids you met doing that work. What makes competition and athletes at the military academies different and special?

FEINSTEIN: I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the young men who play football at Army and Navy and Air Force all know that in 999 out of 1,000 cases they're not going to be professional football players. The only uniform they're going to wear when they graduate is Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force. And because of that, because they know this is going to be their last football experience, and because it's very hard to play football at those schools, because you have academic responsibilities, you have military responsibilities, you have summer responsibilities. You don't go and have a summer job or lie on the beach when you're going to those schools. You go on a ship. You go away to a fort somewhere for training. Because of all that they are so close to one another.

What I chronicled in the epilogue was something I obviously never planned to be part of this book. But one of the young men I'd written about in "A Civil War," Derek Klein, his wife committed suicide. She had depression issues. They had three young children. It was as a horrible tragedy as you can think of, and within eight hours of this event occurring, there were 10 of Derek Klein's ex-teammates - this is 15 years after they graduated - in his living room because they dropped everything that was going on in their lives, got on planes, flew to Dallas and were there for Derek.

DAVIES: John Feinstein's book is called "One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, back with the veteran sports journalist John Feinstein. He's written about some of the most memorable characters in a wide range of sports in 27 previous books. In his latest, he writes about his life as a reporter and his sometimes stormy relationships with the athletes and coaches he's known. The book is called "One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game."

You've written a lot about golf, some great stuff, and I have to ask you about Tiger Woods, who, you know, was just such an incredible talent when he arrived. I mean he dominated his sport in a way that is rare in athletics. What was he like when you first got to know him on the tour?

FEINSTEIN: You know, I don't think anybody who does what I do has ever really known Tiger. I do vividly remember the first time I ever saw Tiger Woods, because it turned out to be a little bit of a harbinger in a way. He was still an amateur. He was just a kid. He was 18. He probably looked 12 at the time. He was playing in Arnold Palmer's tournament down at Bay Hill in 1994 and I was working on "A Good Walk Spoiled," my first golf book, and I was standing on the range with three players: Davis Love, Billy Andrade, Jeff Sluman. And Billy Andrade kind of tapped me on the shoulder and said, See that kid down there? And I looked down and there was this skinny kid hitting balls. And I said, Yeah? And he said, That's the next one. That's Tiger Woods. And I'd heard the name but I wasn't that interested, to be honest, Dave, because you hear all the time about this guy's the next one in sports, this guy's the next one in sports. I always tend to be skeptical and say, okay, show me.

And as luck would have it, I happened to walk off the range a little while later, about 10 yards behind Tiger Woods. He was walking alone with his caddie and there were maybe 15 or 20 kids standing behind the ropes trying to get the autographs of any player walking on or off the range. It was a practice day and most players will stop in that circumstance and sign a few autographs. Tiger Woods put his head down and walked right between the kids, never looked left or right and just kept going. And I remember thinking to myself, Who does this guy think he is? Well, as it turned out, he thought he was Tiger Woods.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEINSTEIN: So I think he had it right. But my early memories of Tiger are that he was always programmed. And his golf was overwhelming. But I remember feeling disappointed because he was obviously very bright. He'd gone to Stanford for a couple of years. You could tell just by the way he reacted to things that he got things quicker than most athletes did. But he wasn't giving anything up. His father Earl had programmed him, don't give away anything for free. So you remember those cliches I talked about that you get in the interview room? He was a cliche machine, and if you tried to talk to him one-on-one, he really had no interest.

And the only time I really ever had a lengthy one-on-one conversation with him was in 1998, after he'd won the Masters and had become a superstar at 21. And he actually reached out to me because he was, I think, surprised I guess that I was one of the very few members of the media who was at all critical of his behavior. None of us could criticize his golf. And other players had told him, look, John's a pretty fair guy. If you've got a problem with him, you should sit down and talk to him about it. And to his everlasting credit, he did. We went to dinner at a restaurant in San Diego and talked for about four hours, and it was very intense, 'cause Tiger was very smart, came right at you when he disagreed with you. We argued a lot about his father. I...

DAVIES: And one of the things you'd written about his father was that his father was, you know, the kind of manipulative sports dad...

FEINSTEIN: Classic stage father.

DAVIES: Right.

FEINSTEIN: Yes. Exactly. And in fact, what I had done was I had compared him in a piece I'd written in Newsweek to Stefano Capriati, who was the father of Jennifer Capriati, who you might remember years ago came on the tennis tour, took it by storm; she was going to be the next Chris Everett. Her father was making deals for her left and right when she was 13 years old. And I compared Earl Woods to Stefano Capriati, which infuriated both Tiger and Earl. And I remember saying to him, if your father doesn't like the spotlight, why did he write a book about how he made you into Tiger Woods? And Tiger said, well, you know, so many people asked him about it, he thought it'd be easier just to write a book. And I said, really, then why did he write the second book? Because there was a sequel? Tiger looked at me and he smiled, he said, okay, you got me on that one. But it was one of the few concessions he made the entire evening. We argued about a lot of different things. But it was a fascinating experience and I hoped that it would sort of be a jumping off point where Tiger and I would have a relationship where even if we disagreed, we would talk about it. And it lasted for a little while that way and then I really believe to this day that his father said to him, you stay away from him. I don't like him. I don't want you talking to him. And that was really kind of the end of any one-on-one other than hi Tiger, hi John, between the two of us.

DAVIES: You have some great stories in here about tennis. And one of them I liked was when you followed John McEnroe into the locker room at the U.S. Open, because he wasn't talking to anybody. And this was an example of you find - just getting access that other people couldn't get and it paying off. Tell us what happened.

FEINSTEIN: Well, more accurately, I think it was that I knew back in those days that I could go into the locker room. And because Barry Lorge, my colleague from the Washington Post, was writing a lead and I was doing the secondary story, the sidebar, I had a little more time. And John had come in, he'd just won the U.S. Open, he'd beaten Bjorn Borg in five sets. This was a few months after their historic five-set match at Wimbledon. And Borg had come back from two sets down to tie it at two sets apiece. And I'll never forget sitting there in New York City, John McEnroe grew up less than five miles from the stadium in Flushing, and the entire crowd was on its feet cheering for Borg. And I couldn't imagine what that felt like for McEnroe.

And he somehow won the fifth set, came in, gave kind of a desultory press conference, even for - even McEnroe can be desultory in a press conference. And I thought, well, maybe if I go back to the locker room I can get something. I just wanted to ask him one question: How did that feel at that moment at the end of the fourth set when 20,000 people were cheering for a guy from Sweden in New York City?

And I walked back in and McEnroe was the only guy in the locker room, 'cause the tournament was over, Borg had left by car as soon as the award ceremony was over, and it was just McEnroe and me in the locker room. At that point I hadn't met him. I was very young, you know, the kid reporter at the Washington Post, and I introduced myself and John kind of looked at me like, yeah? And I said I just want to ask you one question, and I asked him the question about how it felt at the end of that fourth set. And Dave, he just went off.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEINSTEIN: He said could you believe that? Could you - do you think if that match was in Sweden there'd be one person pulling for me? He said I know I misbehave and I understand why people get up - I didn't ask another question for 30 minutes. The only challenge was - I didn't have a tape recorder - was trying to write everything down because he was talking so fast. So I ended up, I was supposed to write a 16-inch sidebar and I came back and told Barry Lorge what I had gotten and he called the desk and said you got to get John some more space, and I ended up writing 40 inches and they ran every inch of it. So to me a lot of times people have asked me, well, how did you get Knight to give you the access? How did you get this guy to give you the access? The answer almost always is because I asked. It's really that simple.

DAVIES: You know, McEnroe was such a controversial player. He seems like such a sometimes funny and engaging guy in his current public persona. Why was he so unable to control himself on the court?

FEINSTEIN: I'm sure he's asked himself that question a million times. I remember at the end of his career I asked him at one point, I said, do you have any regrets? And he said, yeah, you know, I wish I hadn't spent all that time arguing with umpires. I shouldn't have done it. I know I hurt myself. And I said, yeah, you know, most of the time they had the calls right. And he said, no, they didn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEINSTEIN: They were always wrong. I just shouldn't have wasted all my energy arguing with them. And that's kind of John. I mean in a sense he gets it. He knows that he shouldn't have done what he did, but there's a part of him that just can't help himself.

DAVIES: John Feinstein's new book is called "One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game." We'll talk more after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with veteran sports journalist John Feinstein. His latest book about his experiences covering many sports and great athletes and coaches is called "One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game."

You know, the business has changed since you started. I mean there's a whole new cadre of sports bloggers and sports talk radio jocks who are really edgy. What's the effect been on sports journalism?

FEINSTEIN: Oh, it's not been good for those of us who actually go out and talk to people because there is a tendency to lump everybody together, and it really is bothersome because my thing has always been that if I say or write something negative about someone, I fully expect to be looking them in the eye shortly thereafter; in fact, I want to. I want to give them a chance to unload on me if they want, they're entitled to it. And I've found more often than not, when you do do that, you clear the air, because they'll tell you why they're upset. You'll say why you wrote what you wrote or said what you said. And you may end up agreeing to disagree, but at least there's some form of mutual respect.

With many bloggers and most sports talk radio people, they never go talk to athletes. They don't go to games. They're not in the locker room. They just lob bombs and sit back and then lob some more bombs. And I understand that's their job. And I'm not saying that they're wrong to do it. It's the way they keep their jobs in many cases, particularly in sports talk radio. But for those of us who are sort of still out there in the trenches and trying to establish relationships, and trying to get people to trust us, and trying to get people to talk to us, it makes our jobs a lot more difficult.

DAVIES: You know, there's also social media. You know, a lot of athletes have Twitter accounts...

FEINSTEIN: Yup.

DAVIES: ...and release information that way. I lot of sportswriters tweet and in some cases trash each other. There was a case in Philadelphia where two Eagles writers - Philadelphia Eagles writers, actually - got into a physical confrontation after trashing each other on Twitter. How have social media changed the business?

FEINSTEIN: Well, you just mentioned one way. And I think that the big change – again, from my point of view as a reporter - is that more and more athletes are using Facebook or websites or even Twitter, that's their way of communicating with the outside world, with the fans, with the people who they're trying to sell product to often. And you talked right at the beginning about athletes not needing the media; even more so now it's true. As I said before, Tiger Woods does most of his communicating with the outside world through his website. You know, I'm going to play in a tournament. I'm not going to play in a tournament. His first apology after the accident when it came out that he had had extramarital affairs was on his website. It was two months before he even came and spoke to anybody in public and then he didn't take any questions. The accident took place on November 27th. It wasn't until March in two tightly-controlled five-minute television interviews that he answered a single question. I mean four months, four months later. So that's made it much more difficult.

And, you know, it's interesting because I still remember when I was covering tennis and I was writing the tennis book I wrote 20 years ago, I said to Andre Agassi's agent, the late Bill Shelton, you know, doesn't Andre have more of an obligation to the public than the nine-minute press conferences he does after matches, because he was refusing to do any one-on-one interviews at that point, because he had been criticized for not playing Davis Cup and not playing Wimbledon and a number of other things. And Bill Shelton looked at me and said, we don't need you guys, we communicate to the public through our commercials.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEINSTEIN: And you know what? He wasn't wrong.

DAVIES: Right.

FEINSTEIN: I mean if you think about it, a lot of athletes, they're - and think of Tiger Woods' image. Most of Tiger Woods' image was crafted through the commercials he did, where he came off as this friendly guy with a sense of humor, and that was very carefully crafted by his image makers at International Management Group.

DAVIES: You've seen so many sports up close and, you know, millions of people watch these games on television, where it kind of looks, well, if not easy, not like it does when you're at ground level, really seeing how incredibly fast, you know, these guys are and how incredibly agile and talented they are. Do you often sit there and just think people have no idea what this is about?

FEINSTEIN: I do. It's funny because I see the phrase to describe athletes often as a journeymen - you know, the guys who play on the PGA Tour. Again, one of the guys I've written about for years, Paul Goydos, has been described as a journeymen golf pro for years. He's been on the PGA Tour for 19 years, has made millions of dollars. He's only won two tournaments but he's referred to as a journeymen. Do you know how good you have to be to play on the PGA Tour for 19 years? My brother is a very good player. He's a one handicap and he can hit the heck out of a golf ball. He's not even close to these guys. Not even, not even playing the same sport as these guys, they're so much better. Just to get to the tour you have to be extraordinary. To be a college football or basketball player at the highest levels you have to be an amazing athlete. You make an interesting point, because one of the most frightening things you can do, and I mean that literally, is stand on the sideline...

...at a college football or a professional football game because the speed of the game is so incredible that every time there's a rout - what looks like, on television, a routine play – running back takes the ball, goes in the hole, linebacker tackles and everybody gets up and goes back to the huddle. If you're standing there on the sideline, you can't believe that either guy got up. Because the collision takes place at such high speed and with such force.

And the level that these guys and women are at, is so different than that of, you know, your good garden-variety weekend athlete, the guy like my brother or people I know who are very good amateur tennis players or any sport you want to choose.

DAVIES: One more thing. You know, I've noticed in my career, writing mostly about things other than sports, that when I occasionally have done a story at a newspaper that dealt with sports. Like I did a piece once about the Philadelphia Eagles' tickets and whether they were distributed fairly, and I got many, many times the email that I did when I did something about the mayor.

And it's clear that sports, you know, is something that people are really, really passionate about. But I also wonder, are there times that you just want to tell people, folks, these are games, this is not life and death?

FEINSTEIN: Absolutely, yes. But there's an element of no. And the absolutely yes, is, of course, they're just games. And it's not life and death. And I wince every time there's a genuine tragedy connected to sports, when people say, well, this puts life in perspective. Because you know what? It doesn't. The next day fans are going to be screaming about a losing coach or a bad call or something like that.

It's human nature. It's sports human nature. And, yes, I want to say enough already. But there's another part of me, Dave, that believes sports does play a very important role in our society, because it does give people a place to go away from the often harsh realities of life. And this was driven home to me in a very personal way, when my mother died in 1993.

And she died very suddenly and she died young, and it was the worst thing I've ever been through in my life. And I went to bed every night and I couldn't sleep. I just couldn't possibly sleep. And the only thing that distracted me from thinking about my mom was to think about games, to think about games I'd played in as a kid, or swim meets I'd been in as a kid, and games I'd covered and stories I'd been a part of.

And people I'd met in sports and trying – I would literally sit there and try to remember every single play in game five of the 1969 World Series when my beloved and now pathetic Mets beat the Baltimore Orioles. And that got me through that period in my life.

DAVIES: Well, John Feinstein, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

FEINSTEIN: Dave, thanks for having me again. I enjoyed it.

DAVIES: John Feinstein's new book is called "One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats of the Game." Coming up, David Bianculli looks at pivotal episodes of some of his favorite TV shows. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.