The Last Amateurs
by John Feinstein/Little, Brown, $24.95
The term student-athlete is practically an oxymoron in Division I basketball. Feinstein, whose popular books on that sport include A Season on the Brink and A March to Madness, has actually seen an ACC coach bawl out a player for spending "too damn much time studying!" What, Feinstein wondered, would college basketball be like in a league that clung to the hoary notion that athletics should supplement education, building character as well as bodies and, along the way, providing a little fun?
It would be like hoops in the Patriot League, an association of eastern colleges—Army, Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Lafayette, Lehigh and Navy—that value academic achievement more than hardwood glory. Feinstein spent the 1999-2000 basketball season following the league and discovered, to his delight, student-athletes who not only "had stories to tell" but also could "tell them in complete sentences." For once he found it possible "to be around college basketball without feeling as if I needed a three-hour shower." But he also found seven basketball programs struggling to remain competitive.
No team sums up the tribulations of the Patriot League better than Holy Cross, whose season resembles, by turns, the Book of Job and an episode of The Three Stooges. So injury-prone are the Crusaders that during player introductions, point guard Guillermo Sanchez misses a high five and gets whacked in the face. His nose turns into a "blood faucet," Fein-stein writes. Seniors James Stowers and Tony Gutierrez decide they have gotten all they can from college basketball and resign from the team to study for law and medical school, respectively. That leaves coach Ralph Willard with senior Chris Spitler, whose tremendous heart is matched only by his lack of ability. Trailing Navy by 32 points with 17 seconds left, Spitler takes a charge because, he explains, "it's the only thing I do well."
Coach Willard rarely wins on the floor, but he counts many victories of other kinds: Stowers ends up, in his own words, "killing 'em in class," and Willard says he "couldn't be happier for him." When the lovable Spitler is honored on Senior Night, the opposing team, Lehigh, gives him a standing ovation.
Despite all that the Patriot League does for young people, its survival is by no means assured. It's great to stand up for principle, but the price is steep: The ACC recently negotiated a reported 10-year, $300 million TV deal; Patriot League teams average in the mid-five figures, earning several thousand bucks a year playing "guarantee games," in which basketball powerhouses pad their records by slaughtering them. Leo Durocher wasn't kidding: Nice guys do finish last. But, Feinstein writes, the student-athletes of the Patriot League "represent everything right in a world gone wrong."