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When a writer approaches the age of 81, he realizes, if he still has his marbles, that he will never be able to write all the good books he has been pondering during the past decades. For example, I have a marvelous sports novel drafted in my mind, and it's so enticing that, since I won't be able to write it, I want to hand the plot over to a younger man. I'm also mindful that a woman writer with the insights of Cynthia Ozick, Joan Didion or Joyce Carol Oates could do a terrific job as well.
My working title has been Final Four, and I doubt if a better one could be found. It's short, alliterative and tells the story, for the book deals with a single start-to-finish college basketball season, winding up with one of the world's newest and best sports extravaganzas, the NCAA tournament, in a city like, let's say, Atlanta. I'm offering the plot at this time, because any writer who wants to handle it should arrange to attach himself or herself to some first-class college team right now, so as to savor the ups and downs of the full season, which will begin as soon as this season's winners cut the nets down to crown their championship.
The author should travel with the team and get to know not only the coaches and the players but also the colorful hangers-on who clutter up the arenas and dressing rooms. These characters are all-important, because in my profession there's a rule I try to obey: "A novel about something is bound to be preachy, and novels should focus on characters." So this will not be a novel about the Final Four; it will be about the characters who make the season work.
There's the black woman, without a husband, who through courage alone has reared the scintillating 6'8" master forward. There's the coach's wife, who cringes when the other faculty wives dismiss her husband as a mere jock; she knows he reads Milton Friedman. There's the IRS investigator who's probing the nonpayment of taxes on gambling winnings, the sportswriter who has ironclad proof that one of the players on the team he covers has influenced games for money, and the would-be sportscaster who once played for UCLA under John Wooden and for the Celtics under Red Auerbach.
But mostly the book will depict the charismatic athletes, the two or three who are headed for good contracts with the NBA, the marginal cases who may or may not be drafted, the splendid black players of a third category who will never make the pros and whose lives threaten to end with the last whistle of the Final Four.
Of equal importance will be the case histories of the coaches, but I promise this: There will be no halftime tearjerker in which the coach pleads with his men to "go out there and win one for the Gipper." Nor will any of our coaches face the ignominy dumped on football coach Earle Bruce by the authorities at Ohio State: being fired just before the big game with a traditional rival despite a 276-90-6 lifetime record. That oughtn't to happen in college sport, and it won't happen in our novel.
I shall use the pronoun our throughout the rest of this outline on the assumption that someone among the readers will want to attempt this novel, and I shall share with him or her my thinking as of the moment. I recommend that you go your own way, but I do hope you will retain one character I've studied carefully and of whom I've grown quite fond: the good-ol'-boy member of Miami's Orange Bowl Committee who is resolute that the playoff system that determines a national winner in basketball must never be allowed to occur in college football, lest the gold mines that certain cities now control be imperiled. He attends the Final Four only to devise stratagems with which to forestall the same kind of system for college football.
Our novel starts in late winter in four different basketball cities where the regional finals are being held. The Sweet 16, these lucky teams are called, and they comprise the best in the nation. Jumping from city to city in short takes, you use vivid scenes to establish the major threads of our book. Many of the traditional powers are still in the running—Indiana, DePaul, Notre Dame, Nevada-Las Vegas, Georgia Tech, North Carolina State, St. John's, Syracuse, Villanova, UCLA—but two of the famous teams, North Carolina and Georgetown, have already been eliminated by this year's Cinderella five, Arkansas East, which is amazed to find itself in the group.
Now we face a problem. We require two or three villains. One is a coach who is knowingly playing a high-scoring star who entered school on faked papers; it does happen. Another is the college administrator who has reason to suspect that one of his school's major players conspired with gamblers to influence the outcome of some games, but since the player never actually caused his team to lose, only to shave points, his misbehavior has been kept hidden. And the third is the kid on heavy drugs; his coach and the college authorities either do not know or do not want to know.
What's the problem? Simple. If you, the writer, were to identify any existing college involved in any of those three situations, you could be sued for immense sums of money with every likelihood of losing. So what the prudent author does is invent three colleges whose identities are as far removed from reality as possible. With a totally imaginary team you're entitled to have anything happen.