If the tattoos and headphones and books aren’t enough to clue you in I’ll go ahead and state, I am not really a sports type of kid. Really. I mean I know enough to get by. I know the basic game play of most televised sports as a job condition (if you don’t know enough to make appropriate noises behind the bar while the game is on tips suffer). Finer points and team stats, specific players, important games all escape me; I doubt I’ll ever truly understand what constitutes offsides on the soccer field. So, then, why attend the Fall for the Book event probably most foreign to my normative contexts? The simple answer is: my girlfriend wanted to go.
There are very few things that captivate her like NCAA basketball; she loves it. I don’t understand it. When she heard that my schedule opened up around John Feinstein’s appearance with Jim Larranaga she went straight to her bookshelf, pulled down Feinstein’s latest book, The Last Dance, and began rehearsing an autograph request. And sure, after sitting in on this maybe we could talk about writing and tone and a creative impulse surrounding basketball; maybe I could join the conversation instead of wondering what a low post is and what someone might have to do in order to become one.
The talk circled mainly around George Mason’s bid in last years playoffs. The dialogue between sportswriter and coach was constantly interrupted with applause at the mention of any name, any game, any important play. Everything focused around the action of the game. Jim couldn’t sit down to tell his stories and actually recreated key moments for the audience, spinning, ducking and jumping across the stage. All this was very entertaining. The audience loved it and it became clear that this session would have very little to do with John’s writing except to remember what he had written about the play in question. Halfway through the hour long conversation I was still stymied by that damn low post.
When John started talking about his book, though, I understood that the topic had not really shifted at all. He talked about the concentrated effort it took to move from reporting the midnight police beat to a top name sportswriter. He gave examples of the quick sprint from the story to the page that had to be executed on a deadline, before the buzzer. He spoke about writing as if it too was a physical contest. In his experience writing about sports, it became clear, John Feinstein participates in one himself. He sees his action of writing through the same lens he uses to chronicle the swift sprints and impossible shots of the game. The audience, listening to stories about historic games and predictions from patterns learned over a lifetime of sports consumption, was actually witnessing John’s creative process. The juxtaposition of the same stories, the same words from Jim Larranaga, then served to root this process to its context. I had come hoping to learn how to drag a game from the stadium and into my comfortable libraries, I wanted to learn how to read a game. Instead I was confronted with my books and pages strewn across the field as exuberant confetti. Basketball was not brought into a book by John Feinstein, rather, he had written a book by the same process his players bounded down the court. I expected to hear words spun well to evoke a winning play. Instead, to John, a pleasing turn of phrase was a good free throw. So I left, still confused about low posts but with appreciative of having seen a writer write with his feet pounding cadence and punctuating thoughts with the rubbery ring of a basketball on the boards.