John Feinstein takes the unusual technique of starting The Last Amateurs with a description of the last game played in a year in the life of college basketball's Patriot League. Don't worry knowing the outcome doesn't spoil a thing. Lafayette may have lost in the first round of the 2000 NCAA playoffs, but Feinstein has written another winner.
The author of several excellent sports books, Feinstein focuses here on what may well be the least-known conference in college basketball. For the record, the Patriot League is composed of Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Lafayette, Lehigh, Army and Navy.
The conference is stuck in a peculiar, almost no-win situation. The best players in the country, particularly the top student-athletes, wind up at places like Duke or Stanford. Good players who don't have great grades and/or financial resources head for less academically demanding schools in the top conferences.
That leaves the Patriot League in a squeeze. Its high academic standards eliminate a good percentage of potential recruits, and the lack of full athletic scholarships wipes out another part of the pool of applicants.
The underlying drama of the book surrounds the teams' attempt to be as competitive as possible in spite of the handicaps involved.
Don't feel sorry for anyone here. The basketball games feature reasonably well-matched teams, and the players and coaches are just as intense as anywhere else. But the players also are receiving a top-notch education and a sense of perspective. Feinstein spends 15 minutes after a game in Lafayette talking with the players about the results of the New Hampshire presidential primary, a conversation that would be held in few other college basketball locker rooms.
There are plenty of good kids and good anecdotes, and Feinstein's typical thoroughness uncovers them. The reader gets the sense that Feinstein truly enjoys his encounters with everyone in the league. Throughout this book, you'll get a glimpse of an often neglected side of college basketball . . . and you'll enjoy the view.
Budd Bailey is a sportswriter in Buffalo, New York.