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John Feinstein Says He's Been Luckier Than He's Deserved During His Career In Sports

Working with many of the most famous and fascinating people in sports has been a privilege, says John Feinstein

November 01, 2018 - 5:45 pm

This past weekend, HBO repeatedly aired, “West Side Story,” the brilliant and heartbreaking musical which brings “Romeo and Juliet,” to the streets of New York.

The movie, which dates to 1961, is one of those I watch whenever it shows up on my television screen. The music is breath-taking; the dancing is remarkable and, if you don’t cry during the final scene when two of The Sharks rush over to help The Jets carry Tony’s body, you have no soul. There’s also Natalie Wood.

HBO aired the movie again to celebrate what would have been Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday this past Saturday. On Sunday, The New York Times Arts section devoted several pages to Bernstein’s life and his extraordinary legacy.

When I think of Bernstein, I think of the music he created, but I also think back to the time I beat him in a race down the aisles at Carnegie Hall.

My dad worked in the performing arts for more than 50 years—first in public relations; then as an artistic manager and, later as Executive Director of the Kennedy Center and Managing Director of the Washington Opera.

Bernstein was one of his closest friends. Which is why, when I was five or six, he dragged me one Sunday afternoon to one of Bernstein’s ‘Young People,’ New York Philharmonic concerts. I was just coming into my own as a sports fan, but there were times when I wasn’t given the option of staying home to watch a game.

For that, I am forever grateful to my dad.

We arrived very early, went to the stage door and were taken to Bernstein’s dressing room. For some reason, we ended up inside the theater—which was empty. I still remember Bernstein saying to me, “So John, your dad tells me you’re a fast runner.”

I had won some kind of class competition at PS 87 in, what I imagine, was about a 50-yard dash.

“I’m very fast,” I said.

“So am I,” Bernstein said. “Want to race?”

He took one aisle, I took the other. Dad started us. I won—of course—because little kids always win those races.

I tell that story often to illustrate how amazing my childhood was—and how little I understood about how fortunate I was. People like Bernstein, Isaac Stern, Rudolph Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Arthur Rubinstein and Marian Anderson were regularly in my parents’ west side apartment in Manhattan.

I would have been far more impressed if Tom Seaver, Joe Namath, Willis Reed and Brad Park had showed up.

Years after I crushed Bernstein, I was watching my (then) beloved New York Rangers play game 5 of a Stanley Cup semifinal series in Chicago. The series was tied 2-2. The game went to overtime.

Not far from the room where I was watching, my parents were hosting a party for Marian Anderson. If you don’t know who she was, google her. Among other things, she was the first African-American to perform at Constitution Hall. Her farewell concert when she retired was one of those times I was dragged away from a ballgame by my parents.

As I said, I’m eternally grateful to them for that.

Bobby Hull scored off a faceoff to win the game for the Blackhawks. I began screaming profanities and throwing things at the TV set. I HATED Bobby Hull at that moment.

My father burst into the room. “What the hell is going on in here?” he said.

“Bobby ----- Hull just scored!” I said, figuring that was explanation enough.

I think my father smiled. Or, perhaps he grimaced. “Well, keep it down in here,” he said. “Miss Anderson is singing!”

Dad somehow thought that was more important than Bobby ----- Hull beating the Rangers in overtime.

Reading the Times on Sunday and thinking about Bernstein, it occurred to me that I should probably step back on occasion and think about how fortunate I’ve been to know the people I’ve known in sports. I’ve never thought of myself as a name-dropper, but there are times when I do it without even realizing it.

Years ago, when I was still doing, ‘The Sports Reporters,’ I would sit with Dick Schaap and Mike Lupica drinking coffee before the show and listen to what I called their ‘name-dropping,’ duels.

Lupica would talk about hanging out with Carl Yastrzemski or Bob Costas. Schaap would counter with Muhammad Ali and Billy Crystal.

Schaap won.

In fact, when Schaap wrote his auto-biography he wanted to call it, “Name-Dropping,” which I thought brilliantly described his life. Some overpaid, dopey editor decided, “Flashing Before My Eyes,” was better. No doubt the guy came from the same school of editors that decided Bud Collins’ book should NOT be titled, “What A Sweet Racquet,” but, “My Life With The Pros.”

Undoubtedly, the editor couldn’t grasp the double-meaning of Bud’s title. Went right over his pointy head.

Nowadays, if you watch TV, people love to say on-camera, “I texted with….,” earlier today and he told me….” The implication to the viewer is obvious: I have the guy’s cell number. I remember sitting on a ‘Golf Channel,’ set several years ago when one of my then-colleagues said, “I texted with Phil Mickelson this morning and I can’t tell you what he said, but he’s really ready to play today.”

Later, off-air, I said to the guy, “YOU CAN’T DO THAT. You can’t brag that you’re texting with Mickelson—or anyone else—and then not share what he said.

I have tried not to do that when on TV, but there were moments when I caught myself doing it. I don’t think I ever said the words, “I texted with,” on-air but I know I said, “So-and-so told me…” I tried to only say it when I knew the person had told me something that (A) no one knew and (B) he had only told me.

Sometimes, when people start talking about someone I know well, as if they know them, I actually get angry. I probably shouldn’t. Fans are like that.

Living here in Maryland, I’ve often heard the tired argument about Duke getting all the calls in basketball—when I was younger the complaint was that North Carolina got all the calls. I can laugh that off, because, as I said, fans are like that.

But when Maryland fans I know start telling me what a bad guy Mike Krzyzewski is, I frequently say, “Really, how well do you know him?”

The answer, of course, is not at all. Frequently they will bring up the, ‘gets all the calls,’ argument as if that’s a reflection of who he is as a person.

“He gets on the refs all the time,” is an argument I’ve heard often.

To which I respond, “Unlike Gary, who never got on the refs.” That would be Gary Williams who (name-drop here) is also a close friend.

Earlier this week, I happened to see a Golf Channel promo for this week’s golf tournament in Boston… “TIGER WOODS…DUSTIN JOHNSON…JORDAN SPIETH…JASON DAY,” the promo said.

Look, I get it—Woods is by far the biggest draw in golf, maybe more so now than ever after his comeback this year. But I couldn’t resist a tweet noting that the promo didn’t mention the three guys who’d won major championships this year: Brooks Koepka—who won twice; Patrick Reed and Francesco Molinari.

My old friend and colleague, Kristi Setaro quickly pointed out that Molinari wasn’t playing, but she knew the point I was making.

Out came the Tiger-istas and the so-called golf experts, angrily telling me how dull Koepka and Reed are. To which I replied, “oh, you know them well then?”

You see, I DO know them. I spent time with both researching, ‘The First Major,’ and I’ve spent a good deal of time with Reed since then. This past June I did a Q+A in front of an audience in Hartford with Reed and Rory McIroy. BOTH were charming and funny.

I don’t know Molinari, but I have always said if you judge someone speaking in their second language, you’re being unfair—most of the time. Years ago, I asked some Argentine writers if American writers were being unfair to Gabriela Sabatini by judging her boring while doing interviews in English.

They told me Sabatini was just as boring in Spanish.

Koepka and Reed may not light up TV screens with their post-match interviews, but they’re both honest and interesting—at least when I’ve talked to them. And yes, I DO know them--unlike the tweeters. I also know Woods (at least a little) and Johnson. Do either one of them light up TV screens when interviewed? Seriously, give me a list of the interesting things Woods has said in his career.

“How about, “Just couldn’t make any putts today?”

Woods’s personality has always been about his golf—which, in his prime, was the best golf ever played. But personality? Shaking his fist is personality?

Hey, to each his own. Now, Spieth and Day aren’t good interviews—they’re great interviews and really good guys.

But, there I go again, dropping names. Sorry.

Except I’m really not sorry. I’ve been incredibly fortunate. As a kid, I beat Leonard Bernstein in a race at Carnegie Hall; listened to Victor Borge make up songs on my parents piano and missed Miss Anderson singing because of Bobby ----- Hull.

As an adult, I’ve known and worked with many of the most famous and fascinating people in sports. Patrick Knight, Bob Knight’s younger son, still calls me his old babysitter.

Not to mention those I’ve worked with and been friends with in the media. I remember the time Bob Woodward came to visit me in the hospital…

I have to go. David Feherty just texted me about dinner next week.

Oh, and, in case I didn’t mention it, thanks dad.

John Feinstein’s new book, “The Prodigy,” a novel about a 17-year-old who has a chance to win The Masters was published this week. His next non-fiction book, “Quarterback,”—about playing that position in the NFL will publish in November.