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THE LAST AMATEURS: Playing for Glory and Honor in Division I Basketball's Least-Known League.

THE LAST AMATEURS: Playing for Glory and Honor in Division I Basketball's Least-Known League by John Feinstein Little, Brown & Co. $24.95

THERE IS NO SPECIES OF JOURNALIST more cynical, more sour, more ungrateful than the sportswriter. They're surly nostalgists, constantly comparing these dismal days to the era when--oh, choose your old-timer--Elgin Baylor took it to the hole or Joltin' Joe roamed the outfield or blah, blah, blah. And can you believe how much a beer costs at the ballpark now?

Even more indignant than the average sports scribe (they're always called "scribes"--why?) is the college sportswriter. He seethes at how corrupt his sweet game has become, how stupid and venal these "student-athletes" are, how dismal it is to interview them. He constantly asks himself: Why can't they all be like Princeton?

John Feinstein, perhaps the most celebrated American sports writer, is not quite as sulphurous but even more romantic than his colleagues. The Last Amateurs: Playing for Honor and Glory in Division I Basketball's Least-Known League is his latest quest for purity. The Last Amateurs takes him to the Patriot League, not simply "the least-known" but also perhaps the worst division in major college basketball. Its seven schools--Army, Navy, Colgate, Holy Cross, Bucknell, Lafayette, and Lehigh--demand real academic performance from athletes, and (mostly) don't grant athletic scholarships. They also draw tiny crowds and play unrelentingly mediocre basketball.

Feinstein spent the 1999-2000 season observing the league, from opening practices to the champion's inevitable loss to a real college basketball team in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Feinstein guides us through the league, kid by kid, coach by coach. There is a sameness to the stories: Every player is a fine student. A few have talent, but most are gutsy, compensating with hustle. The coaches ooze decency and wisdom. Several have sacrificed big-time college jobs for the chance to coach genuine students who care more about their grades than their pro careers. Each player has the utmost respect for every other player. They play hard, but fair. They play for glory, not shoes or contracts. And a golden haze surrounds them all. This, Feinstein suggests, is what college sports should be, but isn't.

There's no real drama in The Last Amateurs. We know from the opening chapter how the season will end. And it's confusing and repetitious. Feinstein's Season on the Brink triumphed because he focused obsessively on Indiana University coach Bobby Knight. Here he tracks dozens of players and coaches, with less success. It's almost impossible to remember who's who. I challenge any reader to tell me the difference between Lafayette and Lehigh, or remember which team is the Leopards and which the Crusaders.

But the shortcoming of The Last Amateurs is less structural than philosophical. The Last Amateurs depicts a paradisical world that is separate and distinct from the Gomorrah of major-college basketball. Wipe the Vaseline off that lens. The notion that the Patriots are the last holdouts against an evil world is incomplete on two counts. First, big-time college basketball is corrupt but not Satanic. Many college basketball players are as stupid and greedy as Feinstein says, and many programs do abuse players. But most big-time players do study. Most are trying to earn their degree.

And even if you accept the premise that big-time ball is utterly poisoned, Feinstein's notion that the amateur is endangered is simply wrong. Hundreds of student-athletes play basketball in Division II and Division III simply for the love of the game. Forget basketball: College fieldhouses are jammed with men and women playing lacrosse, field hockey, and rugby, students who fence or run cross-country or do gymnastics. For these thousands of athletes, college sports are exactly what they are for Feinstein's last amateurs: something to do three hours a day, not eight; a character-builder; a way into school, not a way to pay for it; a joy; an inspiration.

Last amateurs? After the passage of Title 9, we have more amateurs than ever. College sports aren't like they used to be. They're much better. Students are playing for "glory and honor" everywhere. The Patriot League isn't a rare paradise. Eden is all around us.

DAVID PLOTZ is the Washington bureau chief for Slate.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Plotz, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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