Picks and Pans Review: A March to Madness

updated 03/16/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/16/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

by John Feinstein

Call it the Feinstein formula: simply pick out a sport, pal around with its superstars for a solid year, then write an incisive, engaging, behind-the-scenes bestseller (see Feinstein's previous books on tennis, basketball, baseball and 1996's excellent A Good Walk Spoiled, on golf). The formula pays off yet again in John Feinstein's latest sports-world exposé—an immersion in the politics, personalities and passions of college basketball's ultracontentious Atlantic Coast Conference.

True, you have to be something of a sports nut for the formula to really work. But Feinstein, a commentator for ESPN and National Public Radio, has always been able to root out the real emotional significance of wins and losses. Here his access to nine ACC coaches during the 1996-97 season yields some rich, dramatic stories: Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's emotional return from health problems and the death of his mother; Maryland coach Gary Williams's desperate bids to realize his dream and earn his alma mater respectability. But the most memorable character in Madness is North Carolina Tar Heels coach Dean Smith. Now retired, Smith emerges as a complex blend of quiet dignity and raving competitiveness, a more prickly figure than depicted in reverential press accounts. Feinstein's beat, it turns out, isn't sports; it's human nature. (Little, Brown, $24.95)

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