When a writer approaches the age of 81, he realizes, if he still has his marbles, that he will never be able to write all the good books he has been pondering during the past decades. For example, I have a marvelous sports novel drafted in my mind, and it's so enticing that, since I won't be able to write it, I want to hand the plot over to a younger man. I'm also mindful that a woman writer with the insights of Cynthia Ozick, Joan Didion or Joyce Carol Oates could do a terrific job as well.
My working title has been Final Four, and I doubt if a better one could be found. It's short, alliterative and tells the story, for the book deals with a single start-to-finish college basketball season, winding up with one of the world's newest and best sports extravaganzas, the NCAA tournament, in a city like, let's say, Atlanta. I'm offering the plot at this time, because any writer who wants to handle it should arrange to attach himself or herself to some first-class college team right now, so as to savor the ups and downs of the full season, which will begin as soon as this season's winners cut the nets down to crown their championship.
The author should travel with the team and get to know not only the coaches and the players but also the colorful hangers-on who clutter up the arenas and dressing rooms. These characters are all-important, because in my profession there's a rule I try to obey: "A novel about something is bound to be preachy, and novels should focus on characters." So this will not be a novel about the Final Four; it will be about the characters who make the season work.
There's the black woman, without a husband, who through courage alone has reared the scintillating 6'8" master forward. There's the coach's wife, who cringes when the other faculty wives dismiss her husband as a mere jock; she knows he reads Milton Friedman. There's the IRS investigator who's probing the nonpayment of taxes on gambling winnings, the sportswriter who has ironclad proof that one of the players on the team he covers has influenced games for money, and the would-be sportscaster who once played for UCLA under John Wooden and for the Celtics under Red Auerbach.
March 7, 1988
But mostly the book will depict the charismatic athletes, the two or three who are headed for good contracts with the NBA, the marginal cases who may or may not be drafted, the splendid black players of a third category who will never make the pros and whose lives threaten to end with the last whistle of the Final Four.
Of equal importance will be the case histories of the coaches, but I promise this: There will be no halftime tearjerker in which the coach pleads with his men to "go out there and win one for the Gipper." Nor will any of our coaches face the ignominy dumped on football coach Earle Bruce by the authorities at Ohio State: being fired just before the big game with a traditional rival despite a 276-90-6 lifetime record. That oughtn't to happen in college sport, and it won't happen in our novel.
I shall use the pronoun our throughout the rest of this outline on the assumption that someone among the readers will want to attempt this novel, and I shall share with him or her my thinking as of the moment. I recommend that you go your own way, but I do hope you will retain one character I've studied carefully and of whom I've grown quite fond: the good-ol'-boy member of Miami's Orange Bowl Committee who is resolute that the playoff system that determines a national winner in basketball must never be allowed to occur in college football, lest the gold mines that certain cities now control be imperiled. He attends the Final Four only to devise stratagems with which to forestall the same kind of system for college football.
Our novel starts in late winter in four different basketball cities where the regional finals are being held. The Sweet 16, these lucky teams are called, and they comprise the best in the nation. Jumping from city to city in short takes, you use vivid scenes to establish the major threads of our book. Many of the traditional powers are still in the running—Indiana, DePaul, Notre Dame, Nevada-Las Vegas, Georgia Tech, North Carolina State, St. John's, Syracuse, Villanova, UCLA—but two of the famous teams, North Carolina and Georgetown, have already been eliminated by this year's Cinderella five, Arkansas East, which is amazed to find itself in the group.
Now we face a problem. We require two or three villains. One is a coach who is knowingly playing a high-scoring star who entered school on faked papers; it does happen. Another is the college administrator who has reason to suspect that one of his school's major players conspired with gamblers to influence the outcome of some games, but since the player never actually caused his team to lose, only to shave points, his misbehavior has been kept hidden. And the third is the kid on heavy drugs; his coach and the college authorities either do not know or do not want to know.
What's the problem? Simple. If you, the writer, were to identify any existing college involved in any of those three situations, you could be sued for immense sums of money with every likelihood of losing. So what the prudent author does is invent three colleges whose identities are as far removed from reality as possible. With a totally imaginary team you're entitled to have anything happen.
That was driven home to me when I wrote Caravans. It was a novel set in Afghanistan, which was so far away that I thought I could say anything I wanted. Not so! When I described an inept American Embassy official in Kabul, the publisher's lawyers, who read carefully every word I write, warned: "Hey, you can't say that! The man who occupied that job in 1954 could sue the hell out of you, because he could prove that in the year you're writing about, your villain had to be him."
After a lot of anxiety somebody in the publisher's office came up with an ingenious solution. "Look at the map!" he said. "Afghanistan has no seacoast. Let's call him the American Naval attachè." In doing this we were perfectly safe, because the United States had never had a Naval attachè in Afghanistan, and I was rather pleased with the solution until publication day, when an important reviewer pointed out: "Mr. Michener apparently never looked at a map of Afghanistan, because it has no seacoast and would have no reason to entertain an American Naval attachè." So much for clever strategy.
So our Sweet 16 for the 1989 tournament—but of course you won't designate any specific year in Final Four because then you'd be back in hot water—contains 12 well-known teams, plus Arkansas East and the three villains, one from the Northeast, one from the southern Midwest and one from the Pacific Coast, and in short takes you will establish the human-interest mysteries, your identification of the coaches who will be in the Final Four, and the stories of some of the players, and you must decide carefully which of your brand name teams will be knocked out by upstarts. Inescapably, Arkansas East continues its giant-killing ways, but precisely which two Goliaths it eliminates in the penultimate series I can't say now. Probably it will depend upon whom you are maddest at when it comes time to write.
Now the coaches become important, for they seem to play a somewhat more dramatic role in big basketball games than in football. Dean Smith and John Thompson ought to be there, of course, for without them the tournament wouldn't be legal. But of course their teams have already been eliminated. Bobby Knight is such an awesome fixture that he would probably sue if he weren't included. Jim Valvano is a must because of his flamboyance, and we certainly wouldn't want to go without Jerry Tarkanian, Tark the Shark. Digger Phelps would be extremely useful as the good guy who gets knocked off at the least expected moment, which he does in our tournament. I have great regard for an old buddy of mine, Bobby Cremins of Georgia Tech, a photogenic, wonderfully able young man. You might use him as a sacrificial lamb: Build him up at the start, kick him in the groin down the line.
And of course there would be the tobacco-chewing coach of Arkansas East, a graduate of Texas A & M whose motto is: "I want my players to be aggressive, possessive and obsessive. Aggressive in ripping the ball away from opponents. Possessive in holding on to it when our team has it. And totally obsessive when it comes to winning."
Certainly two of the three villains make it to our final eight but none, I think, to the Final Four, for that would complicate things. Kiss them goodbye and hope they keep out of jail.
Who does make it to the climactic Four? Of course, our Cinderella team must be there, and I'm sure you'd want to have Tark the Shark, if only to see by what cruel device he will defeat himself this time. One of the highlights of basketball in the last six or seven years was that remarkable semifinal game in 1987 between Nevada-Las Vegas and Indiana, when Las Vegas had a narrow lead early in the second half with almost 15 minutes left to play. After Tark's kids had scored yet another basket, the sharp-eyed TV announcer, I believe it was Billy Packer, pointed out prophetically, "Uh-oh! After that score every member of the Las Vegas team looked up at the clock—not at the enemy coming down the floor. Their attention is not on trying to score again but on trying to hold on." As you know, they blew it when Indiana went on a tear. In one killing play Las Vegas couldn't even inbound after an Indiana score; the Hoosiers roared back and the game was lost. You must have Tark.
I'd like you to keep Cremins in the Final Four, but you might get more mileage out of Valvano, whom your readers will remember for his tremendous 1984 victory over Houston, a team that on paper couldn't lose. Prior to the Monday championship game Valvano was asked, as if he were a sacrificial lamb, "Do you think you have even a remote chance against the Phi Slamma Jamma?" And Valvano shouted, "Ask Villanova if they have a chance. They're out of it. Ask North Carolina. They don't have a chance at all, because they're not here. Do we have a chance? You bet we do. We're still playing." And play they did. You could use a guy like that.
We must keep Bobby Knight, if only because he might explode at any moment in some wild new way. And there's the Final Four for the hectic shoot-out in Atlanta: Indiana, Nevada-Las Vegas, North Carolina State and Arkansas East. I'll make this concession. If you simply insist that Syracuse be included, I'll surrender Jimmy Valvano in the Final Four—but give him a big scene in the regionals.
O.K., I've got you this far in a wonderful year. Four worthy teams, half a dozen gripping human-interest stories, a grand overview of college athletics in the late 1980s, a sterling gang of coaches and a dozen great young athletes with skills unbelievable. You must take it from here. You're going to have only three games in Atlanta: the semifinals on Saturday night, a day of rest, the championship Monday.
We want excitement, games as exhilarating as Indiana-Las Vegas and the Indiana-Syracuse championship contest last year, nail-biters right down to the final whistle. But we've also got to have something earthshaking like the legendary final in 1966 when Adolph Rupp brought an all-white, super-important Kentucky team to the title at the University of Maryland. Rupp and his paladins were condescending to play an all-black team of alley-scramblers from Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso).
Whoosh! Rupp's demigods never knew what hit them. The scramblers—most of them from the macadam playgrounds of the inner city—simply smothered their bigger opponents. Hands in the face, knee against knee, hungry fingers grabbing for the ball, galloping breakaway baskets, it was a game never to be forgotten and of tremendous importance to basketball. Because after Texas Western won an impossible victory, 72-65, the rowdy approach was established with full-court pressure, swarming tactics, a constant fight for the ball. But far more significant in the long run, Southern coaches like Rupp, who had refused to dabble with black players, fearing they would offend white spectators, realized they could not survive without them, and the following year (1967) lean black ball-handling wizards began to appear on many Southern campuses.
Now the big question. Which two teams win Saturday night? And when they play each other on Monday, who wins the tournament? I've brooded about this a great deal, and I've come up with various solutions, but one decision looks increasingly sound to me. Arkansas East does not win it all, but whether it bows out on Saturday or Monday I can't predict. The flow of the novel will determine that, the working out of the personal histories. Recently I've been tending toward having my upstart heroes lose on Saturday night in an epic game against Nevada-Las Vegas, but then that leaves the gargantuan question: Dare we have the Shark win it all on Monday night? Last year in the semifinals I was rooting madly for him against Indiana, but in the novel? I just don't know. I'll be fascinated to see what solution you evolve, so hurry up and publish your version.
One last plea. In your final pages please resolve two sporting mysteries. Why is the basketball Final Four such a satisfying event, while the football Super Bowl is such an emotional flop? And if the elimination tournament to decide a basketball champion is such a roaring success, why can't there be something comparable in college football?
James Michener, a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, is a sports fan.