Yes, I went to Wake Forest College/University (it changed names midway through my student days). But Wake Forest had moved from Wake County to Winston-Salem in the 1950s, and although as a student I quickly learned that beating Carolina, especially in basketball, was a Big Deal, and even though we still talked about the ACC’s Big Four, we Demon Deacons were no longer really in the college-basketball crucible in the heart of the state of North Carolina. The greatest intensity was among Carolina, Duke and N.C. State.
Even though Wake Forest was on the periphery of the great rivalries, I believe I have a reasonably good perspective on the subject of this storied rivalry. I married a Duke alum (and ardent fan) in the mid-1970s, and we soon moved from Baltimore home to North Carolina, where for at least five months every year, college basketball was all consuming. As TV coverage of the games and tournaments expanded over the years, so did the intensity of emotions during basketball season. Every winter and early spring, our collective sense of wellbeing rose and fell with the outcomes of basketball games.
Though one of them went to Wake Forest and the other to the Naval Academy, our children to this day are unable to wear that light shade called Carolina blue. The older son texted me from his home in Las Vegas a couple of years ago to say there was a great sale on outdoor chairs at a local store, but they were all Carolina blue and he just couldn’t bring himself to buy any. That son had a stuffed toy dubbed Danny Furry back when Danny Ferry was a Duke star. The other son had a Bobby Hurley jersey and refused to dress as anything or anyone but that Duke star every Halloween. Even though I have been proud to teach at Carolina’s fine journalism school for several years, there are no Carolina bumper stickers on my car, no Carolina blue to be seen anywhere.
So it was with some curiosity that I placed the first CD of an audio version of John Feinstein’s new book, The Legends Club, into my car’s player. Would I find it tedious to hear about games and controversies I’d lived through? Would this be more insider basketball than I really cared about?
Little did I realize what a treat I had in store.
Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson
THE LEGENDS CLUB: DEAN SMITH, MIKE KRZYZEWSKI, JIM VALVANO AND AN EPIC COLLEGE BASKETBALL RIVALRY. By John Feinstein. Random House Audio. 13 CDs; 15 ½ hours. Read by the author. $50.
You think you remember these things, but you don’t. I’d forgotten, for example, that a young Mike Kryzysewski became the new head basketball coach at Duke the very same year (1980) that a young Jim Valvano took on that position at N.C. State.
John Feinstein’s riveting new book, The Legends Club, reminds us of those details, and also tells us a lot more we never knew. He relates, for example, the few choice words that Coach K’s wife, Mickey, uttered when she heard that Valvano was also coming to the heart of Atlantic Coast Conference country and would be coaching in Raleigh, just a few miles from their new home in Durham. Valvano had been on the New York coaching scene at Iona while Coach K was at West Point, and she’d been looking forward to a respite from his overwhelming personality.
Both the the new coaches, in their early 30s, would labor to build their programs in the shadow of Dean Smith, who was already a larger-than-life presence at the third ACC school in the Triangle, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For the next 10 years, the three teams competed against one another and on the national stage. They won national championships – Carolina in 1982; State, most improbably, in 1983; and Duke, finally, in 1990. And then, also at the end of the 1989-90 season, Valvano was dismissed in disgrace from State.
But the story doesn’t end there, of course. Feinstein goes on to tell of Valvano’s struggle to figure out what to do after he was no longer coaching, and of his valiant fight against the cancer that took his life in 1993, at age 47. He describes the evolving rivalry between the two greats who remained, Smith and Coach K, and eventually Smith’s retirement, decline and death. And he talks about how Coach K has grown and changed over the years, both as a coach and as a person.
Feinstein, a noted journalist and author who began his sports-writing career at Duke and graduated just three years before Coach K’s arrival, has added a great deal of research to his extensive first-hand knowledge of the great rivalry among these three coaches who are all now college basketball legends. He drew stories and insights from not only the coaches, but also their families and those who worked with and played for them.
The result is a wonderful book that does many things. It enables fans to relive the ups and downs of many years of memorable (and sometimes forgettable) basketball seasons, with more insight and less emotional stress than the first time around. It reminds us of such great players as Michael Jordan, Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and James Worthy, just to name a few who graced the courts in central North Carolina. (These were the days when many good players stayed in college until they graduated, or at least for more than one year.) When I’d arrive at some destination after having listened to the book while driving, I’d find myself wondering why everyone wasn’t talking about what I’d just heard, so vivid is Feinstein’s reading of his own words.
But The Legends Club is far from just a recounting of past basketball games and seasons. One indication of the scope of the book is that Feinstein doesn’t write in strictly chronological order, but rather moves back and forth in time when doing so helps give context and perspective.
That context and perspective are part of what makes this book great. Feinstein helps us to see things more clearly than we could in the excitement, jubilation or heartbreak of the moments. We see both the bigger picture about college basketball, and the even bigger picture about how basketball fits into the world beyond the gyms and arenas.
Feinstein also helps us see beyond the legends to understand more about these three men who have had such a presence in college basketball and American popular culture.
The personal stories, the insights Feinstein gives us about the three and their evolving relationships are perhaps the most memorable part of the book. Coach K was with Jimmy V when Valvano died. In one way or another, all three men came to respect the others and value the rivalry that helped elevate them all. And even in the throes of intense, often cutthroat competition, there are higher values. It’s interesting how often Feinstein quotes one or another of these men as saying he did something, maybe something unexpected or seemingly out of character, because it “was the right thing to do.”
The book brought tears to my eyes several times, and not a one of those times involved the outcome of a basketball game. And there are also passages that will have you laughing out loud. There’s the story, for example, of how Dean Smith’s wife, having just given birth to one of their daughters, was sure the baby’s life was ruined when, lying in a hospital, she heard that Duke had beaten Carolina. And how one of Coach K’s daughters was apparently a result of his celebration after that same game, and the two sets of parents were seated side by side several years later when the two girls were performing in a piano recital…
I can’t really speak to how enjoyable this book will be for someone who’s not a fan of one of these basketball teams, but I suspect anyone with any interest in sports will find The Legends Club highly entertaining, informative and moving. For those of us who’ve lived and breathed this rivalry, the book is a gem.