Hoop Dreams

Sports books have the unfortunate tendency to treat local pockets of fanaticism as if they were universal. That may be unavoidable; when it comes to the suspenseful movement of balls, titillation is almost always in the eye of the beholder.

John Feinstein, author of A Season on the Brink, A Good Walk Spoiled, and several other best-selling sports tomes, doesn’t work around the inherent provincialism of his latest subject so much as lean into it—way in. The title of his new book, The Legends Club (Doubleday, $28), might seem to suggest some globally recognized triumvirate of superpowers—Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt, or even Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. And that’s entirely apt, in a way: The actual subjects of Feinstein’s book—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, and Jim Valvano—are something close to world-conquering, and possibly holy, figures in the state of North Carolina, being the storied head coaches of the North Carolina, Duke, and North Carolina State basketball programs, respectively.

The grandiosity of Feinstein’s title speaks volumes about both his target demographic and his approach—which is to say that, marketing-wise, it’s a logical starting point: If Dean Smith is God and Krzyzewski is Satan to you (or the other way around), then The Legends Club addresses this timeless gaggle of omnipotent immortals with the reverence they clearly deserve. The downside, of course, is that you will not only be treated to every statement God made about Satan and vice versa (still pretty interesting!), you’ll also be privy to the finer details of that time that God’s shooting guard approached the top of the key under extreme defensive pressure from Satan’s point guard in the waning minutes of a minor mid-season matchup that occurred more than two decades ago.

This may look like trivia-focused madness to outsiders, but to true believers it feels more like a nostalgic communion with the past. Indeed, when Feinstein offered up the long-forgotten and not-all-that-relevant details of a certain Duke basketball game played back in 1984, I was suddenly plunged into the memory of sitting so close to the Duke bench that night that I could see the sweat flying from coach Krzyzewski’s face as he instructed his players to “get your fucking heads out of your asses and play some fucking basketball.” (Remember, we’re talking God and Satan here—not Milton.)

While those who’ve never seriously rooted for any sports team tend not to understand the complicated tangle of emotions that go with such a lifelong investment, Feinstein is fully aware of the stakes. This is why The Legends Club will typically skim over entire seasons and then zoom in on the minutiae of one seemingly trivial game. And it’s why we’re reminded that Smith said, after a spectacular dunk by Michael Jordan against Maryland in 1984, “A layup would have been just as good.” It’s also the reason we’re informed that Smith’s fifth child was born two days before Krzyzewski’s third was conceived, right after Duke beat UNC (“It had to be that night,” Mike’s wife, Mickie Krzyzewski, told Feinstein. “No other possibility that time of year”). These factoids—insignificant and personal enough to feel as if lifted from a stalker’s journal—aren’t simply bonus revelations for the true zealots; rather, they’re the main event. They serve as the entire justification for a new book about these well-chronicled teams. As a Duke graduate and longtime sports journalist for the Washington Post, Feinstein knew all three coaches in question and has had access to them since before Krzyzewski came to Duke in 1980. That kind of insider knowledge is exactly what Atlantic Coast Conference basketball fiends crave.

If laughably irrelevant details are treated as deeply personal, that’s largely because sports lovers occupy a pretty rarefied, emotionally charged realm. Loving a local team can be a way (let’s just say) to love self-conscious, skeptical parents whose childlike enthusiasm for the same team discloses their most lovable selves. Likewise, mooning over a scrappy, struggling squad that no one cares much about can be a way of showing affection for a hometown that sometimes feels too hokey and small to justify its spot on the map. As reviled as Duke is today, back in the mid-’80s, believing that Duke could win and continue winning—and then watching them do just that—felt akin to having a front-row seat at an act of divine intervention. My father attended every Duke basketball home game and yelled his lungs out (much to the dismay of other faculty members with seats nearby). My mother had a poster of Duke shooting guard Johnny Dawkins on her bedroom wall long after her divorce from my father. Duke was my family’s one acceptable excuse for passionate outbursts, for open sentimentality, for unabashed joy.

In other words, sports fans are quite literally out of their minds. But if fans are completely unhinged, coaches are some of the most obsessive, glory-driven control freaks on the face of the planet. As Feinstein shows in trademark close-grained detail here, part of what separated Krzyzewski and Smith (and, to a lesser extent, Valvano) from their peers was their unflagging determination to grind each other’s faces into the carpet. When you strip away the players, the marketing campaigns, and the capitalist machinery that propel all three of these incredibly well-heeled basketball programs, and once you duly acknowledge the never-ending binary nature of toggling between wins and losses to infinity and beyond, you’re left with this chastened truth: Smith and Coach K were engaged in what amounted to a seventeen-year battle to give each other the one crowning noogie to end all noogies.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski berating a referee, 2010.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski berating a referee, 2010. Christopher Johnson/ Wikicommons

That battle was long and arduous, to be sure. Smith had won ten ACC championships and was something of a demigod in North Carolina by the time Coach K rolled into town in 1980, a largely untested Bobby Knight acolyte fresh off a middling stint at Army. Krzyzewski whipped Duke’s anemic recruiting program into shape, then engineered a complete upgrade of the squad’s defensive skills and set about unseating UNC as the dominant basketball dynasty in the state. But it was never easy to guess, in any season, which team would win any given matchup. The sheer intensity of the rivalry tended to overshadow the talent and strategies of either team.

In fact, about two-thirds of the way through The Legends Club, a pretty sad moral seems to reveal itself: Climbing to the tippity-top of the heap is never enough to satisfy any competitor tireless and determined enough to make it there. No wonder the most heart-wrenching passages of the book concern Valvano, who as a young coach led NC State to its second national-championship title in 1983, only to die of cancer ten years later at the age of forty-seven. “The triviality of it just clobbers me,” Valvano told a writer for Sports Illustrated before his death. “You get this sick and you say to yourself, ‘Sports means nothing,’ and that feels terrible. God, I devoted my whole life to it.” To his credit, Valvano was the one man out of the three who was capable of stepping back far enough to try on such a devastating outlook for size. While Valvano is portrayed as a highly emotional person, an entertaining storyteller, and a voracious reader who always had a clear view past coaching to the other kinds of lives he might live, Smith and Krzyzewski both eat and breathe victory and failure, for better or worse. (Smith died in 2015, eighteen years after he retired from coaching in 1997.)

Ironically, the cumulative effect of reading Feinstein’s exhaustive account of three decades of wins and losses is that, eventually, the roller coaster blurs into a background of undifferentiated fever-chart variance, like the graphs showing the stock market’s gyrations over the decades. In the foreground, we find three remarkable but obsessed men who are locked in a battle that starts to look more and more like a marriage as the years roll by. As Valvano was dying in his hospital bed, he became animated only when Krzyzewksi would stop by, as he did regularly during that time, to talk. “We said things to one another that I’m not sure brothers say to each other,” Krzyzewski tells the author. Krzyzewski and Smith, on the other hand, were never friends, but that didn’t make their relationship any less passionate. Smith was clearly rankled by his rival and openly detested the obnoxious jeers and chants of Duke students, which he viewed as classless and, in some cases, racist. Krzyzewski once said to his assistant coaches, in reaction to Smith’s humorless demeanor, “If I ever start to act like him, talk like him in any way, don’t ask me any questions. Just get a gun and shoot me.” Nonetheless, when Krzyzewski spontaneously visited Smith at his beach home in 2013, when Smith was suffering through the late stages of Alzheimer’s, Krzyzewski told the seemingly uncomprehending, wheelchair-bound coach, “What you’ve done as a person is so much more important than basketball.” Then he leaned over and whispered, “Coach, I love you,” in Smith’s ear, and Smith looked up, squeezed Krzyzewski’s hand, and smiled.

All of which is a little more melodramatic than you’d expect from a tale of three college-basketball coaches. As tempting as it might be to write off Feinstein’s entire project as the stuff of possessed, unstable human beings, what his book ultimately demonstrates is that Valvano, in his darkest moments, was wrong. The triviality of a pursuit doesn’t matter as long as strong emotions are in play. Whether you’re rehashing decades-old trifles or diving straight to the heart of the human struggle, who can say? Clearly some of us need a good excuse for passionate outbursts, for open sentimentality, for unabashed joy. When you dare to invest yourself in it fully, a legendary battle might just reveal itself as a love story.

Heather Havrilesky is a columnist for New York magazine and the author of the forthcoming book How to Be a Person in the World (Doubleday).