Bob Knight is the college basketball coach most associated with John Feinstein. "A Season on the Brink" was Feinstein's groundbreaking, all-access account of the volatile Indiana coach that became one of the best-selling sports books of all time. But the coaches who formed the roots of Feinstein's prolific career were North Carolina's Dean Smith, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina State's Jim Valvano.
His 36th and latest book, "The Legends Club: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano, and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry" is a compelling story of the complex relationships and backyard rivalries of the three coaches who dominated college basketball during the 1980s and early '90s.
Feinstein writes in the introduction: "I wasn't born to write (this book), but I lived it."
Feinstein recalls the February night in 1976 when, as a junior at Duke, he felt awestruck interviewing Smith for the first time. It hardly would be his last encounter with the legendary coach. After graduating, Feinstein made a name for himself covering Atlantic Coast Conference basketball for the Washington Post. He spent countless hours with all three coaches, getting to know the intimate details of their lives.
The coaches operated in what is known as the Research Triangle, or simply the Triangle, anchored by the hub cities of Chapel Hill (North Carolina), Durham (Duke) and Raleigh (North Carolina State). The close proximity of the schools, plus the passion for basketball in the region, still fuels a 24/7 obsession for the rivalries. As Valvano once said, "In some way, to our fans, beating Carolina was as important, maybe more important, than winning the national championship."
Valvano and North Carolina State did win the 1983 NCAA title with its memorable last-second victory over Houston. Krzyzewski went from being on the verge of getting fired to leading Duke to a stretch of seven Final Fours during a nine-year period, winning the 1991 and '92 national titles.
Yet they still were the young upstarts faced with the supreme challenge of taking on Smith. By 1980, when Krzyzewski and Valvano were hired by their respective schools, Smith already had achieved iconic status in the state, making Carolina blue a feared color for opponents. Feinstein details the frustration Valvano had when his North Carolina State team routinely came up short against Smith's Tar Heels.
However, the most intense rivalry was between Smith and Krzyzewski. Both coaches were fierce competitors, always looking for an edge. Feinstein writes how the young "Coach K" wasn't going to be intimidated by Smith. After North Carolina won a tight game over Duke in one of their first encounters, Krzyzewski wouldn't let go of Smith during the postgame handshake.
"At least acknowledge it was a hell of game, Dean," Krzyzewski said.
Smith simply said, "I'm going to remember this."
"Good. I hope you do," Krzyzewski said.
Krzyzewski's program eventually rivaled and perhaps even surpassed Smith's in stature. Feinstein weaves in numerous tales describing how their relationship became bitterer during the '80s.
While Krzyzewski and Smith provide the tension, it is Valvano who delivered the comic relief. Feinstein describes the colorful coach as someone who filled every room he ever entered. Krzyzewski said his fellow coaches dreaded having to follow Valvano at media day sessions. Feinstein has no shortage of entertaining material with Valvano.
Yet it also is Valvano who is the focus of the tragic arc in the book, dying of cancer in 1993 at age 47.
Feinstein writes about the emotional moments Krzyzewski had with Valvano during his final months. He was a constant visitor as Valvano spent considerable time at Duke University Medical Center. He also recalls the respect Valvano had for Smith. When Valvano was too ill to fulfill his dream of throwing out a first pitch at Yankee Stadium, he asked the North Carolina coach to take his place.
Feinstein's relationship with all three coaches gave him the intimate details that form the backbone of the book. One story leads quickly to another story in this fast-moving account of a memorable era in college basketball.
Dating back to Feinstein's first interview with Smith, this book was nearly 40 years in the making. It was worth the wait, because it is one of Feinstein's best.
Ed Sherman writes about sports media for the Tribune.
"The Legends Club"