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Jimmy V, Coach K And Dean Smith: The 3 Legends Of N.C. Basketball


On this Final Four weekend, we're going to reach back to some of the most hallowed days of college basketball. That's the 1980s in North Carolina. That's where you'll find three powerhouse schools within an hour's drive of each other - University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Duke University in Durham and North Carolina State in Raleigh. As sportswriter John Feinstein tells it, that is where three coaches formed an intense rivalry, and at the same time friendship.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: This was such a perfect storm in the 1980s in the research tribal of three remarkable men who also happened to be great basketball coaches - Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski are on the Mount Rushmore of college coaches. Jim Valvano had a separate niche because he won that remarkable title in 1983. And then when he passed away from cancer, the speech so many people have seen that he gave eight weeks before he died, starting The V Foundation.

KELLY: Valvano coached for NC State. Mike Krzyzewski coached for Duke and Dean Smith for UNC. John Feinstein covered all three men and their teams. And now he's written a book about them. It's called "The Legends Club." Our regular host of this program Michel Martin asked Feinstein to tell us about it.


Could you just talk briefly, if you would, about each man individually and about his style?

FEINSTEIN: Dean Smith was an introvert. Mike Krzyzewski said that if he could have been beamed to practice and to the games and never appeared in public other than that, he would've been very happy. He was a classic Midwesterner from a Emporia, Kan. He did not believe in taking bows. When they came to him and said we're going to name the new basketball arena at Chapel Hill after you, he said no, no, no, no, name it after the players. And they said well, that would be kind of an unwieldy name, Dean. You know, they really had to talk him into it. He did not want the credit.

But Jim Valvano was completely the opposite. He was the extrovert. As Linnea Smith, he didn't take over room when he came into it. He became the room. He was one of the great storytellers I've ever met, and he loved being around people. And that's why people found it so difficult to believe that he could die at the age of 47. And the tragedy in his life was that when he won the national championship in 1983, he was 37. Nobody under 40's won a national title since then. But he felt had, quote, "done coaching." And he went looking for the next thing in his life. What do I do now? And he didn't find it until cancer found him. And then it became his mission to set up The V Foundation with a lot of help from Mike Krzyzewski, which has since raised more than $150 million for cancer research. Mike Krzyzewski is the single-most decent and loyal person I think I've ever met. I've known him for more than 35 years.

MARTIN: It's hard to remember now given how large Duke looms in the basketball universe that when he was first - you wrote about how the first time his name appeared in the Duke student newspaper...

FEINSTEIN: Krzyzewski - Not A Typo was the headline. This is not a typo...

MARTIN: Nobody could spell it and nobody could pronounce it.

FEINSTEIN: He said in his first press conference's goal was for his players to be able to spell his name by the time they graduated. And he was 38 and 47 after three years, lost the last game of his third season 109-66 to Virginia. And I was in a Denny's with him and several other people at about 2 o'clock that morning. Many people were convinced he was going to be fired. And one of the guys we were with that night held up a glass of water and said here's to forgetting tonight. And Krzyzewski said here's to never blanking forgetting tonight. And eight years later, when they won the national championship, I walked on the court to congratulate him. And he took my hand, and he said come along way from the blanking Denny's, haven't we? He never forgot. And he's that kind of a person. And that's why his ex-players love him so much because he's the first phone call whenever one of them has a crisis in his life. And it was the same way with Dean.

MARTIN: Why do you think their relationship is important?

FEINSTEIN: I think it's important because it shows that you can be extraordinarily competitive - you'll never meet more competitive people than these men - but you can also learn from one another. You can have an empathy for one another. Mike Krzyzewski, as hostile as he was to Dean Smith - and that's the right word - realized that being like Dean Smith wasn't a bad thing. It was a good thing. And again, with Krzyzewski and Valvano, who were peers. They were 11 months apart in age. They came to NC State and Duke at almost the exact same moment - nine days apart.

MARTIN: And also had to compete in the shadow...


MARTIN: ...Of this man who was - there are so many analogies that you can't even...

FEINSTEIN: Well, the story that describes...

MARTIN: Yes, exactly, yeah...

FEINSTEIN: ...Where you're going best is when Krzyzewski was first at Duke, he was recruiting a player in California named Mark Acres. And as the recruiting visit went on, Mark Acre's mother hadn't said anything all night. And Krzyzewski finally turned to her and said Mrs. Acres, is there anything at all you want to ask me? And she said no, I don't need to ask any questions because the only thing that matters is Mark go to college some place where he'll be close to God. And she Krzyzewski said well, if he comes to Duke, God'll be coaching 10 miles down the road in Chapel Hill. So you might want to consider that. And that kind of sums up who Dean Smith was. He was a godlike figure to many in North Carolina and certainly North fans - and still is. But that's what they were competing against, and they were also competing against one another, Krzyzewski and Valvano. Valvano was the hare who ran off and won the national championship in his third season and became a rock star. And here was Krzyzewski trying to figure out, what do I do? I've got a godlike figure on my left; I've got a rock star on my right, and I'm 38 and 47 after three seasons and everybody wants me fired. But he hung in there and began to build his own program. But when Jim Valvano got sick, he was in Duke Hospital. And Krzyzewski would walk across the campus after practice every single night and go and spend an hour or so with Valvano. And Pam Valvano, Jim's wife, told me that for that one hour every night, Jim didn't have cancer anymore. And Mike was actually in the room when Jim died. That's how close they became. So I guess in a long-winded way to answer your question, it's about having meaning in other people's lives, even when they're people you've been so competitive with.

MARTIN: So is there something that when you sort of thought about it in this way - all three of them, looking at their relationship and their rivalry, can you glean anything about what it takes to compete at that level? I mean, obviously, you've got the fertile soil, which is you've got great players kind of around you, but that's not enough.

FEINSTEIN: In all the time I spent with the three of them, they were always the smartest guy in the room. And you've known me a long time time, Michel. You know I usually think I'm the smartest guy in the room.

MARTIN: I wasn't going to say usually, but...


FEINSTEIN: But they were almost always the smartest guy in any room they walked into. When the three of them were in a room together and competing with one another, it was something extraordinary. And Krzyzewski said something to me toward the end of our last interview for this book. He said if I hadn't had to compete against the two of them, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be who I am today. I never would've gotten this good. And I think each of them pushed the other to higher levels and maybe to levels that none of them realized they were even capable of reaching.

MARTIN: John Feinstein's latest book is "The Legends Club." It is available now, and he was kind enough to join us in our studio in Washington, D.C. John Feinstein, thank you.

FEINSTEIN: Michel, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.