Why it’s basketball, not politics, on our minds

Get used to it!

Even though we are in the middle of a national election contest with choices so varied, so unusual, so important, and with a possible result that would stretch the traditions of American democracy…

Even though terrorist movements challenge our security and the human values important to most Americans and threaten to overturn hopes for a world of tolerance and peace…

Even though we have been jarred, locally, by rushed and heavy-handed legislation that flaunts the American tradition of openness and acceptance of different peoples and different ideas…

Even with all that, what we want to talk about this season is Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, and Final Four basketball, which is why John Feinstein’s new book about basketball may be getting more attention than any commentary about politics or international affairs.

“The Legends Club: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano, and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry” is the story of a college basketball rivalry set in North Carolina. The names of these great rival coaches, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Smith, Duke’s Krzyzewski, and N.C. State’s Valvano, are more familiar to many North Carolinians than the names of any political leaders.

What explains their fame, continuing, even growing, even though two of them are no longer living? In part it was the intense competition among the extraordinarily successful basketball programs of the three nearby universities.

But Feinstein shows that the remarkable personalities and characters of each coach are critical factors.

Success did not come quickly or automatically to any of them. Dean Smith got off to such a slow start that after a loss to Wake Forest in 1965, students hung him in effigy. But by March 1980, when both Valvano and Krzyzewski accepted coaching jobs in North Carolina, Smith was already a legendary success.

At that time, neither Valvano nor Krzyzewski showed promise of reaching any club of legends.

N.C. State fans demanded victories over UNC, but they got blown out twice in Valvano’s first year. Later the coach told a story about a fan who supposedly told him that if he did not beat UNC, “we’re going to kill your dog.”

Valvano said that he got the point, but that he did not own a dog.

The next morning there was a puppy in a basket on the coach’s front porch with a note that said, “Don’t get too attached.”

At Duke, Athletic Director Tom Butters was “skewered both in the media and by Duke people” for giving Krzyzewski a new contract. He collected letters including ones that said, “If you don’t fire Krzyzewski, someone might kill you.” Butters kept those letters in a box next to another box of letters received later, some from the same people, telling him that he had to make sure the coach did not leave Duke to coach in the NBA.

Feinstein is the author of more than 20 successful sports books, including “A Season on the Brink,” his No. 1 New York Times best-selling classic about Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers. His friendship and connections with all three coaches gave him special insight and a host of good insider stories that he shares with his readers.

He tells of Krzyzewski’s numerous visits to Valvano’s room at Duke Hospital when he was being treated for cancer. They swapped stories, and Valvano told Krzyzewski, “You’re a very good storyteller and you’re smart. If you worked at it a little, you could be very good. You could make a lot of money.”

Finally, Feinstein writes of Krzyzewski’s last visit to Dean Smith, who was close to death and had long since lost his ability to communicate. But he “took his left hand, placed it firmly on Mike Krzyzewski’s right hand and squeezed it. And then he smiled.”

Good stories, good lessons, and maybe good reasons why we turn towards basketball this season.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.

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