Reconsidering Coach K

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mike-krzyzewski

When former N.C. State basketball coach Jim Valvano—the legendary and lovable “Jimmy V”—was undergoing cancer treatments at Duke University Hospital in early 1993, he formed an unexpected friendship.

Nearly every day, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski would walk from his team’s practices at Cameron Indoor Stadium to the hospital, where he would spend an hour or so with his one-time rival. The two coaches talked some basketball, but they mostly talked about life. They laughed and cried. Every day, when Krzyzewski walked into the hospital room, Valvano’s eyes would light up.

“What are we, chopped liver?” one of Valvano’s daughters joked outside the room as the two coaches rambled on about some Atlantic Coast Conference basketball game from years past.

Krzyzewski was at Valvano’s bedside shortly before he died. He would later describe those hospital visits with Jimmy V as a life-changing experience. “You and I became brothers during the last four or five months of your life,” Krzyzewski wrote in a postmortem letter to the man he had battled against in several crucial basketball games.

Coach K’s friendship with a dying Valvano is the heart and soul of The Legends Club, a new book by John Feinstein about the three most iconic basketball coaches in ACC history—Krzyzewski, Valvano and North Carolina coach Dean Smith. From 1980 through 1989, the three coaches squared off against each other two and often three times a season. The games between Krzyzewski and Smith continued until 1997, solidifying Duke-North Carolina as the most intense—and publicized—rivalry in college basketball. Many would argue that the 17-year period covered by The Legends Club represents not only the heyday of ACC basketball, but all of college hoops.

When I was growing up in Georgia in the 1980s, ACC basketball was the biggest thing going from January into March every year. I was a North Carolina Tar Heels fan because most of my mother’s family members were Carolina fans. I also liked Georgia Tech due to its proximity and exciting players like Mark Price, Bruce Dalrymple and John Salley. I liked N.C. State and Valvano, who could have easily been a stand-up comedian if he wasn’t such a damn good basketball coach.

I despised Duke. I didn’t like the Cameron Crazies—the smart-ass Duke student section that reveled in its creative ways of rattling opposing players. I detested Coach K with his angry scowl and his tendency to jaw at the refs throughout a 40-minute basketball game. Storming the sidelines in a dark, Richard Nixon-style suit, he seemed petty and mean. As many have pointed out before, Krzyzewski really does look a lot like the team’s pointy-eared Blue Devil mascot, except that at least the mascot is smiling.

The only time I can recall rooting for Duke was during its epic 1991 Final Four upset of UNLV, a team that somehow managed to act more obnoxious and entitled than even the smug brats who always played for Duke.

After reading The Legends Club, I am still not a fan of Duke, but I did come away with a greater appreciation of Krzyzewski. Despite his fiery nature and defensiveness even in the wake of winning five national titles, Coach K has many admirable qualities. The son of Polish immigrants, he rose from working class Chicago to attend West Point and serve in the Army. Three years into his tenure at Duke, he was nearly fired after back-to-back losing seasons. Krzyzewski probably would have been fired if that took place in today’s big-money, win-now sports culture. Instead, he is simply the winningest coach in college basketball history.

What fuels The Legends Club are several entertaining anecdotes about Smith, Valvano and Krzyzewski, their games and their personal interactions. Feinstein, a Duke graduate who covered ACC hoops in the 1980s, knows the territory well. He does a fine job of pushing aside the public images of all three coaches to reveal their humanity. Krzyzewski and Smith, for example, despised each other and had several clashes during heated Carolina-Duke tilts. In the end, however, they developed a mutual respect, if not a friendship.

Ultimately, The Legends Club is a Coach K book—perhaps because he has coached the longest and remains at the top of his profession. If you just can’t separate Krzyzewski from Christian Laettner stomping on a Kentucky player, or Grayson Allen’s many tripping incidents, this might not be the book for you. Or maybe it is? You may be surprised by the old coach’s many layers, beyond the dark-suited Blue Devil you see all the time on TV.

Six Reasons Why 2016 Was Not the Worst Year Ever

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Are you feeling sad about 2016? Are you dreading what 2017 might bring with an inexperienced, unpredictable president and several impending crises at home and around the world?

Well, cheer up! Unlike what you might have read in several media end-of-the-year roundups, 2016 was NOT the Worst Year Ever. Not even close. Here are six reasons why you should feel pretty good about 2016, as opposed to almost any other point in history. I have statistics to back me up:

  1. Worldwide Poverty. Despite what you might have read, the poverty rate has been in steep decline for decades. According to the World Bank, 42% of the world’s population lived on $1.90 a day (adjusted for inflation) in 1981. As of 2013, that percentage had plummeted to just 10.6%.
  2. Violent Crime. The amount of violence in the U.S. is unacceptable and has been on the rise over the past two years. Historically, however, the crime rate is much lower than it was a few decades ago. The FBI reports that the U.S. homicide rate in 2014 was 4.5 per 100,000 people, less than half of what it was in 1980, or even as recently as 1992.
  3. Road Fatalities. Seat belts, airbags and other safety measures have dramatically decreased the number of people who die each year in automobiles, even though there are more cars and trucks on the road today than ever before. In 2015 there were 35,092 motor vehicle deaths, 35% less than the number of traffic fatalities in 1972.
  4. Life Expectancy. Life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.8 years. That’s something worth celebrating when you consider that the average American was expected to live less than 70 years as recently as 1960.
  5. Medical Advances. Want a specific year that was definitely worse than 2016? Try 1918. Not only was World War I winding down, but American doughboys brought disease home after the Armistice. Somewhere between 20 and 40 million people died of a worldwide influenza pandemic in 1918, including 675,000 Americans. In 2016, by contrast, roughly 36,000 Americans died of flu-related illnesses. That’s just one example of how much medicine and our quality of life have improved in the past century.
  6. Technology. From smartphones to automated cars to drones that may soon deliver Amazon packages to your doorstep, this is a time of rapid innovation and technological change. As Louis C.K. hilariously points out in this routine, there are numerous advances we currently take for granted today that were not even available a few years ago. Sure, the growing presence of artificial intelligence is somewhat terrifying, but technology helped make 2016 an exciting time to be alive.

So there are your six reasons. Do you feel better? Probably not. We could be—and should be—doing a much better job of treating each other with kindness and addressing the world’s problems in practical ways. Still, barring an environmental or human-made worldwide disaster, 2017 will almost certainly not be the Worst Year Ever. Just like 2016 was not the Worst Year Ever—though it often seemed that way.

You Might Be a Redneck: A Review of “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America”

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The timing of Nancy Isenberg’s new book could hardly have been better. When White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America was released this summer, Donald Trump had just clinched the Republican nomination, largely behind the support of frustrated, disenfranchised working class whites. Thousands of panicked liberals rushed to Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and bought Isenberg’s book, anxious to learn more about America’s so-called underclass and the role it might play in disrupting the Republic. The New York Times deemed the book “necessary,” and Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine called it “eye-opening.”

I had high hopes for White Trash, even though the book’s full title is a little misleading. The story of poor whites in America is hardly “untold,” as evidenced by the 125 pages of footnotes and bibliographic information in the back of Isenberg’s book. It’s also not earth-shattering news that America has a class system modeled after England’s, and that the British settled the colonies with “lubbers,” “rubbish,” and other people they deemed expendable.

Still, I was anxious to read White Trash because I agreed with Isenberg’s assertion that economic and social class in America is largely overlooked by the media, as are the concerns of working class whites (until about five weeks ago, that is).

I expected a lively, thought-provoking read about the role of class and inequity in American history. Unfortunately, while some parts of White Trash were informative, I did not find the book to be particularly engaging. At times, I was also confused as to whom Isenberg considers to be “White Trash.” Are they mountain people living on government checks and procreating at will? Are they poor dirt farmers and land dwellers in the South? Are they blue collar workers in the Rust Belt? Are they middle-class “Bubbas” who try to stay true to their redneck roots? Is it all of the above?

Obviously, some of these groups are more disadvantaged and downtrodden than others. Isenberg at times lumps them all together in an effort to cover the full scope of rural, poor white culture. Elvis Presley, Bill Clinton and Tammy Faye Bakker are all famous but for very different reasons. Isenberg tries to stitch them and others together as symbols of the white underclass. She does not do this very convincingly.

In my mind, White Trash contains two parts. The first covers about 350 years of Colonial and American history, from the settlement of Jamestown by debtors and “waste people,” to Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. This part of the book is very informative, though it sometimes suffers from the Isenberg’s dry, academic writing style. I found the chapter about the eugenics movement of the early 20th Century to be particularly interesting.

The second part of White Trash is basically a laundry list of pop culture fads, government assistance programs and colorful political figures of the past 80 years. At times, the writer seems disgusted by phenomenon like the Bakkers’ PTL scandal and the reality TV show, Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. In another passage, she chides Hollywood and Deliverance author James Dickey for vilifying hillbilly culture. It is unclear at times whether Isenberg is defending or judging poor whites.

Isenberg has said in recent interviews that the main purpose of her new book is to debunk the myth of the “American Dream” and class mobility in the U.S. White Trash does make a strong argument that most Americans are stuck in the social class into which they are born. However, I think that message sometimes gets lost as the author attempts to cover more than 400 years of history in only 320 pages.

 

Runaway Hubcaps

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When I was younger, I would sometimes drive past a gleaming hubcap on the side of the road, and I would marvel at how that hubcap managed to come to a rest on its edge after careening off of some car or truck. Time and time again, I would see these hubcaps leaning against light posts and street signs. Funny how they always land that way, I thought.

Later, I reasoned that this phenomenon was the work of some Good Samaritans who had propped up the hubcaps so that their owners might spot them more easily.

I was probably about 35 when this finally dawned on me.

Trump’s First Tweets as President

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3:21 a.m., Jan 21 – So proud 2 be POTUS and lead this really, really great country of ours. Inauguration balls were phenomenal. Really wish Melania was here.

3:24 a.m. Jan 21 – Time for bed. Busy day tomorrow. We are going to get so much done. Good night, America!

7:36 a.m. Jan 21 – Very nasty editorial in the failing NYTimes today about my speech. WashPost no better. Nobody reads newspapers anyway.

7:57 a.m. Jan 21 – Really, really disappointed in CNN’s lies. We are going to do a number on them.

8:34 a.m. Jan 21 – Working very, very hard this morning!

9:23 a.m. Jan 21 – Just back from 1st security briefing as POTUS. Things worse than expected. Thank you, Obama!

9:34 a.m. Jan 21 – You would not believe what they tell POTUS in these security meetings. Sworn to secrecy, but you would not believe what they tell me.

9:39 a.m. Jan 21 – BTW, that Area 51 thing. Totally true!

9:45 a.m. Jan 21 – JFK assassination very interesting. Can’t say much, but do not believe what you have been taught in history class! #publicschoolsfail

9:51 a.m. Jan 21 – Also, Nixon may have been gay. Still a great president!

10:10 a.m. Jan 21 – First executive order! Rezoning land in Palm Springs for Trump Pacifica Hotel. Creating jobs for SoCal economy. More 2 come!

10:15 a.m. Jan 21 – Still thinking about security briefing. Tough times, but you are in good hands, America!

10:45 a.m. Jan 21 – Secret service wants my Android and Twitter account password. Never!

10:50 a.m. Jan 21 – VP Pence very annoyed with me. Such a good man. Hate when he gets angry. @realDonaldTrump going offline for now.

Donald Trump demonstrates his tweeting skills in his office at Trump Tower in New York, Sept. 29, 2015. Some say it took Trump’s unfiltered, type-anything style to fulfill what digital strategists have long predicted: a campaign built on social media. (Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Just Joking!

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After a few hundred attempts, my six-year-old son told a funny joke for the first time last night.

Here’s the joke:

Q: How do you catch a squirrel?

A: You act like a nut!

Our child has been trying for years to come up with a joke that will make us laugh. “Is that funny?” he’ll ask us after telling a silly, nonsensical knock-knock joke he just made up on the spot. We patiently explain to him that a good joke takes a little time and creativity. Perhaps he should start by memorizing a simple joke and tell that to his friends instead, we’ll gently suggest. We’ll also point out that if you have to ask your audience if a joke is funny, then it probably isn’t.

I know that the squirrel joke is not an original, but every young stand-up has to start somewhere, and our young son delivered the punchline with flawless timing. He is also very good at acting like a nut, so the humor fits his slap-stick comedic style.

The ability to make other people laugh is a formidable social skill and one our son already believes to be important. I hope his sense of humor continues to evolve. The world can be a pretty tough place if you don’t learn how to joke about it, and help others laugh along with you.

The Social Media Activist

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social-media-activist-2
He’s the first one to post
when things couldn’t be worse.
A riot, the government,
the Billy Goat Curse.

He trolls through the Web
With justice in mind.
Writing words that are true,
But not terribly kind.

When he’s really annoyed,
he might go on a screed
about late-term abortions
or the music of Creed.

He’s the friend whom you never
would dare to unfriend.
For you know that he’d notice,
and then angrily send
you a message that asks
why you’d ever take issue
at his meme about guns.
Should he fetch you a tissue?

He’s the social media activist.

And then there are moments
that touch everyone’s heart,
A shooting, a court case,
Someone’s life ripped apart.

At that very moment,
He will rush to his Dell
And alter his profile pic
to show he means well.

It’s the least he can do
as a person who cares
about big events
that score “likes” and “shares.”

He’s the social media activist.

And every four years
when they have an election,
he’ll post all day long
about his selection.

He’ll share lots of click-bait,
some of it true,
about his opponents
And bad things that they do.

Crowding out all the posts
about babies and kittens,
and marriage announcements,
and warm, woolen mittens.

It’s kind of turned into his calling,
you see.
When he’s not stuck at work
or home watching TV.

He’s there to remind us
of terrible stuff
that will or may happen,
of how life can be tough.

And I think he’s succeeded
to an alarming extent
at making Facebook and Twitter
great places to vent.

He’s the social media activist.

social-media-activist

Eighteen Months of Happy Gilmore

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Happy Gilmore is a movie about a guy who decides to become a professional golfer, even though he knows nothing about the sport and has no training. Amazingly, he starts winning tournaments and builds up an army of followers who love Happy’s fiery demeanor, especially when compared with the stodgy, unlikable players who have dominated golf for so long. Happy even draws in fans who have never followed the sport before.

I feel like the past 18 months have been a political version of Happy Gilmore. I’m surprised by last night’s election results, but I am not shocked. Whether you are “happy” today or not, this is the country we live in right now. I’m praying for the best possible outcome.

Review: Stories I Tell Myself, by Juan Thompson

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Raise your hand if you think that growing up as the only child of the writer Hunter S. Thompson would be a stable, nourishing experience.

Really, no one? Okay. Well, I’ll continue…

Stories I Tell Myself is a memoir by Juan Thompson about what it was like having a father who was as famous for his wild behavior as he was for authoring counterculture classics like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.

Hunter S. Thompson was a celebrated writer and one of the more charismatic figures of the 1960s and 1970s. Along with others like Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe, he crafted a style of reporting that blended journalism with literary techniques and a considerable amount of egotism. He called his creation “Gonzo Journalism.” Thompson was a powerful figure whose friends included Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, “60 Minutes” stalwart Ed Bradley, and at least two U.S. presidents—Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Thompson was also an alcoholic and drug addict who was prone to late-night hours, womanizing, and violent outbursts. At Owl Farm near Aspen, where he spent most of his time, Thompson held wild parties that were often punctuated with firearms and the detonation of outdoor explosives. Throughout the 1970s, Thompson held court in the bars of Aspen, always surrounded by a throng of friends who adored and very likely feared him.

Juan Thompson, who is in his early 50s now, does not hold back in portraying his father as a brilliant artist as well as a distant, unpredictable and sometimes dangerous man. Early on, Juan Thompson writes that his father never hit him, though the threat of “a beating” was often present. The elder Thompson did direct a lot of screaming and verbal abuse toward his son and wife, Sandy. By the late 70s, when Juan was in his early teens, Sandy Thompson was fed up with Hunter’s tantrums, boozing and nocturnal routine. She and Juan moved out of Owl Farm, and Juan confesses that he hated his famous father at that point in his life.

Much of the book is about what happened after that moment, and the many years it took Juan and Hunter S. Thompson to find common ground and forge a relationship as son and father. Given Hunter’s self-absorption, the son apparently had to do most of the work in building that connection. At times, it is heartbreaking to read about Juan’s efforts. It is clear how much he craves his father’s love, but there are long emotional deserts to travel between halting moments of fatherly praise or affection.

Stories I Tell Myself is an engaging memoir for Hunter S. Thompson fans, as well as anyone who is fascinated by the bond between a child and a very flawed parent. By the way, not all is grim with the Thompson family. There are some fun moments in the book, such as when a teen-aged Juan gets to spend a month sailing the Caribbean with Hunter’s laid-back buddy, Jimmy Buffett. Fame has its privileges, I guess, even if you’re sometimes trapped inside the strange, paranoid world of Hunter S. Thompson.

I Do Love the Football

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For me, Labor Day weekend always means the start of football. Every few years or so, pro football will kick off its regular season on the Sunday before the holiday but, more often than not, Labor Day is exclusively tied to college football. Tomorrow and Sunday will bring an unusually tasty menu of big games between traditional powers: Alabama vs USC, Clemson vs Auburn, Texas vs. Notre Dame. I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.

My love for college football started when I was 11 years old. That was 1982, Herschel Walker’s Heisman Trophy-winning season, so I naturally became a devoted Georgia Bulldogs fan. Nobody told me at the time that the Bulldogs would not return to the Sugar Bowl for another 20 years after that season. Maybe I would have chosen to root for Alabama if I had been able to peer into the future.

As the years passed, my football obsession grew. On Labor Day weekend of 1984, my father and I were invited to go water skiing on a friend’s boat at West Point Lake. I didn’t want to go. It was the start of college football, and I intended to plop myself on the downstairs couch, eat popcorn and watch games all day. I finally agreed to go to the lake after my dad dug up a tiny little transistor radio so that I could listen to the action of the Georgia-Southern Miss game.

The Bulldogs had a young, inexperienced offense that year, and Southern Miss was pretty good. The game was back-and-forth between the two teams. As we rode in the boat, watching my friend glide in and out of our wake on his slalom ski, I held the radio to my ear and sweated out the final minutes of the 26-19 Georgia win. I remember that the Dawgs’ Kevin Butler (who went on the play for the 1985 Chicago Bears) kicked four field goals in that game. I went home that day sunburned and happy.

Looking back, it probably seemed odd that a 13-year-old boy would prefer to listen to a football game on the radio rather than swim, water-ski and wrestle on the lake’s muddy shore with his friend. Even now I have to shake my head at the number of gorgeous fall afternoons I spent indoors watching football games on TV, regardless of whether the action was SEC, Big Ten, ACC or the NFL. At a time when I was crossing that uncomfortable void between boyhood and adolescence, televised football and other sports were something I could count on every weekend. I might be carrying a D-minus average in Algebra, I might be afraid to talk to the girl sitting in front of me in seventh period, but there was always a chance the Georgia would rise up and beat Auburn on Saturday afternoon (they usually didn’t, though).

Football doesn’t mean as much to me now as it did then, but I still enjoy watching the games, even with all the money, corruption and other negative things swirling around big-time athletics. As the great Alabama coach Bear Bryant once growled, “I do love the football.”