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.