THE LEGENDS CLUB – Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano, and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry by John Feinstein

Copyright © 2016 by John Feinstein. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC

When the North Carolina State basketball team flew into Raleigh-Durham International Airport on the night of April 5, 1983, a crowd that police estimated to be about five thousand people was waiting to greet the team. As Jim Valvano exited the plane, a local police officer was waiting for him. “Coach, don’t worry,” he said. “There’s a back exit over here where I can take you and get you out of here without fighting your way through this crowd.”

Valvano looked at the cop as if he had lost his mind.

“Are you kidding?” he said. “No way am I passing up all of this. I want every hug and every kiss. I want to savor this for as long as I can.”

The cop shrugged. “Whatever you say, Coach.”

And with that, Valvano led his players and coaches into the adoring crowd. He savored every hug and every kiss and every pat on the back and every “I love you, Coach.” And then, when he was finished, he circled back to where he had started and waded slowly through the crowd for a second time. When the bus carrying the team arrived on campus later that evening, Valvano did the same thing – this time circling back so he could reboard the bus and come out the front door for a second time.

“He was the first guy in and the last guy out,” his brother Bob said. “He’d actually done that before. When he was a senior and Rutgers made it to the NIT semifinals, the team would bus back to campus after each game and they’d be met by the cheerleaders and the band and a lot of the students. Jimmy would jump off the bus first, go through the crowd, and then circle back and get on the bus through the emergency door so he could also be the last guy off. There was never too much love to go around for Jimmy.”

***

Bob wasn’t as good a player as Jim, who went to Rutgers as a recruited walk-on and became the starting point guard as a sophomore. Bob played at Division III Virginia Wesleyan. He then followed Jim into coaching, mostly at the Division III level. Like Jim, Bob has a lightning-fast sense of humor and a knack for storytelling. He also has vivid memories of his brother’s remarkable rise to coaching stardom and what happened after Lorenzo Charles dunked the ball that night in the Pit.

“Jimmy always talked about cutting down the last net,” Bob said. “That was his dream from the first day he got into coaching. He never doubted that he could do that. He was a coach’s son who wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps first but always believed he could outcoach anybody. As much as he respected Dean and Mike there was never any doubt in his mind that he could outcoach them. If he’d coached against Wooden, he would have felt the same way, and he worshipped Wooden.

“I guess some of that was ego. It has to be if you want to be good at something. But it was more than that: it was his feel for the game. People act sometimes as if Jim didn’t study the game. He did – all the time. But he also had a feel for the game that was pretty close to unique. There were times he’d do something in a game that was the exact opposite of what should have been right – and he was right. The Houston game, going out and attacking them, was a perfect example.

“But it was always about cutting down the last net. Whenever he gave clinics, he’d talk to the kids about that. Then, at the end, he’d make them all carry him on their shoulders, and he’d cut down the net. It made Garf [Five-Star Camp owner Howard Garfinkel] crazy because he always had to pay for a new net. He’d tell Jimmy not to do it again and Jimmy would do it again. Garf would get angry, scream at Jimmy, and then say, ‘So, when are you coming back?’ Because no one ever put on a better clinic for the kids than Jimmy, and Garf knew that.

“When Iona beat Louisville in the Garden in eighty, Jimmy had the team cut down the nets. That team might have been good enough to win the whole thing if they’d gotten on the kind of roll State got on in eighty-three.

“Then, almost overnight, Jim goes from being a rising young coach, who was always entertaining and funny, to being a flat-out rock star. He went from coaching in Dean’s shadow to overshadowing everyone. He wasn’t going to walk away from coaching, because he loved basketball and he loved the pressure and intensity of the games. Never practice – the games. Other guys like Dean and Mike will tell you they loved practice first and foremost. Not Jim; he always lived for the games.

“Then he won the ultimate game. He had just turned thirty-seven and he had lived out his dream. Jim always loved basketball, but he wasn’t basketball obsessed. He woke up after Albuquerque and the thought in the back of his mind was, ‘I’m thirty-seven, I’ve cut down the final net. I’ve done coaching. Now what do I do?’ ”

Valvano (37) was the seventh-youngest coach to win a national title … No one as young as Valvano was in 1983 has won a title since then. Dean Smith was fifty-one when he won for the first time. Mike Krzyzewski was forty-four.

John Feinstein, “The Legends Club”

Valvano was the seventh-youngest coach to win a national title – a little more than six years older than Branch McCracken, who was thirty-one when he won at Indiana in 1940. No one as young as Valvano was in 1983 has won a title since then. Dean Smith was fifty-one when he won for the first time. Mike Krzyzewski was forty-four. In fact, no coach under the age of forty has won a championship since Valvano.

For a while, Valvano did what came naturally: He was a star. His speaking fee skyrocketed, and he could have spoken 365 days a year had he wanted to. He didn’t fall that far short. He was on TV all the time. For a while he flew to New York on Sunday nights, did The CBS Morning News on Monday morning, then flew back to Raleigh. He hosted a truly terrible TV show called Sports Bloopers, and he frequently guest-hosted for Bob Costas on his national radio show. He even did color on games for NBC during the season, often coaching a game on Saturday and then flying somewhere to talk about someone else’s game on Sunday.

“He was so good hosting my show I thought the network might make him the host and let me guest in his place on occasion,” Costas said. “He was a natural.”

Which is why the Sports Bloopers show was so bad. It was scripted, and the scripts weren’t funny. If Valvano had been allowed to wing it the show would have been much better.

“You couldn’t script Jim,” Nick Valvano said. “You just had to let him go.”

Valvano also did a daily five-minute radio commentary every morning on a local Raleigh station. The station set up a special phone line in Valvano’s office that allowed him to call into the station and tape the commentary with studio-quality sound at any hour of the day or night. He never wrote a script. He would call the designated number, look at his watch, and talk for exactly five minutes about whatever was on his mind.

One morning, after a game, he drove home at about two a.m. and went to bed. “At four thirty I sat bolt upright in bed and realized, ‘I didn’t do the radio bit,’ ” he said. “It’s supposed to air at seven thirty. I can’t do it from home; I gotta go to the office. I get out of bed, get in the car, and drive back to campus. I get to the turn onto campus and the light’s red –it’s one of those long left-turn arrows. It’s five o’clock in the morning so I just make the turn. Sure enough, there’s a cop right there. Pulls me over right away.

“He comes up to the car, points the flashlight at me, and recognizes me. He says, ‘Coach, you ran the light back there.’ I tell him, ‘I know and I’m sorry.’ He says, ‘Coach, have you been drinking?’ I tell him, no, that I’m coming from home to do the radio bit. He looks at me like I’m crazy and says, ‘Come on, Coach, you gotta do better than that –get out of the car.’

“I said, ‘Gladly,’ and got out. I was in my pajamas. I said, ‘Now do you believe me?’ He couldn’t stop laughing. He just waved at me to get back inside and walked back to his car.”

Valvano kept his life filled to the brim but not with anything that made him feel fulfilled the way the crusade to cut the final net had kept him fulfilled.

“He never thought of himself as just a basketball coach,” Pam Valvano Strasser said. “He was an English major in college. He was a reader, a real reader. He liked talking to smart people who weren’t in basketball. It was almost as if he had to prove to himself that he could succeed in something other than basketball. He’d already done that.”

Or, as Valvano would frequently say late at night – or very early in the morning – “What am I going to be when I grow up?”

Valvano would always gather friends in his office after games. Like most coaches, he couldn’t sleep after a game, there was just too much adrenaline pumping. Most coaches use that time and energy to review game tape, sometimes until dawn if a loss has been especially aggravating. Valvano wasn’t much for late-night tape watching. For one thing, he could still see almost every play in a game in his mind’s eye, so there wasn’t much need. He almost always knew why his team had won or why it had lost.

“Easiest thing in the world is to come up with reasons why you lost a game,” he often said. “The officials screwed you; a player had a bad night; someone messed up a critical play. I’ve got a million excuses. Here’s the bottom line: a W is a W and an L is an L. None of the rest of it matters. None of it.”

And so, rather than rehash the game, Valvano and his assistants and invited friends would order pizza and wine, and Valvano would hold court. Time would pass. Pam would call to find out when Jim was coming home. He would tell her, “Soon,” and resume storytelling because he wasn’t close to being ready or able to sleep. People would drift out, and often Valvano would stretch out on the couch in the office amid the now-empty pizza boxes and wine bottles and turn reflective.

“Dean will coach forever,” he often said. “So will Mike. They like almost everything about the job. Dean would rather not deal with the media, but he does what he has to because he loves the rest of it so much. Mike was born to be a coach. He loves it so much that while he’s hating a loss he’s finding a way to use it to get better. That’s one reason why he’s so good.

“I’m not like that. We lose and I’m pissed off. I don’t question the outcome – because that’s pointless. I question myself: Did I recruit the wrong players? Am I not coaching them as well as I should? Do I have the right assistants? What’d I do wrong? Where’d I go wrong?

“And then I say, ‘What the hell am I doing this for? What do I love about this job? The money – yup, love the money. Never ever thought I’d make this kind of money. Practice? Not so much. Recruiting? God no. Dealing with the media? It’s okay, I’m good at it, but if I never did it again would I miss it? Maybe a little. Maybe a couple of guys. But not much.

“I love the games. I love the damn games. I love the forty minutes. I love the spotlight and I love the pressure and it’s real. The rest of it – what’s real about it? Nothing. And most of it I can do blindfolded. But not the forty minutes. The forty minutes is really hard and I love it. But how many times a year do I get to do it? Thirty-five times – maybe. In a good year. That’s less than ten percent of a year. Is that enough? I don’t know.”

***

If Jim Valvano and North Carolina State had won the national championship in 1983 before Dean Smith and North Carolina won the title in 1982, there might have been some unhappy rumblings among the Carolina faithful.

After all, the notion that both mean, in-your-face Norman Sloan and funny, outgoing Jim Valvano could win national titles in Raleigh while the iconic Dean Smith couldn’t win one in Chapel Hill might have been more than Tar Heel fans could bear.

If Jim Valvano and North Carolina State had won the national championship in 1983 before Dean Smith and North Carolina won the title in 1982, there might have been some unhappy rumblings among the Carolina faithful.

John Feinstein, “The Legends Club”

Fortunately, that issue didn’t exist. What’s more, the Tar Heels appeared to be loaded – again – going into the 1983–84 season. Michael Jordan was now a junior and, unquestionably, the best player in the country. Sam Perkins was a senior and a lock All-American, and Matt Doherty was also a senior, the kind of player every college coach would love to have on his team. Brad Daugherty had a year of experience. Steve Hale wasn’t Mark Price, but he was a very solid ACC shooting guard.

Additionally, there was – naturally – another outstanding freshman class, led by a guard from New York named Kenny Smith who quickly lived up to his nickname: the Jet. Depth? Buzz Peterson, who had been the sixth man on the ’82 championship team, was still coming off the bench as a junior. And there were two freshmen big men, Dave Popson and Joe Wolf. Neither was seven feet (of course) but both were talented. Only one player who had played any serious minutes the previous season had graduated: Jim Braddock.

The three best players on N.C. State’s championship team were gone. So was Ralph Sampson. Maryland had a solid team led by Len Bias and Adrian Branch but appeared to be light-years behind the Tar Heels. The same was true of Georgia Tech, which had come on strong at the end of the previous season. Duke would be better if only because it couldn’t possibly be any worse.

“I think we all thought everything was in place for us to win again,” Roy Williams said. “You never know what’s going to happen in March, but if we stayed healthy we all thought we were going to be tough to beat. We had size, we had experience, and we had depth.” Williams smiled. “We also had Michael.”

Jordan had become an iconic figure in North Carolina after his title-winning shot in New Orleans. With Worthy gone and Dean Smith’s freshman shackles removed, he had emerged as a star during his sophomore season. The three best players in the country as the season began were Jordan and two great centers: Hakeem Olajuwon at Houston and Patrick Ewing at Georgetown.

Smith, as always, tried to downplay expectations. But even he had to admit this was a team that had the potential to be great – better even than the ’82 championship team.

At the other end of I-40, Valvano knew he might be in for a relatively difficult season. He had never coached a game at State without Sidney Lowe, Dereck Whittenburg, and Thurl Bailey. It wasn’t as if State was without talent: Lorenzo Charles, Terry Gannon, and Cozell McQueen were now the heart of the team, along with Ernie Myers. In fact, the Wolfpack opened the season by easily beating Houston in the Tip-Off Classic in Springfield in a “rematch” of the championship game.

“I didn’t just lose my three best players,” Valvano said. “I lost the heart and soul of my team. It wasn’t like we didn’t have good players – we did. But those three had become special in a lot of ways.”

Valvano wasn’t that worried. He knew he had a big-time recruiting class on the way and all his key players would be back the following season. Plus, the Wolfpack could have gone 0–33 and Valvano still would have been a hero in Raleigh. The days of worrying about getting a win over Carolina were completely forgotten.

Mike Krzyzewski had no such luxury. He had no luxuries. There would be only one year left on his contract at the end of the season, and he knew anything resembling the 10–17 and 11–17 of the previous two seasons would make it almost impossible for Tom Butters to continue defending him – or employing him.

During the postmidnight meeting at Denny’s in Atlanta the previous March, Bobby Dwyer had mentioned the fact that Tom Sheehey, who had verbally committed to Virginia, might be having second thoughts and perhaps it might be worth seeing if he would take a late look at Duke.

Krzyzewski had cut him off in midsentence. “No, we’re not doing that,” he said. “First of all, we don’t do that sort of thing. Second, if we can’t win with these freshmen and Amaker, then we should get fired.”

Amaker was Tommy Amaker, the little point guard Krzyzewski had fallen in love with two summers earlier while watching him play in the Jelleff League. Amaker had once dreamed of playing at Maryland but had changed his thinking for several reasons: Lefty Driesell was more interested in Keith Gatlin, a six-foot-five point guard from North Carolina; he loved the idea of pairing in a backcourt with Johnny Dawkins; and he and his mom had both become enamored of Krzyzewski.

“I think more than anything it was his passion,” Amaker, who is now the basketball coach at Harvard, said many years later. “My mom liked him right from the start. He looked you right in the eye and there was never any doubt in his voice when he spoke. Plus, it was apparent how much he wanted me at Duke. My mom loved the idea because she loved him but also because it was such a good school academically.”

Amaker made an early decision to go to Duke, and throughout the long winter of 1983, the thought that Amaker could take over for Dawkins at the point and allow Dawkins to move to shooting guard was often a ray of hope for Krzyzewski and his coaches.

“We get better at two positions when Amaker gets here,” Krzyzewski would often say during late-night film sessions at his house. “He’s a better point guard than Johnny, and Johnny’s a better shooting guard than anyone.”

By then, Krzyzewski’s staff had changed. At season’s end in 1983, Bobby Dwyer decided he’d had enough of the life that had to be lived to be a bigtime recruiter. He was getting married, he wanted to start a family, and he was worn out by the road and the cutthroat nature of recruiting.

“I felt like Chuck [Swenson] and I had finally gotten Mike into the homes we needed to get him into with the Dawkins class,” he said. “It was the right time for me to get off the road.”

Dwyer left to take a Division III job at Sewanee College in Tennessee. At the same time, NCAA rules had changed (again) to allow schools to hire a part-time coach and a director of basketball operations. Tom Rogers, the retired army colonel who had talked Krzyzewski out of taking the Iowa State job, was going to be the director of basketball operations.

That meant Krzyzewski had two coaches to hire. Pete Gaudet, who had succeeded him at Army, had struggled to win games and was out of a job. Krzyzewski knew that Gaudet was as good as anyone in the country coaching big men. Plus, he thought Gaudet’s experience – Gaudet was four years older than he was –was something he could use on the bench. Dwyer’s job was filled by Bob Bender – meaning one coach’s son replaced another coach’s son. Bender had played on Bill Foster’s Final Four team in 1978 and had been working for Tom Butters. He wanted to coach. Krzyzewski offered him the chance.

“I remember people saying to me, ‘What are you doing? You’ll be looking for a job in another year,’ ” Bender said. “I wanted to coach and I’d been around Duke watching Mike work, and I thought he knew what he was doing. I was single. I figured I’d give it a shot.”

The best news for Krzyzewski when practice started was that he no longer had to deal with a divided team. The seniors had graduated and Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas, and David Henderson were now the clear leaders of the team, along with junior Danny Meagher, the hard-nosed Canadian who had been the best player in the ’81 recruiting class.

Meagher wasn’t a star but he was an important player. He was physical and fearless, something Duke needed. And, a bonus, his style of play drove Dean Smith crazy. Meagher reminded Smith of guys like Dan Bonner and Marc Iavaroni. He complained to the officials about him all the time and insisted on referring to him in public as “May-har,” even though his name was pronounced “Mu-har,” and Smith knew that because Smith knew everything.

Once after a game, Smith referenced the fact that May-har would be playing the following summer on the Canadian Olympic team. “I really feel badly for my good friend Bob Knight having to play against May-har,” Smith said. May-har loved hearing that sort of thing.

Knight, who would be coaching the U.S. team in the ’84 Olympics, was probably not losing a lot of sleep at the thought of facing May-har or Meagher or anyone else playing for Canada. Smith thought he was a nightmare, which made Krzyzewski smile.