Author John Feinstein opens up about the reporting of his latest book on three college basketball legends
SI.com's Seth Davis recently spoke with acclaimed author John Feinstein about his latest book, The Legends Club, about iconic college basketball coaches Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Valvano. Read an excerpt of the book here, and buy a copy by clicking here.
Seth Davis: You started interacting with Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Valvano when you were still a student in college. Yet you write that you didn't decide to write a book about the three of them until 2013. What gave you the idea, and why do you think it took you so long to think of it?
John Feinstein: It's funny you ask that question because several people—the first one was Bob Costas—said as they read the book they thought, 'why didn't John come to this idea sooner?' It may be because when you are so close to a subject it is hard to step back and see the big picture. It crystallized for me (as I describe in the introduction) when I was sitting at a dinner with Krzyzewski in September 2013 (he was getting another coaching award) and he started talking very emotionally about Dean and V. He had just seen Dean for what turned out to be the last time (I describe the scene in the book) and was saying how awful it was seeing him in the condition he was in: suffering from dementia when he had been the sharpest person any of us ever met. Then he talked about V and how he had encouraged him (Mike) to work more on his speaking because he knew he could be good at it (which he is NOW) and how great Jim had been at it. He got very emotional and it occurred to me how remarkable the evolution of all their relationships over the years had been and that I was right in the middle of it from the very beginning.
SD: Even though you spent so much time around these guys, you said you learned a lot while doing the book. What was the most surprising thing you learned about each coach?
JF: There were lots of surprises. I had not realized how friendly Jim and Dean were with one another right from the start. Jim convinced Dean to start coming to the ACC coaches/wives dinner at the ACC meetings again. He'd stopped going because there was so much hostility from Norm, Lefty, Terry, Carl Tacy et al. Jim convinced him he needed to go and said he and Pam would make sure Dean and Linnea were comfortable. Linnea said she never forgot that because it allowed her to become friends—to this day—with Mickie, Ann Holland, Joyce Driesell and (later) Lynne Odom. There's also a story about Jim asking Dean to throw out a first pitch at Yankee Stadium in his place when he was too sick to travel in April of 1993. I also didn't know that Jim was ready to take the Wichita State job in 1991 because, according to Pam, he hadn't left coaching "on his own terms." He turned it down because she said she didn't want to be a coach's wife again and didn't want to move to a place where she knew no one. I also hadn't realized how much Jim brooded about losing because he hid it so well.
SD: You were the first person to report what Dean Smith did to help integrate Chapel Hill back when he was an assistant coach. Where did that belief system come from?
JF: There's no doubt Dean's belief system came from his parents. His dad coached the first integrated high school basketball team in Kansas to play in the state playoffs. They were very religious, serious people and Dean very much followed in their footsteps. I think his notion of speaking out or acting when he saw social injustice began there but clearly grew for the years and he was deeply influence by Reverend Robert Seymour, the pastor at his church in Chapel Hill who was the person who suggested walking into the Pines with a black member of the church in 1958.
SD: Smith was an icon in North Carolina, yet he went to five Final Fours during his first 20 years without winning a championship. Was he subjected to a lot of criticism before he finally broke through in 1982? Or did they love him too much by that point?
JF: Dean was an icon in the state by the early 1970s—thus the Valvano barber story and the Krzyzewski, 'come to Duke and God will be coaching 10 miles down the road in Chapel Hill' story. But he did hear it about not winning the title from a number of people, especially after '77 when it looked like Marquette was dead in the water and he went to the Four Corners with the game tied and let them catch their breath. He actually had his assistants do some kind of study in '81 that 'proved,' it was harder statistically to go to three Final Fours than win one national title. And when they did win, his opening comment was to take a shot at Frank Barrows (Charlotte Observer) who had written a 5,000 word piece saying that Dean's system made UNC good all the time but never great. "I guess we proved a very bright writer from Charlotte wrong tonight." FIRST comment after winning the national championship.
SD: What is the one characteristic that these three men have most in common? And how are they most different?
JF: The things the three had in common are fairly obvious: each supremely smart in all things. As Jay Bilas said, "You realize after a while that K's success isn't an accident. He is the smartest guy in the room." Same with Dean and V—though Jim channeled a lot of his smarts away from coaching. All three, of course, ultra-competitive. Major difference was that Mike and Dean LIVED to coach—it was always who they were. When they won their first title, they started figuring how to win a second. Jim won a title and starting thinking, "I've done coaching, what do I do next?" K has a very in-your-face approach to things; Dean was very sarcastic; Jim always used humor.
SD: Is it fair to say that Jim Valvano was the most tortured of the three? Why do you think he was that way?
JF: Yes, Jim was the most tortured of the three because of what I said above. Mike and Dean never questioned what they were doing, never wanted to be anything but coaches. (Dean did occasionally talk about running against Jesse Helms but told me once, "I'm too liberal to get elected in this state." He was right). Jim wanted to do everything: be a talk-show host, be an entrepreneur, do games on TV, coach in the NBA, be a reporter on TV (he did the CBS Morning Show for a while, every Monday). Like I said, he was always looking for the next thing and, tragically, didn't find it until cancer
SD: You go into detail about how much Duke athletic director Tom Butters struggled with his decision to initially hire Mike Krzyzewski. He was worried about introducing an unknown coach at Army who had just gone 9-17. Do you think an athletic director would be able to get away with that today?
JF: No way could a big-time AD hire a coach who had just gone 9-17, much less at Army, today. He'd get killed on sports talk radio, the Internet, Twitter, everywhere. NONE of those things existed in 1980. ESPN was one year old. Even then, Butters held off and held off because he was scared of the reaction. And when he did hire K he got killed in the media, but it was the student newspaper with the headline: "Not a Typo: Krzyzewski."
SD: Valvano famously caught lightning in a bottle in 1983, but while he was a larger-than-life character, my sense is that he was not the same caliber of coach as Smith or Krzyzewski. Would you agree?
JF: Was Jim as good a coach as Mike and Dean? For 40 minutes he was as good ever lived. He had basketball instincts that were unique. As his brother said, "He would do something you knew was wrong and it was almost always right." The Houston game was the best example. They HAD to slow the game down early. They didn't and led by eight at half. Then Guy Lewis—and Lorenzo Charles—saved them in the end. But the rest of it bored him: recruiting (no one likes it); practice, planning practice. Dean and Mike lived for all that stuff. They relished being good recruiters even though they didn't enjoy it. Jim recruited when he HAD to but left too much of it to assistant coaches after '83.
SD: You were able to interview Coach K for the book, but not with Smith and Valvano. What question would you like to have asked those two that you were unable to?
JF: I would ask Jim the obvious: Did you ever figure out what you wanted to be when you grew up? He always asked me that question late at night. I'd probably ask Dean what he REALLY thought about some of his players (Rasheed Wallace, for example) and some of the guys he competed against.
SD: If Valvano had lived, do you think he would have gotten back into coaching? Or what he have stayed with broadcasting, or possibly gone onto entertainment?
JF: I think Jim would have coached again. As I said, he almost took the Wichita State job and he would have taken the Nets job a year earlier if the Secaucus Seven had made up their mind about offering it to him. I think he would have coached in the NBA and then either become a late night host or MAYBE have done something important—like raising money for cancer research. He always felt like he had more to give than just being a coach or a TV guy. K thinks he would have been Letterman or Leno.
SD: Krzyzewski and Valvano became extremely close during Valvano's last few months, and Krzyzewski was in Valvano's hospital room when he died? Beyond the fact that both were basketball coaches, why was the connection between them so special during that time?
JF: Mike and Jim had a lot in common: Both ethnic, city kids who grew up without money. (Jim didn't have enough money to pay the restaurant bill on his first date with Pam.) Both had three girls. Same age, 11 months apart. Both had to deal with the aura of Dean the minute they landed in North Carolina. Both hyper-competitive. And, both are funny—Mike's humor much more subtle and dry than Jim's. Plus, they bonded those last couple of months because—as Pam said—Jim NEEDED Mike there to help him get through what he was going through and, according to Mike, he cherished that time, even though it was so sad because he and Jim were like brothers during that period.
SD: Frankly, I always had the impression that Krzyzewski did not particularly like Smith, in a way that went beyond competitiveness or the difference in their ages. Am I wrong?
JF: Mike very much didn't like Dean for a long time. There's a lot about that in the book: the first handshake, the double-standard game, Mike's famous, "If I ever act like him, get a gun and shoot me." But as he became a star in coaching, he BECAME Dean. I often called him and left a message saying, "We're rounding up the guns." He once said after they had beaten a good (not yet great) Butler team, "this is the kind of team we might play in the second round of the NCAA tournament ... if we're lucky enough to get there." Duke was 21-2. Classic Dean comment. He bridled at that at first but later realized being Dean was a GOOD thing because Dean did so many good things. And, when he became the target of the double-standard/you get all the calls stuff, he began to understand why it frustrated Dean so much when he said things like that. He broke down when I talked to him on the phone the morning Dean died. He was genuinely upset.
SD: You have written 24 nonfiction books (but who's counting). Yet, on the cover of this one, you are still identified as author of A Season on the Brink. Any chance you will ever revisit Bob Knight in a future book?
JF: I have often said that I'm thrilled I wrote, Season on the Brink because it allowed me to go on and write the rest of the books I've written. But I would NEVER want to experience anything like that again. Bob and I are done with one another and it's probably a good thing for both of us. I just wish he'd stop being so angry at everyone in Indiana and enjoy what he accomplished there.
SD: You have also written a lot of books for young adults. Are those necessarily easier to write just because there is no reporting involved? On some level I'd think it is harder to have to think of a good story than to find one by digging.
JF: Writing fiction for kids is DIFFERENT; neither more difficult nor easier. I've done the reporting through my career so that helps a lot since the stories are based on things I've experienced. Creating a story is a wholly different experience but it's also a lot of fun. And my older kids (Danny, Brigid) have always helped me to make sure my characters do and say things that teenagers do and say and that's made the entire experience that much more fun.