Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 9, 2016

Book Review: The Troika Of Tobacco Road

No author writing about sports is as prolific as John Feinstein. His first book was “A Season on the Brink,” a detailed account of Indiana University’s 1985-86 basketball season. It has sold more than two million copies and is often referred to as the best selling sports book of all time. But “A Good Walk Spoiled,” his 1995 story of a year on the PGA Tour told through the experiences of seventeen different players, has actually outsold his earlier opus. In all Feinstein has written some two dozen non-fiction books covering not just basketball and golf, but football and baseball as well. In addition he has produced a series of sports-themed novels for young readers, and done all that while also serving as a Washington Post columnist and frequent contributor to the Golf Channel and various other television and radio sports programs.

For all of his excellent work none of Feinstein’s previous books seemed quite as personal as his latest. “The Legends Club” is the story of the heated rivalries and complex relationships between Dean Smith, Jim Valvano and Mike Krzyzewski, three great basketball coaches plying their trade within a short drive of each other in North Carolina. As he says in his introduction, “I wasn’t born to write it, but I lived it.” Feinstein grew up in New York and is a graduate of Duke University. He first interviewed UNC head coach Smith while writing for the Duke student newspaper, and in the same timeframe his Gotham connections gave him access to Valvano and Krzyzewski when they were coaching at Iona and West Point. As a young reporter for the Washington Post he continued to cover the Atlantic Coast Conference.

At that time basketball was the major sport in the ACC, and Smith was already a legend and the dominant coach in the conference. Then in 1980 Valvano and Krzyzewski were hired at N.C. State and Duke within a span of nine days. Each set about rebuilding their school’s basketball program in the long shadow cast by Smith in Chapel Hill. Valvano was in Raleigh, a forty minute drive east of the UNC campus. Krzyzewski was in Durham, practically within walking distance of Smith’s domain.

Feinstein tracks the careers of all three, and while his coverage of the regular season games and tournament contests is excellent, what sets “The Legends Club” apart is his extensive trove of personal stories from time spent with all three during the ‘80s and ‘90s. He saw up close how the frenetic Valvano quickly built North Carolina State into an elite program, leading the Wolfpack to that improbable title at the 1983 NCAA tournament. He was in the stands while Krzyzewski struggled in his first few years at Duke, his coaching career hanging by the slender thread of ongoing support from besieged athletic director Tom Butters. And despite his Duke diploma it’s evident that Feinstein was as happy as anyone to see Smith finally win it all on his seventh trip to the Final Four.

He relies not just on his own memories but on extensive interviews with a myriad of former players and assistant coaches, as well as Krzyzewski’s wife Mickie and the widows of Valvano and Smith. That research helps Feinstein flesh out the gradual evolution of the off-court relationships between the three coaches. It would be hard to imagine three more intense or determined competitors from the opening tip until the final horn, but over time the basketball rivalries were leavened by increasing respect and, in the case of Valvano and Krzyzewski, what can only be called brotherly love.

The two younger men became especially close after Valvano was diagnosed with bone cancer, which led to his death in 1993 at the age of forty-seven. Krzyzewski and Smith in turn became closer after Smith retired in 1997, and as the new senior figure on the ACC sidelines Krzyzewski began to realize some of the unique pressures and challenges that his old rival had faced.

Smith died in February of last year, two months before Krzyzewski led his Duke team to a fifth national title. Where once there was a rivalry between Coach Smith, Jimmy V and Coach K, now only the last remains. As Krzyzewski says in an interview that closes the book, “I think about both of them, and of those days, often. I know that all things end. That’s why I cherish what I’m doing now every single day and why I cherish my memories, different as they are, of the two of them. What we became, as individuals, but maybe even more so as a group, is an amazing story.” It is a story that John Feinstein tells in admirable fashion.


  1. Nice.

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