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The Triangle's titanic trio

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The Legends Club' looks at three giants of college hoops

One of the most exciting times of the entire sports year is fast approaching. The NCAA basketball tournament has reached the point of being a cultural touchstone dozens of games playing out over the course of weeks, with schools large and small taking their shots at the immortality that is a national championship.

College basketball has always lent itself to fierce rivalries, but perhaps the fiercest of them all was and to a degree still is located in the state of North Carolina.

John Feinstein's latest book 'The Legends Club: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano, and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry' (Doubleday, $27.95) documents that rivalry from its humble and unexpected beginnings in 1980 to the almost mythic stature assumed by all three participants over three decades later.

The first of the coaches to assume his spot was North Carolina's Dean Smith. The coach's career started long before those of his contemporaries; he first took the helm at UNC in 1961 and quickly established himself as a brilliant coach. While he was unfortunate to have his early years line up against the unprecedented dominance of UCLA, he was still considered to be one of the best in the game.

Smith was already well-established when Krzyzewski and Valvano came on the scene within less than two weeks of one another in 1980. The stoic and cerebral Coach K arrived at Duke by way of West Point, where he had coached to middling success. The gregarious Jimmy V, however, came to North Carolina State after shocking the world with his work at Iona.

What followed and what Feinstein recounts meticulously was the rivalry that rapidly sprung up among this trio of talented coaches. Smith was king of North Carolina at the beginning, with both the Blue Devils and the Wolfpack trying to keep up in the wildly competitive ACC. The at-times contentious relationships between each man evolved in fits in starts, both helped and hindered by the innate competitiveness of each of them.

Through numerous tournament appearances that led to Final Four berths and championships, surprising runs and shocking upsets not to mention a whole lot of head-to-head matchups each man worked tirelessly to be the best coach he could be. For them, the thrill of victory was fleeting, but the agony of defeat lingered long. Through NC State's miraculous championship run to UNC's long-overdue title to Duke's ascent into the hoops stratosphere, it all plays out through the lens of these three men.

The tragic too-soon end of Valvano's life and Smith's sad unravelling towards the end are addressed as well. Each man had his time to stand as a colossus astride the college basketball world, though only Krzyzewski remains. The one thing that is abundantly clear throughout is that, while each of these men wanted nothing more than to defeat the others, they also carried a great deal of respect. Each subscribed to the notion that to be the best, one must beat the best.

And that is how epic rivalries are born.

Feinstein's longstanding connection to all three men serves him well. There's plenty of research, to be sure, with scores of colleagues, friends and loved ones offering welcome perspective into these three men. And thanks to his presence right in the thick of it during the embryonic stages of these rivalries, Feinstein was also able to rely on his memories of that time. The bringing together of reportage and reminiscence makes for some compelling reading.

Unfortunately, while the level of Feinstein's access was in-depth, the end result is considerably less so. All three coaches are placed on pedestals, leaving little room for the exploration of flaws. Any mention of the negative is fleeting and quickly left behind; Feinstein tends to celebrate the idea of these men more than the men themselves. Still, there's no denying that one gets a real sense of the extreme nature of the dynamics between the coaches and their respective schools.

For fans of the programs at any of these schools or college hoops junkies in general there likely won't be much new information here, though the personal perspective is certainly interesting. However, there's something fascinating about peeking under the hood of such a huge rivalry. The coverage isn't particularly deep, but general sports fans will certainly find plenty to engage their interest.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 March 2016 17:59


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