John Feinstein had already penned a 416-page book about who he considered three North Carolina college basketball legends.
On Wednesday night, he was able to share the stories of North Carolina’s Dean Smith, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and N.C. State’s Jim Valvano aloud.
Feinstein, a longtime sportswriter and award-winning author, discussed at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh tales from his latest book, “The Legends Club.”
Feinstein covered the ACC as a sports reporter and cultivated a unique relationship with the three esteemed coaches of the Triangle’s college basketball rivalry.
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The idea for the book all started with a dinner.
“I was sitting talking to Krzyzewski, he was getting a coaching award,” Feinstein said about an evening in September of 2013. “He started talking about Dean. ... It was ironic to me given how antagonistic they’d once been that he got so emotional talking about Dean. Then we were talking about Jim, he was telling me … that Jim was kind of the one that coached him up to work hard on his speaking, and he’s become a great speaker. I said to him, ‘If Jim saw what you’ve become today, what would he say to you?’ and Mike said he’d say, ‘I told you so.’
“That’s when it occurred to me that the relationship between the three of them was remarkable and unique. I thought it would be a great book for me to do because I knew all three of them so well.”
In a standing-room-only crowd of a few dozen readers and college basketball fans, Feinstein recounted his introductions with Smith, Krzyzewski and Valvano, relationships that formed when he was still in college at Duke.
He met Smith when he approached him after a game wanting to discuss a column about why Duke’s Tate Armstrong should be considered for ACC player of the year, though the Blue Devils were sixth in the conference.
Feinstein said Smith would tease him for the next three decades about being a Duke product.
“I thought you were very fair to us – for someone from Duke,” Feinstein mimicked the words of UNC’s hall of fame coach before the crowd. He went on to say, “We had that conversation for the next 35 years.”
He shared that he met Krzyzewski and Valvano at the same time, and he started his spiel with a story about how former ACC player of the year Steve Vacendak, who in attendance, was ultimately responsible for Krzyzewski’s coming to coach at Duke.
Feinstein opened up about how naturally funny Valvano was and how his death touched the sports community.
He said he’s often been asked if Valvano, who amassed fewer than 400 wins but won a storied national championship in 1983, qualified to be a coaching legend with the likes of Smith and Krzyzewski.
“Valvano was unique, and what he accomplished at the end of his life, that’s why I thought he belonged in the category,” said Feinstein after speaking about how The V Foundation, which Valvano started, has raised $150 million in cancer research.
Through the series of intriguing tales fueled by humor and emotion, Feinstein ended on the latter.
The touching embrace Krzyzewski shared with Smith in Smith’s final days can be found in the book. Feinstein revealed how though Smith was not alert and in a wheelchair, Krzyzewski took his hand and said, “I love you.” Smith, released from his daze for a moment, looked up at Krzyzewski and then squeezed his hand back.
Feinstein said thinking about their first, heated handshake to the last, resembled the “circle of life.”
The Quail Ridge copies of “The Legends Club” was sold out just minutes before Feinstein was scheduled to speak.
“I think about it all the time how lucky I was that I came up in the years when I came up, so that I can actually have a chance to develop the relationships I did with, a lot of people, but particularly with these three guys,” Feinstein said. “I was very young when I first got to know them. My getting to know them and the time with them has meant a lot to me – as much as a person as a reporter.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan