In a 20-mile triangle in North Carolina, college basketball is a religion. Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, North Carolina’s Dean Smith Center and North Carolina State’s PNC Arena are the centers of worship, where fans engage in liturgical rituals and basketball coaches are gods.
From 1980—when Duke hired Mike Krzyzewski and N.C. State hired Jim Valvano—until Dean Smith’s retirement in 1997, the religion turned ardently passionate, ecstatic or bitter, depending on each team’s fortunes. In The Legends Club, an enthusiastic and energetic account that reads like a fan’s notes, acclaimed sportswriter John Feinstein tells the electrifying stories of the 25 years when this coaching trio ruled the triangle, regularly meeting one another in the ACC final and almost always advancing deep into the NCAA tourney.
In a season-by-season chronicle, Feinstein brings vividly to life the initial pressures Krzyzewski and Valvano felt from their alumni and their respective colleges to beat Smith at UNC. “I expect them to be good,” Krzyzewski said, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t be good, too.” Valvano took his typically humorous approach: “I’ll never outcoach Dean Smith, but maybe I can outlive him.”
In one of the saddest events in college basketball, the boisterous and big-hearted Valvano died of bone cancer in 1993, 10 years after winning a national championship. Smith died in 2015 after suffering neurological damage following routine surgery. As Krzyzewski muses, “Where once were three . . . now there’s one. . . . [W]hat we became as individuals, but maybe even more as a group, is an amazing story.” And, while Duke, UNC and N.C. State fans might quibble about the details, as they always do, Feinstein faithfully captures a rivalry that will remain a legend in sports.
Editor's note: The review has been updated to correct the date when Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Valvano were hired.