Feinstein Shares Memories Of Coach K, Valvano, Smith

John Feinstein shared some of his fondest memories of Mike Krzyzewksi, Jim Valvano and Dean Smith

John Feinstein
December 10, 2019 - 9:28 am
Mike Krzyzewski Duke

USA Today Images


This past Saturday, I was lucky enough to be the TV analyst for two college basketball games: St. Francis (Pa) at UMBC and Old Dominion at Virginia Commonwealth. The first game started at 1 o’clock just south of Baltimore, the second at 8 o’clock in downtown Richmond. I caught a break that the local CBS affiliate in Richmond was picking up the game and had asked for a one-hour delay in the start time because it was also televising the SEC championship game and those are always four-hour affairs.

That meant, instead of arriving at the Siegel Center with about 20 minutes to spare completely stressed out by traffic on I-95, I arrived a comfortable hour and 20 minutes before tipoff—still stressed by I-95, but not screaming at people when I finally reached exit 76, which has become so familiar to me in recent years.
I enjoy doing the games I do on TV—whether they be UMBC, VCU, Towson, Lafayette or—in the old days—the CAA package I was part of for six years. (The package no longer exists). I like the fact that the coaches are happy to talk when I get in touch prior to the games and that the players aren’t the least bit stuck up. Heck, even most of the security people in the buildings are friendly.
During the course of the two telecasts Saturday, I heard myself rolling out familiar quotes. There was Jim Valvano’s line about always being aware of a player coming up from behind when you’re dribbling the ball: “When you go past somebody, what do you think he’s gonna do, go out and get a hot dog?” There was also Mike Krzyzewski’s line about how failure is an opportunity. “The best way to get better is to fail and figure out WHY you failed, so you don’t do it again.” 

And then there was Dean Smith’s line from years ago when an eighth-seeded Clemson team bolted to an 18-2 lead over his top-seeded North Carolina team in a first round ACC Tournament game. That night, Dean did something he never did: called a first-half time out. Carolina, naturally, rallied to win. After the game, I asked Dean what he’d said to his players during that unheard-of time out. He smiled and said, “I pointed out to them that the other team gives scholarships too.”
As the Valvano quote tumbled from my mouth (yet again) late in VCU’s win over ODU, it occurred to me, not just how often I quote those three men but how often I think about them—and the influence each has had on my life. Three years ago, I wrote a book about the three of them—their relationships with one another; their rivalries and how each became a giant in basketball. It was called, “The Legends Club,” and now, looking back, I understand that one reason I wanted to do the book was to dive back into a time when I was a young and impressionable reporter and—even though I didn’t completely understand it at the time—incredibly lucky and privileged to spend extended time with all three.
I thought about them some more on my late-night drive back from Richmond while listening to Christmas music on the radio. I love Christmas music and don’t really care if a song has a religious bent to it or not. I’ve always loved Silent Night and I can’t get enough of All I Want for Christmas Is You. Frank Sinatra singing Jingle Bells; Dean Martin singing Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Love ’em all. I could watch the first Rudolph movie—the one with Burl Ives—on an endless loop. Same for Elf, and most classic Christmas movies. 

I can live without the Hallmark Christmas movies, which are all the same: skeptical woman is taught the true meaning of Christmas by a wonderful man and an adorable child. Or, skeptical man is taught the true meaning of Christmas by a wonderful woman and an adorable child. Everyone in these movies is very pretty and almost always white.
So why then, does a cynical, wise-cracking Jew from New York love Christmas music, Christmas movies and everything Christmas? For the same reasons, I think, that most people cherish Christmas: It is full of HOPE. To believe in Santa Claus—or at least what Santa Claus represents—is to believe that, in a world filled with anger and polarization and mass shootings and hypocrisy—there’s still hope. There’s still joy that comes without a “but” line. There are still reasons to smile and not feel guilty about it. Or to get a little bit choked up when Jimmy Stewart figures out he’s lived a wonderful life.
And so, listening to Christmas music heading up I-95 on a cold December night, I found myself smiling—and, even laughing—as I thought about three men who influence me to this day, even though Valvano died in 1993 and Smith passed away in 2015.
The three of them were SO different but shared two traits that made them the people they were. Each was almost always the smartest guy in the room, although their brilliance manifested in different ways away from basketball. And each was about as competitive as anyone on earth.
That competitive streak showed up in different ways: Valvano masked his anger with humor but took losing so hard that his wife, Pam, always asked him to schedule an easy game prior to Christmas because she knew a loss would ruin Christmas day for the family. “I’d have to go upstairs and tell him he had to come down and open presents with his children,” she told me once.
Smith never wanted you to see him sweat, but he could rarely resist some kind of swipe sometimes before, sometimes during and sometimes after a game. Or, perhaps all three. Gary Williams, the ex-Maryland coach, who is now in the Hall-of-Fame, tells the story about his first game as his alma mater’s head coach in the Deandome in 1990.
“All of a sudden I look down and I see (referee) Lenny Wirtz tee Dean up,” he said to me years ago. “Dean wasn’t even standing up. When the ball came down to our end I said, ‘Lenny, I’m not complaining, but what did you tee Dean up for?’ He looked at me and said, ‘The SOB is sitting there telling me his team’s record is worse with me reffing than any other ref. I’m not taking that!’”
No doubt, Dean’s numbers were accurate. They always were.
The story I often tell about Dean dates to 1986, when a Lefty Driesell-coached Maryland team became the first to beat Carolina in the Deandome. The key play came in the final seconds of regulation when Len Bias stole the ball from Steve Hale and dunked to put the game into overtime. Years later, Dean and I were telling each other Lefty stories and I brought that game up.
“You know, funny you mention that,” Dean said. “Dave Gavitt and I were looking at that game on tape last summer (please, don’t ask me why) and, did you know Bias double-dribbled when he stole the ball from Hale?”
For a second, I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. “Dean,” I said. “Len Bias is dead and buried. Can’t you let him rest in peace?”
“Lots of dead men have double-dribbled,” Dean answered—without even the trace of a smile. There was no arguing with that.
Krzyzewski was the opposite of Smith: absolutely in-your-face competitive. The first time he and Smith faced one another in the old Big Four Tournament in Greensboro, he initially refused to shake Smith’s hand at game’s end because he thought there should still be one second left on the clock with his team down two and inbounding under the UNC basket. There was no replay and no tenths on the clock back then. He lost the argument, but when he and Smith did shake hands, both men were angry. Roy Williams, then an assistant coach, witnessed the exchange.
“I didn’t like what he did or said to Coach Smith,” Williams said. “But it occurred to me, there was no back-down in the guy.”
 I was privileged—and I mean privileged—to spend a lot of time with all three. In 1984, I wrote a story in the Sporting News about Georgetown Coach John Thompson and star center Patrick Ewing. In it, I coined the phrase, “Hoya Paranoia.” My boss at the Washington Post, George Solomon, went nuts because the school president called publisher Katherine Graham—with whom he played tennis regularly—insisting I was a racist. I had written for Sporting News (as had many of my colleagues) for years, but George insisted I’d broken the union contract by not receiving written permission to write the piece. He threatened to fire me if I didn’t publicly apologize. I refused: the piece was accurate and fair. Finally, he suspended me for a week—and announced it publicly to try to embarrass me.
One of the first phone calls I got was from Valvano. “What the hell happened?” he asked. “I read the story. You got it right. You want me to say something publicly?” I thanked him but said no. I told him I was fine—which I was. But I appreciated the hell out of the gesture.
Years later, on the night of my father’s funeral, Duke played at North Carolina. I was so exhausted I fell asleep watching the game. I woke up with about a minute to go and watched Duke pull out a typical Duke-Carolina game type-of-win. By then, I was too wired to sleep, so I sat down to catch up on some work that had gone undone since my dad’s death three days earlier.
About 45 minutes later, the phone rang and a voice said, “I figured you’d still be up.”
It was Kryzyzewski. “Hey, great win,” I said, not mentioning I’d slept through most of the game.
“I wanted you to know,” he said, “That when I stepped into that last huddle, I looked up at the sky and said, ‘Martin, this one’s for you.’”
I have no idea how he knew my dad’s name. I stared into the phone and cried—again. That’s the side of Krzyzewski that those of us lucky enough to know him get to see.
Finally, there is this vivid memory—a story I tell often because it is so important to me. In 1981, Dean Smith finally gave into repeated requests from me to cooperate on a long story for the Post. He gave me names and phone numbers for people outside of basketball who were important to him.
One was the Reverend Robert Seymour, pastor of the Binkley Baptist Church, where Smith had worshipped since arriving in Chapel Hill as an assistant coach in 1958. It was Reverend Seymour who told me the now well-known story about Smith, then just an assistant coach, walking into a segregated restaurant with a black member of the church and daring management to not serve them. They were served and de-segregation in Chapel Hill began.
Knowing I had an anecdote for the story never before told, I went to see Smith later that day to ask for details. He frowned when I started to ask the questions and said, “Who told you about that?”
“Reverend Seymour.”
 He shook his head. “I wish he hadn’t told you that,” he said.
I was stunned. “Dean, you should be proud of something like that.”
He looked at me and said words I can still hear him saying right now: “John, you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.”
I still get chills thinking about that moment.
After Dean died in 2015, Carolina’s first game was at Pittsburgh. Early in the game, a group of Pitt students sitting in the end zone near the Carolina bench, unfurled a banner. It said, “You should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.”

I knew the man who said those words—well. I often sat and talked with Jim Valvano until almost dawn. I was in a Denny’s at 2 a.m. with Mike Krzyzewski on a night he still talks about as one of the most important of his career.
How lucky have I been to be touched by all three?
Merry Christmas.
John Feinstein’s most recent book is, “Benchwarmers,”—the story of an 11-year-old denied the chance to play on a sixth-grade soccer team because she’s a girl, even though she’s one of the team’s best players. His book, “The Prodigy,” which is set at the Masters and follows a 17-year-old with a chance to win the tournament all the while fighting off equipment reps, agents and his father who want to turn him into a human ATM machine, is now out in paperback. So is his latest non-fiction: “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in Professional Sports. His new book, “The Back Roads to March,” which is about college basketball players and coaches who are overlooked, debuts in March. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com.