This week marks one year since I’ve been on an airplane. That milestone took me back to Spring Break 1981, which was the first time I took an airplane anywhere; from then until the spring of 1984 was the longest I’ve gone in adult life without cramming my frame into a poorly padded aluminum seat.
In the ensuing four decades of work, travel, and sports fandom, I find myself coming back to college basketball for inspiration, words of wisdom and the annual demarcation of indoor and outdoor sports seasons. While all eyes are on the Super Bowl, I’m thinking ahead to the NCAA College Basketball Tournament, as that spring break trip, talk of legends and finding hope were and have been front and center.
My favorite context setting narrative for this reflection is John Feinstein’s “The Legends Club” in which Feinstein delivers right on the sweet spot of sports writing. It is a story of fathers and sons of genetic and organizational and institutional relation; it is a love story of men and a game and rivals and life-long learning; it is at times almost unintentionally hilarious and equally sad because of the real-world characters involved. I have told bits of pieces of the following to people who ask why I left a technology company to join a healthcare company: reading stories of how Dean Smith’s mental gifts were stolen by his struggle with Alzheimer’s made me realize how elements of my management style were a reflection of his public persona, and that nobody deserved to die without the dignity of being their true mental selves through their entire lives.
If that’s a bit melancholy, it sets the tone for the book. Dean Smith and Jim Valvano don’t survive to the end of the story, but how Feinstein relates the incredibly textured, complex and rival-driven relationships of their lives is what makes this a compelling read.
My introduction to college basketball happened mostly accidentally — my freshman roommate decided to run a pool for the 1981 NCAA tournament, featuring our own Princeton Tigers squaring off against a BYU team lead by some kid named Danny Ainge (how prophetic that would be for my sports fandom years after moving to Boston). At the time, I knew very little about college basketball, and after being immersed in freshman physics, linear algebra and intro to CS, few of us knew very little about the outside world at all. So my Final Four picks included Indiana (because a high school friend went there) and North Carolina (since my closest roommate, Matt, was from Chapel Hill and his dad taught there). It was nothing more complicated than that.
I spent the week between the Elite 8 and the Final Four in Chapel Hill. It was that first time on an airplane, my first time south of Virginia, and my first exposure to life at a school with a storied coach. Marking time in NCAA brackets, nearly everything about that trip of forty springs ago remains crystal clear, from the fact that I had a scruffy beard that was painted Carolina blue by someone during an impromptu parade after the Tar Heels won their semi-final game, to cleaning that same paint off of Matt’s car, to my intense fear that I was failing freshman E&M and had decided to re-learn the entire half semester one day, to sitting with Matt’s dad listening to “Classical Gas” which I stupidly thought was originally recorded by Larry Fast and Synergy. Seeing me studying, Matt’s mom brought me a slice of home made pie that was the single greatest incentive and study aid ever invented. Freshman physics took me deep into overtime but lost (I eventually wrapped college with an astrophysics class that made me revisit those days with a bit of educational joy). Names like Al Wood and James Worthy became part of my sports vocabulary (that Michael Jordan kid arrived the next year). Carolina fanaticism was born, slowly, emerging over the course of watching the Tar Heels tournament run reflected in the college town, because of the spirit, the people, the warmth, the fierce competitiveness that never spilled over into ugly vernacular or name-calling, and because of a slice of pie. UNC lost to Indiana in the championship game, and as a result I won the roommate pool for my first ever sports betting win. For the next 25 years I learned to idolize Dean Smith, the UNC hoops coach, my first steps in becoming a lifelong college basketball fan.
The only title-named coach that makes it to the end of the book is Coach K; the book was released before he took the US Men’s Olympic basketball team to a gold medal in Rio; but the final chapter is as moving as any novel where the plotlines can be constructed for heartstring tension. It’s not a happy book in the way that any resolution of long-standing, often petty and ugly personal conflict isn’t happy and jocular, but it is hopeful and illustrative of the power of mentoring, coaching and public relationships, and for those reasons I will put it in the short list of “sports books with business implications”.
Here’s what I learned from Feinstein’s deeply personal narrative of how UNC, NC State and Duke, with a strong supporting role played by Indiana and Bobby Knight: Dean Smith was far from a saint, but he acted in a way to always put the focus on his team and its players. He acted out of love for the game, and as a manager, his redirection of the spotlight is a tenet I hold dear. Mike Krzyzewski is not the (Blue) Devil, a bad person, an angry man or a bad coach. He is remarkably adaptable, dealt with physical setbacks (back surgery) that would have forced others into retirement, and worked in the dual large body shadows of Bobby Knight and Dean Smith. And Jimmy V was always the mood lifter, the soul shifter, and sadly, the too gentle soul whose career was injured through actions several long arms’ lengths away from him.
On this Super Bowl Sunday, I’m also trying to use the insight extracted from “The Legends Club” to see Tom Brady as something other than the Anti-Man(ning). I never really liked Coach K; I never really liked Tom Brady for the same feelings that the spotlight, the league and the rules always seemed to bend their ways. My dislike for Coach K has been tempered and damped with facts and backstory; while I respect Dean Smith to this day, it’s evident how much his gravitas and context created space for him to excel. And I will always, always laugh at the ESPN/CBS clip of Jim Valvano running onto the court after winning the National Championship, arms open in a half-hug, because while joyous and hilarious it also represents in relief the best part of enjoying sports — doing so with family, friends, and those you want to hug after the win.