on October 28, 2012
The title gets in the way. While waiting for this book to arrive, I read 16 pages of reviews (at goodreads.com) and a lot of the reviewers kept puzzling over the title and how the author never tried to explain it. Kind of like Brokaw's "Greatest Generation." What, like history is over now, and no one should bother trying anymore? For all I know, the title was the publisher's idea. Ignore it, it's a great book.
I was at Duke when Krzyzewski arrived. Somebody had been making money selling t-shirts that said, "Duke: A Dynasty is Fostered," and then the quitter Foster left, and we got this new guy from Army (Army?) whose name no one could spell. One of the guys in my dorm, Vic Kucharew, wanted to make a new shirt: "Duke: a Dynasty is Krzyzewskied." Looking back, boy we really should have. I was still there when the Iron Pukes were trying to get K fired, (Note: all of your better NCAA scandals are started by boosters, people who believe their money can buy anything), and was still in Durham when Butters made his then-courageous decision to keep K on, and the last 28 years have proven how correct Butters was.
That pivotal moment is in this book, as are pivotal moments of a great many people of vision and dedication at Duke and UK: Butters, Roselle, Newton, Pitino, because this book places the game in context, as the culmination and intersection of the efforts of two now-legendary college franchises (don't let the word "university" fool you--collegiate "amateur" athletics in this country is all about money--the players may not be getting it, but someone is).
That, naturally, is the strength of this book: What put K and his squad, and Pitino and his squad on that court that day. K's and Pitino's careers, the recruitment and college careers of all of their players, how they worked together and gelled as teams. Although it spans the preceding three-plus seasons in detail, it's a gripping read; I read it almost in a single sitting, it's that good.
You get to read about UK's "Unforgettables," and this book for the first time helped me understand why UK fans love them so much: they ought to, and I do now as well. Building back from the NCAA sanctions was an almost hopeless task, but against all the odds, they did it. You also get to learn more about what was the deal with Laettner, about what drove Hurley, Davis, G & T Hill, Lang and the rest, and perhaps my favorite, the simple, touching humanity of Richie Farmer. You get to see how two great coaches like K and Pitino work with their kids, because success at this level is ungodly hard. It's love, tough love, and sadistic fury a lot of the time, and the kids put up with it (or, in Laettner's case, assist with it) because they know it is to help them be their best, and only their best will do, at least if they want to be remembered 20 years later, like these kids are.
One of the things about championship sports is that at the end of the season, every team but one ends as losers, and there's something perverse and wrong about that. (There's something perverse and wrong about a lot of college hoops, from the death threats that Butters received above, to my hearing what I thought had been perfectly sane Kentuckians say that Pitino deserved to be killed when he came back to "The Commonwealth" to coach UofL.) Books like this highlight the fact that although the Unforgettables' season ended with a losing game, that was not the real story. The Unforgettables were winners, and those around them, from their own Newton, to K, to the author of this book, did what they could to make that clear.
Obviously Duke fans and alums will love this book, and it does spend a little more time on Duke than it does on UK, because K's story started a little longer before this game, and the Devils season ran a couple more games after it. But will UK fans love it as well? Honestly, I can't speak for a UK fan. As a Duke grad living in "The Commonwealth," I can tell you that wearing a Duke shirt will introduce you to a lot of enemies you never knew you had, and if you have a nice car, don't put a Duke sticker on it. And I swear a lot of people around here have a movie of the 2.1 seconds tattooed to the inside of their eyelids, and they see it again every time they close their eyes. But, based on those 16 pages of reviews I mentioned earlier, it appears that UK fans love this book, and dearly appreciate the loving attention it places on the UK team. And speaking for myself, I know that I came away very moved by their story, and wishing, like Butters and Newton, that this time instead of a Final Four, it could have been a Final Five (page 235, it's not in the index).
I'd be curious if anyone ever wrote a book or an article about the Iron Pukes clamoring for K to be fired back in 1983-4. What do they have to say about their opposition to Krzyzewski today? Like rich jerks who believe that everything has a price in dollars, they've probably found a way to claim credit for K's career. This book reminds us that, while everything in life does have a price, it's not in dollars.