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When we were kings

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. . . or at least Princes

NC State v Louisville
We stood tall . . . will we again?
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

From time to time on BTP, we old timers will wax nostalgic on the heady days long past when Pack basketball stood as tall as any program in the nation. It was not a short-term affair – not a brief moment in the sun when everything fell into place for an exceptional recruiting class or a magical season – but a four-decades-long run, covering most of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Sprinkled throughout this period were national championships, Final Fours, Elite Eights, ACC championships, All-Americans, Top 10 rankings, historic games of coast-to-coast prominence against phenomenal opponents . . . the whole bit.

I read recently the following books and highly recommend both:

The Legends Club: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano, and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry by John Feinstein. Published by Doubleday in 2016.

The Road to MADNESS: How the 1973-1974 Season Transformed College Basketball by J. Samuel Walker & Randy Roberts. Published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2016.

When I initially came across these books, I avoided reading them, because I lived through those times, so I was not interested, as I felt like I already knew the stories.

I eventually picked them up on a whim, and it was enjoyable to relive the experiences, as my memory has steadily become cloudier over the years. In particular, the high esteem in which the sporting community held Wolfpack basketball. I remember many of the key games discussed, but sometimes I got the seasons mixed up or the orders reversed. Setting the record straight in my mind helped me appreciate all over again our extraordinary success.

My purpose in this post is neither to summarize the books nor conduct critical analyses of them, but simply to share some random thoughts that might encourage you to read them over a rainy weekend or when boredom sets in . . . or if you want to be mesmerized / inspired about what State basketball has accomplished and what it can again become, especially you younger Pack fans who must think it was all a dream . . . a time when we were routinely Princes . . . and sometimes Kings.

Random Thoughts

The Legends Club

· It always interests me what very successful people think about other very successful people when they speak candidly. Feinstein sprinkles fascinating anecdotes and personal insights that enable the reader to see behind the scenes. You get the full picture of each coach – not just as coaches, but also as everyday people dealing with the vicissitudes of life – their public persona and their private foibles.

· One of the many reasons Coach K has had tremendous success over a sustained period remains his adaptability. Several times in the book it explores his ability to reinvent himself (change his approach) in the face of adversity. No matter how much success he enjoyed, he always wanted to be better – still does.

· Contributing factor to NC STATE Sh** (er . . . seemingly bad luck at inopportune times) may be unearthed on p. 229 with this Valvano excerpt regarding our 1983 run to the National Championship:

“Everything that could go right when we had to have it go right happened for us in eighty-three,” he said one more time. “Since then, when we’ve been close . . .” He stopped for a moment and smiled. “You know, almost . . . We haven’t caught a break.”

He sighed and pulled his coat tighter. “Maybe I used ‘em all up that year. I hope not but you never know.” He forced one more smile and then – as he did often – quoted from The Godfather.

“Michael,” he said to an invisible Michael Corleone, “this is the business we’ve chosen.”

· At one point during this era, the national championships tally was:

Valvano = 1

Smith = 1

Krzyzewski = 0

. . . with the Wolfpack in a four-year period where we won a national championship and had consecutive Elite 8 runs. When you break it down, it comes to three Elite 8s, a Final Four, and a National Championship in four years – how crazy is that?

· These men were exactly like, and nothing like, the personas they projected (and Coach K still does). As a Wolfpacker, as much as you could dislike these opposing coaches, learning about them as men moves you to admiration after a pit stop at grudging respect.

The Road to MADNESS

While The Legends Club was a tour de force, weaving personal profiles, public personas, and the remarkable competition among three incomparable coaches / personalities, The Road to MADNESS is more of an academic tome. It shares fascinating insights into the development of the NCAA Tourney from a minor event in the shadow of the NIT in the 1940s to the modern, mega-powerhouse showcase event that captures national attention annually . . . and how the incredible 1973-74 season and NC State’s championship run significantly shaped the transition.

What I enjoyed most was the compendium of remarkable teams – some of the greatest ever – all assembled in one suspenseful season, fighting it out during a time when only the conference champions received NCAA bids:

· Uber-talented NC State lead by the incomparable David “Skywalker” Thompson, the greatest player in ACC history – a team who would achieve a record of 57-1 over two years

· 7-time (not a typo) defending champion UCLA who set a record during that season for winning 88 consecutive games

· Maryland reached as high as #2 in the national rankings while Carolina was in the Top 10 all year

· Up-and-coming Notre Dame program under a hotshot young coach, Digger Phelps, who ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak

· Marquette attained the NCAA finals that year with the nucleus of a team that would win it all in 1977

It was great to relive a substantial period of time when NC State was every bit as good as Duke / UNC – and often better – and could hold our heads up high when in the presence of any of the college basketball bluebloods . . . which today’s pundits don’t remember and don’t think possible . . . which makes it required reading for the younger Pack faithful and a blissful journey down memory lane for all our silver-fox fans who clearly remember . . .

When We were Kings.