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A Reader's Take On Chansky's Book

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Even if a reader of Art Chansky’s Blue
Blood, Inside
the Most Storied Rivalry in College Hoops
, knew nothing of Chansky, and had skipped the introduction that proclaims the book’s objectivity despite his status as a UNC alumnus who has enjoyed a long association with Tar Heel sports, it would be obvious from page 1 that the Duke-Carolina basketball rivalry is presented from the perspective of a Carolina devotee. Whether it’s Chansky’s unflattering portrait of Krzyzewski as egomaniac and compulsive verbal abuser, his characterization of the Cameron Crazies as interlopers from New Jersey, or his obvious nostalgia for the salad days of Carolina basketball circa 1982, it’s as if the book were written subjectively, from the powder-blue heart of a die-hard Tar Heel, and then toned down to reflect a measure of professional “objectivity.”

There is a distinct sympathy for Carolina coaches and players that is entirely absent for their dark-blue counterparts. Chansky’s access to, and friendship with, Dean Smith and Roy Williams inevitably allows him to create human portraits, rather than the caricatures he draws of Duke coaches and players. (He won’t be on the golf course with Coach K anytime soon.) Even his descriptions of the vitriolic outbursts from the benches on both teams during games is tempered on the Carolina side by familiarity; one simply can’t imagine Chansky referring to the Carolina bench, as he does at one point to the Duke assistant coaches, as “smug adolescents.” Adolescents, after all, seem smug primarily when they’re somebody else’s kids, not your own.

But obvious bias doesn’t necessarily doom a book. In fact, I can overcome Chansky’s familial prejudice quite easily. It’s expected, and probably inevitable. What I can’t reconcile, and what in my opinion fatally compromises the book, is its lack of passion. The book is not passionate, even dispassionate, and in stark contrast to the back-cover blurbs and the introduction by Dick Vitale, Blue Blood doesn't come close to evoking the intensity of the rivalry. Were I just moving into the area, reading this book would tell me a lot about the history of the programs, and how their stories have become intertwined, but I would be left wondering why any of it matters.

Not that there isn’t real substance here. The circumstances surrounding the hiring of Krzyzewski and the unexpected extension of his contract; the atmosphere in which Smith took over the reigns from a discredited McGuire in the early '60s and was subsequently burned in effigy a few years later; Williams' struggle to decide between the program he had built at Kansas and his alma mater; all these stories are pertinent, and even vital, to an understanding of the relationship that exists between the schools. But they are subtext; they do not have the framework of a theme, of an overarching explanation for the rivalry's intensity.

A rivalry as passionate and as intense as Duke-Carolina can only signify in the world of fans. I want to know: why basketball? Why not football? Why not baseball? Why is this sport so important to folks down here? Why is everyone forced to take sides, to choose, to be light blue, or dark blue, or red, or yellow? In short, I need a theme, a theory, or at least a cultural context.

If the Duke-Carolina rivalry created fan mania, then tell me why North Carolina culture supported its creation. If the culture inevitably produced the rivalry, then tell me why it had to happen here. Passion is a two-way street, flowing from the programs out into the culture and back again. Without fans, there is no rivalry, so it’s curious that Chansky ignores the fan base almost entirely. In doing so, his book becomes basically interlocking school history. Chansky’s rivalry takes place in a vacuum of coaches and players and administrators.

So Blue Blood’s perfect flaw to me is that while it defines individuals, it never defines the rivalry itself. And that, after all, is what a definitive history should do.

So the book must be read as anecdote, as interesting inside history. Taken as such, and with a grain of Columbia-blue salt if you’re a Duke fan, Blue Blood provides some interesting moments, particularly with respect to Smith’s early years and the hiring of Krzyzewski. I don’t know that these insights are worth the price of the book, but they are probably worth checking it out of the library.

Chansky’s portraits of coaches, players, and administrators are drawn with broad, colorful strokes. Here’s a brief outline of how Chansky profiles the three major coaching figures:

Dean Smith: A heroic, innovative coach of manifest loyalty to his school, staff, and players. Flawed as all historic personalities are (smoking, divorce), Smith remains even in retirement the iconic figure of all that is good and right about college sports. True, UNC probably suffered because of Smith’s determination to reward his longtime assistant Bill Guthridge with the head job upon his (Smith’s) retirement, but what could be expected of a man whose mantra has always been loyalty to others ahead of self and even of institution?

Roy Williams: The Son to Smith the Father. Idealistic and manifestly ethical, Williams exists in a perpetual state of thanksgiving to God and Dean for his many blessings, all of which were nevertheless fully earned and deserved. An “aw, shucks” golfer, Williams is simultaneously mountain bumpkin and Pebble-Beach clubber.

Mike Krzyzewski: A brilliant, capable product of immigrant Chicago driven by an almost maniacal determination to control everything around him. Egocentric and dictatorial, Krzyzewski is portrayed as the ultimate motivator, banding his teams together like military comrades into give-everything reflections of his own persona. Krzyzewski is foul-mouthed and abusive, takes no quarter, bristles at criticism, and is obsessed with garnering personal titles. In stark contrast to Smith, Duke the Institution is nothing beside Krzyzewski the Ego.

Old-time Duke fans remember the days when all the calls, all the plays, all the recruiting wins and losses – when everything basketball was filtered through light-blue lenses. Chansky’s book brings it all back again. That will be a pleasure for Carolina fans, and I’m sure every UNC patron outside Doherty’s Disciples will find the book delightful.