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Basketball jones

Barry Jacobs 

Basketball jones

Local sports fans had never seen anything like Barry Jacobs' Fan's Guide to ACC Basketball when it was first published in 1985. He had charts and statistics for basketball that only the obsessed or intensely curious even imagined.

For years, in TV shots of press row, there was Barry's book. Everyone used it for interesting asides, to start or end an argument. After nine publishers in 14 years, Barry called it quits. But he kept writing and he kept busy.

Jacobs was elected to the Orange County Board of Commissioners in 1998 and re-elected in 2002. He's published a coffee table book on ACC basketball, a book about one year in the life of Triangle college hoops, and a pair of popular quote books, Coach K's Little Blue Book and The World According to Dean. For 20 years he was a regular sports contributor to The New York Times.

As passionate as he is about sports, he is just as passionate about his rural home. Jacobs is the caretaker of Moorefields, an 84-acre wildlife refuge southwest of Hillsborough. I reminded Barry of one of the first times I met him. He was living in Rougemont then, sharing his house with a pair of sheep, Gabriel and Doris. He laughs when he remembers: "They lived under the house. Sometimes they broke the phone line by rubbing against the floor joists."

I remember one night several years ago when I asked Barry to have Dean Smith autograph a classic '80s Carolina Sports Illustrated and he winced. That would have compromised his whole ethical approach to covering basketball: I was the fan, he was a reporter.

Wanting to give him a stat he hadn't seen, I asked Barry last week if this was the first year in memory where more former Duke players (10) are playing in the NBA than Carolina players (8). He said he'd get back to me.

Between practices, meetings, elections and leaf raking, we caught up with each other.

The Independent: How many times have you interviewed Coach K and Dean Smith? What is one of your favorite moments from those times spent with them?

Barry Jacobs: I've interviewed Dean and Mike several dozen times each. When I was doing the Fan's Guide, I sat down and spoke with each of them every summer, and of course there have been occasions when I was writing specific magazine or newspaper articles when I spoke with each of them. The best times are the least formal and frankly, when we're not talking basketball. Dean always enjoyed discussing politics, as we share very similar views. Mike is most at ease away from Durham. Once, when I was writing a book, I drove with him to and from Virginia Beach (he was speaking at an event honoring Allen Iverson, whom he was recruiting), and we got a chance to speak on a wide variety of subjects.

Which player has been your favorite interview?

Georgia Tech players were fun when Bobby Cremins was there, especially when he used stats or observations I shared with him to get a rise out of engaging guys like John Salley or Kenny Anderson ("Barry, tell John what you just told me."). Buzz Peterson and later Rick Fox were great in the North Carolina dressing room because they were forthright at a time when the program tended to embrace a party line. Bryant Stith was a great kid to speak with at Virginia. Chris Corchiani and Terry Gannon were honest and engaging at N. C. State, and of course you never knew what would come out of Cozell McQueen's mouth. Wake had Sam Ivy, Randolph Childress and an easygoing guy named Tim Duncan who got sick of the media by senior year, and showed it.

Duke has had a wealth of enjoyable kids to interview--Tommy Amaker, Jay Bilas, Mark Akarie, Quin Snyder, Danny Ferry, Billy King, Brian Davis, Grant Hill, Chris Collins, Chris Carrawell and Shane Battier. Believe it or not, despite his later reputation for surliness and conceit, I had a lot of fun speaking with Christian Laettner. He is very analytical about the game, and early on I used to tease him following games about his rebounding, or lack thereof.

You've witnessed firsthand the rise of Duke basketball, from your student days to your current spot on press row. What do you think are the secrets to Coach K's amazing success with his teams?

Jim Valvano and Mike Krzyzewski arrived in the Triangle at the same time. Both were in their early 30s, and rather than fret about being in Dean Smith's shadow they took it as a challenge. I think that constant challenge to excellence elevated Duke under Krzyzewski. I also think Mike is a realist with an uncommon ability to narrow his thinking, to focus on what he has rather than on what he's lost or never had. Others wanted a bigger arena or complained about Duke's academics. Krzyzewski turned both to his advantage (with help for reduced admissions standards for some players). He also is an adept student of players' psychology. Once he started to win, he built on the strengths he'd established while staying sufficiently flexible to roll with the punches of circumstance. He also recruits exceptional athletes and young men, which makes any coach look good.

What's the best game you were ever part of at courtside? What's going to be the biggest game this year?

Games tend to blur together over time. Maryland and Duke in the 2003 ACC Tournament semifinals was as fiercely contested, and as well-played by truly gifted players, as any game I've seen. I loved the intensity of UNC at Duke in '79, especially the 7-0 first half in which Dean Smith vainly tried a delay and every play, every dribble was magnified. Last year's Wake-UNC triple overtime was pretty good, as were Maryland's comeback wins over N.C. State and Duke in the ACC Tournament. This season I expect Carolina at Wake on Jan. 15 to be an especially big game.

Sports and politics don't usually mix as well as they do for you. As a politician and a sportswriter, how do you sort out loyalties and the different public hats you wear?

I don't have much problem with sports loyalties, as I don't root for schools or teams as much as individuals. I once interviewed Mary Garber, North Carolina's first female sports reporter, and she said that the older she got and the more sports she covered, the less the games mattered and the more the people did. That's how I feel.

Sports has helped me in politics. People know my name. Also, there are a number of overlaps between sports and politics that I'd like to write about sometime. For one thing, in sports and politics a person learns, or needs to learn, to worry only about the things you can control. For another, you can't dwell on a setback but must keep moving ahead, one game at a time.

How about this book you're writing? What can you tell us about it?

Across the Line is about the first African-American basketball players in the ACC and SEC. Civil Rights histories almost universally ignore sports, other than Jackie Robinson integrating Major League baseball in the late 1940s. Yet, especially in the South, the intimacy of basketball, and fans' loyalty to their teams, arguably advanced true acceptance of racial difference more than demonstrations or court cases. Few of the pioneering black players are widely remembered today. I've tried to tell their stories less on a basketball court than in the context of the time at their school and in the town and state they played. Many of these players, who are now middle-aged, went through some very tough times before and during college due to other people's ignorance, insensitivity or outright hostility. Their stories say a lot about the ongoing struggle for racial equality and the price paid to get us as far as we've come.

In late October, the "big" ACC stories were Rashad McCants' "in jail" quotes and J.J. Redick losing 23 pounds in the off-season. What will be the big story in mid-December?

The story on the eve of ACC regular season play will be which is the best team and which stands the best chance of winning the national championship. USA Today, in their pre-season poll, listed Wake, UNC, and Georgia Tech second, third, and fourth in the nation. Both Wake and Tech have been named No. 1 by various publications. There will be much anticipation of their meetings, or rather their meeting in the case of Tech only visiting UNC and UNC only visiting Wake. That will quickly bring attention to the effect of the unbalanced schedule forced by expansion.

Contributing writer John Valentine can be reached at ajcg@acpub.duke.edu.

"New World Order"
by Barry Jacobs

(excerpted from the ACC Basketball Handbook 2005)

Tradition argues that the new ACC's glass is half empty. Certainly expansion and its handmaiden, galloping commercialism, have transformed the league. Yet, by happy coincidence, the 2004-2005 ACC season promises more than enough passion, precision and delicious uncertainty to quench every competitive thirst and to temporarily douse the fires of all but the most persistent critics.

This figures to be a vintage ACC season, as good as any in memory. Georgia Tech, North Carolina, and Wake Forest appear poised to battle for first in the league and the nation. Duke, Maryland, and N.C. State are clustered close behind, certain to crash the Top 20 and perhaps go further if things fall right. Florida State and Virginia have the wherewithal to muscle into the NCAA picture, too. "I think this year a really good team will be eighth in the ACC," fretted Wake Forest coach George "Skip" Prosser.

The league overall has outstanding point guards, a crop worthy of the ACC's long and illustrious history at that position. And remember the sage lament that upperclass-laden squads were a thing of the past? Well, this season the majority of the ACC teams are ripe with juniors and seniors, with 16 of the top 20 scorers and rebounders returning. "The problem we have is, the ACC has almost everybody back," said first-year Miami coach Frank Haith, who has more problems than that.

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