Review of Light Blue Reign: How a City Slicker, A Quiet Kansan and A Mountain Man Built College Basketball's Longest-Lasting Dynasty. Art Chansky. Foreword by Dean Smith. St. Martin's Press. 342 pages.
Obviously meant to coincide with the 100 years of Carolina Basketball celebration, Art Chansky weaves together the story of three iconic coaches who are responsible for almost sixty years of basketball success at UNC. If the basketball program at UNC can be viewed as a magnificent oak tree with foliage that spans the sky, this book is a historical guide regarding the efforts that went into making that tree grow, particularly the work of three caretakers in particular.
The premise of the book rests on a list of ten "what ifs" Chansky offers at the beginning. These "what ifs" set forth a framework to be filled in throughout the pages of the book. The hypotheticals also illustrate just how precarious this great dynasty's construction has really been. Contained within the stories Chansky tells are singular moments where one play on the court or a myirad of decisions off of it would have irrevocably changed what we know today as one of the greatest basketball programs in history. Everything from the health of Frank McGuire's son, stricken with cerebral palsy since birth to any number of players including Lennie Rosenbluth and Phil Ford ending up at UNC instead of NC State served to mold the Carolina dynasty.
In short the book is full of such nuggets and various inside stories about the tenures of all three coaches you may not have heard before or only assumed was urban legends. The most compelling part of the story, from my point of view, had to do with the details Frank McGuire coming to UNC and his career from that point on. That part of the book might be the most important for various reasons, not the least of which is the fact so many UNC fans today probably have zero working knowledge of what McGuire meant to the UNC program. Going back to the oak tree analogy, in UNC basketball, McGuire is like the bulk of the lower trunk and root systems, most of which you cannot see but unmistakably interwined with the history of the program as well as the career Dean Smith. There is a remarkable connectivity between the three coaches and in reading this book you understand that the program under Roy Williams today is connected to the program McGuire took over in 1952. Essentially, McGuire made Dean Smith by hiring him as an assistant and making moves to keep Dean in his employ when Kansas wanted the future UNC coach. After McGuire left and Dean became head coach Larry Brown was recruited by McGuire and ended up staying when Dean took over. Brown would then become head coach at Kansas, win a title but then leave Lawrence(on probation) which opened the door for Roy Williams to become a head coach there(after being Dean's assistant) and build his success before finally returning to Chapel Hill to continue the family business of winning. Yes, the success is a remarkable story but the way it all fits together between these three men is compelling in its own right.
Aside from the story, the aforementioned nuggets and little factoids made the book a worthwhile read. For younger fans or those of use who were not even alive until Dean Smith was 15 years into his tenure, understanding the roots of basketball at UNC is a necessary education. Most of us do not realize that before McGuire, UNC was considered a football school and the UNC-Duke football rivalry was the big game. McGuire is ultimately responsible for changing that culture, even fighting for Dean Smith to receive the same salary as the assistants on the football team. At that time football coach Jim Tatum had asked that no other sport be paid more than the football staff. My how times have changed. Younger fans will also find the details of college basketball in the 1950s interesting and so incredibly different from what we accustomed to today. For example, can you imagine seeing four UNC players roll into Raleigh for a game smoking cigarettes?
Overall, the book is an outstanding read if you want an in-depth look into how UNC's success which now stretches back over 50 years and includes five NCAA titles, began. This book does an excellent job llustrating how each coach, with their own personal style played the perfect role for the program at just the right time. McGuire brought that style and "panache" needed to make a splash followed by Dean who possessed the temperament to build and maintain the success of the program. After a painful transition you now have Roy who is a master recruiter during a time when recruiting has become a war. All three coaches played a role, almost as well as they could have and the result has been a dynasty of consistent success crowned five time as NCAA champions. For me that is the story of this book, expertly told and a must read for the enterprising UNC fan.
Disclaimer: A free advanced copy of Light Blue Reign was provided to me by the publisher. I have received no other benefits or inducements to write this review.