Dean Smith: An Appreciation

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It seems to me that becoming a sports fan as a kid is the safest way, though hardly foolproof, to ensure that love (of a particular team, of a program, of a player) might endure over time. People tend to catch the sports bug young or not at all, and early adoption certainly helps inure any budding fan from the host of off-field ugliness and disappointments he or she might experience over a lifetime of support. It also has the curious side effect of making us feel our heroes are immortal, or should be. Sports figures rise and fall, routinely. Sports heroes rise and reign, then decline and fade. It’s all part of the standard narrative. They are so celebrated, so lionized, so lifted above the common rabble, that even if it is never spelled out, immortality is implied in these plaudits, or at least it is there for the youngster to infer. College basketball, even more than its gridiron (or professional) counterpart, is a (fairly) benign cult of personality revolving around its head coach. Stars shine brightly on the court, then inevitably, regularly depart, grist for a wheel that never stops turning, but the coach is perpetual, a fixture, a fulcrum on which the program turns, or has that potential at any rate, assuming, of course, that he’s any good.

Dean Edwards Smith, the stately, thoughtful, unassuming but ultra-competitive architect of the University of North Carolina men’s basketball program’s lasting and historic success, strode its sidelines for 36 years, and was, to my admittedly biased young fan’s eyes, as good a coach as American team sports has produced. That kind of sentence has long since become shorthand in the business of writing obituaries, a game of call and response that inevitably results in the follow-up, “He was an even better man.” Now, I traffic in cliché from time to time, reluctantly, and usually with eyes wide open, but in this case I feel it is warranted. The more details I learn retroactively about Coach Smith – who, full disclosure, I have held in supreme esteem since the age of seven – the more individual remembrances I read (and I read them all yesterday, believe me), the more I admire the man, a notion which, before Sunday, I would’ve thought impossible. Adulthood is, among other things, the process of disabusing us of childish notions, even as we hopefully strive to retain some semblance of childlike wonder, possibility, and inclusion. I knew intrinsically that Dean Smith was not immortal, even though I’d never whisper such slander aloud, but the news of his passing, Sunday at the age of 83, still hit me in the gut.

Coach Smith, alternately the picture of focused intensity or smiling broadly post-game while invariably deflecting credit toward his players, was the first sports figure I have concrete memories of. Not Joe Greene (though I’m sure I saw his Coke commercial at least once), not Julius Erving (though many were yet to come), not even Terry Bradshaw (my first lasting memory of Bradshaw was actually a heartbreaking one), but a college basketball coach. He struck me as the very definition of a gentleman (opponents tell a more complicated story), the iconic leader of the second sports team I ever loved, one I love to this day. I watched and admired but, I believe, never sufficiently appreciated him during the sixteen years of hardwood excellence that closed his tenure at UNC, a time during which the Tar Heels won or shared seven Atlantic Coast Conference regular season championships, won five ACC tournament titles, never missed March Madness, reached five Final Fours, four more Elite Eights, and brought home two NCAA championships. Coach Smith graduated 96% of his players, a 300-player collection that counts among its number a cavalcade of NBA all-stars – including, famously, the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan – and retired in 1997 with a record 879 total wins, though he has since been surpassed. Those are just numbers, though. Numbers are easy. They’re gaudy and obvious, and even a dummy like me can grasp them.

I learned of Coach Smith’s passing Sunday afternoon, not long before I was to leave for a trip upstate I’d been planning for weeks. I left town with a heavy heart that soon enough turned, distracted, to other, happier matters. During my time on the road, my thoughts never lingered on him once. The news was too fresh, and I was prioritizing. I returned home in the wee hours of Monday morning and collapsed into bed, exhausted. By midday Monday, I was a blubbering wreck. The outpouring of condolences, long form essays, official statements, twitter eulogies, from former players, former students, coaching peers, media members, opponents, fans, and even the President of the United States – who in 2013 presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom – was simply overwhelming. Many of the remembrances extolled the virtues of Coach Smith’s Chapel Hill as a place of uncommon loyalty and togetherness, with former players and coaching staff, to a man, lauding his loving, abiding, unflagging paternal influence in their lives. Turning pro? Ask Coach Smith. Buying a house? Applying for a job? Walking the aisle? Ask Coach Smith. For the biggest moments and decisions of their lives, it seems Coach Smith was always either there or a phone call away – one he often initiated – and by “they” I don’t mean just Michael Jordan, or Phil Ford, or Jerry Stackhouse, or James Worthy, but the professional benchwarmer who never saw action until the game was out of reach, if then. If Carolina basketball had consisted of 36 years of also-rans and never-weres instead of banners, achievements, and accolades, Dean Smith likely wouldn’t have acted any different toward his charges. Of course, if that had been the case, he also certainly wouldn’t have had the foundation of success on which to build his extended basketball family.

Coach Smith was a fiend for detail, on and off the court. He was a private if not entirely guarded man, if not a control freak then a control enthusiast, a progressive intellectual with a laser-precise moral compass who molded young men via a combination of discipline without bias, authentic, evergreen compassion, and genuine interest in their wellbeing. He led by example, treated people fairly, and studiously avoided the path of least resistance. As the young coach of a fledgling program in the 1960s, Coach Smith – who in his second year had been hung in effigy for the Heels’ hardcourt underperformance – walked open-faced through the poisonous racial atmosphere of small town, late Jim Crow-era North Carolina with a special young man at his side. That young man was Charlie Scott, a versatile New York playground kid with high IQs in both the basketball and academic realms, that Smith would mentor, in many respects sponsor, and in all respects push hard. Scott, at Coach Smith’s insistence, became not only the first black athlete to receive a scholarship at UNC but also the entire Atlantic Coast Conference. Coach Smith accompanied Scott to openly segregated campus eateries, walked with him around town under the scrutiny of prying eyes by the hundred, and even to Smith’s own liberal (for the South) Baptist church. If those times seem an entirely different world now – one, according to no less an authority than Charlie Scott himself, where “a black man could get hung just for giving someone the wrong look” – it’s only because people of conscience and conviction like Charlie Scott and Dean Smith sought to change it and succeeded. Coach Smith remained an outspoken advocate of civil rights, women’s rights and social justice issues his entire life.

That simple act, the calm assertion of a simple fact – that Charlie Scott was undeniably a scholarship athlete based on merit alone – and that gesture of brave, dignified defiance, in the face of limitless animosity and pushback, as centuries-ingrained privilege was righteously impugned for the first time since Reconstruction, just makes my heart sing. Scott is on record as saying Coach Smith changed his life by, “treating me like everyone else” – no better, no worse, just a fact. Scott found his groove at Carolina, becoming one of the first of Coach Smith’s many multiple-time All Americans before going on to a distinguished pro career in the ABA and NBA, his success paving the way for incremental institutional desegregation across both the state and larger region. Carolina, now years removed from the larger-than-life Frank McGuire and forced to make do with his understated but no less commanding successor, found its footing as a competitive force in the tough as nails ACC and as a destination of choice for promising basketball kids of any ethnicity or background or hometown. Under Coach Smith’s stewardship, UNC became one of the elite basketball programs in the country, a tradition that continued under his longtime assistant Bill Guthridge, then class of ’82 wingman Matt Doherty, and, finally, prodigal son returned home from Kansas Roy Williams, who won two championships in the aughts. Over the course of 36 years, Coach Smith dependably shunned the spotlight while treating others with respect, and amassed an unprecedented win-loss record, an enviable list of alumni*, and unquenchable loyalty and warmth from the souls whose lives he ever touched. I read the tributes Monday morning. There were so amazing many.

*Among them, Brooklynites Larry Brown (later to become one of only a handful of basketball coaches to win championships on both the pro and collegiate level) and Billy Cunningham (later an NBA championship coach as well), multi-time NBA All-Stars Bob McAdoo, Walter Davis, Bobby Jones, Brad Daugherty, Jerry Stackhouse, Vince Carter and Rasheed Wallace, among others, and consensus All American Phil Ford, whose retired jersey hangs in the rafters of the Dean Smith Center with 1982 NCAA Champion teammates James Worthy and Michael Jordan, and should’ve been 1997 champ Antawn Jamison.

Opposing coaches who hated his guts in between the whistles unfurled eloquent, heartfelt remembrances, and former players spoke of him in plainly fatherly terms. UNC alumni who never saw the court from any closer than the bleachers waxed poetic on those occasions when Coach Smith had taken the time to do them an unexpected, unsolicited kindness. He apparently always made you feel like the most important person in the room…a room, for the record, that you nevertheless happened to be sharing with Dean Smith. I read them all, or at least it felt like I did. I cried, early and often, but felt strangely affirmed in my crying. Numbers speak loudly, but are so often incomplete. Memories, by comparison, mean just about everything. They are the record of a life well-lived, of lives touched. Dean Edwards Smith, the math teacher turned basketball coach who contributed so mightily to multiple generations’ worth of fond memories, who taught his charges “The Carolina Way”** on the court and much about life away from it, and campaigned steadfastly not for his own renown but in search of a fairer, more empathetic world, spent his final years afflicted by dementia, feeling his own fearsome mental acuity slip as the overflowing scrapbook of his life became ever fuzzier and indistinct. Out of the woodwork they came then, friends, family, colleagues, well-wishers and surrogate sons, to comfort him, to ask after him, to fill in blanks for him, to bask in his presence. He’d meant so much to them all. They weren’t going to let him go through this alone.

**A basketball mission statement turned catch-all university motto lately derided, fairly I suppose, in the wake of allegations of academic impropriety, Coach Smith’s original on court philosophy can basically be distilled down to “Play hard, play focused, play together”. It gave rise to seemingly inconsequential team-building boons like pointing out the assisting player after a field goal or huddling between free throw attempts to discuss defensive alignments. Coach Smith was a forerunner of modern analytics in how he thoughtfully engineered his teams. He also (I’m told) pioneered the 1-3-1 zone defense, and, of course, invented the widely reviled, mercilessly effective “Four Corners” offense, which led directly to the implementation of the shot clock. Everywhere you look with Dean Smith, there’s basketball history waiting to be found.

When I attended my high school reunion a couple years ago, I was struck by how many of my classmates remembered me primarily as a decent to above average artist. It’s true I was an inveterate doodler – band logos, album covers, various other miscellany – mostly because it beat paying attention in class. It’d been so long since I’d really considered that part of myself that their characterizations took me somewhat aback, though I do remember one drawing I was somewhat proud of. It consisted of a highly detailed UNC “Tar Heel” logo looming large above an outline of the then Carmichael Auditorium basketball court, and said something to the effect of “Wait for me, Coach Smith!” while earmarking me as a part of the Carolina class of ’96. My mother still occasionally laments we didn’t “get me into” UNC, though the truth is I never applied. Even if I’d somehow been accepted, not only would the tuition have been financially crippling, I have a very good idea that, lacking discipline, work ethic, extensive life experience or social skills, and far too used to coasting by in school, I would’ve been a disaster. It was far better to attend a state college close to home on scholarship. I got so much out of the experience, and challenged myself for the first time ever without beating my brains in. You don’t learn to swim by diving into quicksand. Still, I’d spent almost my entire youth up to that point idealizing UNC as a life-changing destination, and without question it was because of Coach Smith.

Dean Smith was the only national figure of prominence in the 1980s (President Reagan doesn’t count) that, to me, affected any sort of cool, grandfatherly vibe, unless you include Sir Alec Guiness as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and he was a Jedi for goodness’ sake. I thought that, as sages, the two were at least comparable, but then the things I didn’t know at the age of ten – the marvelous, important, historic things – about Dean Smith could’ve filled a book. The memories of those who did know him comprise their own magnificent tome, and say just about all that has to be said, about how his presence so expanded and enriched their lives, and about how the world is a necessarily lesser place without it. I read them all, and smiled, and cried. I have no personal anecdotes to add to their procession, except perhaps memories of rattling the nerves of my slumbering, otherwise disinterested college dorm when UNC beat Michigan for the ’93 NCAA Championship. At the time, I had three established teams – the Pittsburgh Steelers, UNC, and the New York Mets (hey, it was rough finding unconventional professional rooting interests in the south at that time) – who I’m happy to say remain my teams to this day. That 1993 game was the first championship I’d ever witnessed one of my big three win with my fandom already cemented, and that small distinction made all the difference. I remembered ’82 vaguely, of course – Jordan’s ice cold game-winning jumper, Fred Davis’ strange pass to nowhere – but mostly I remember Dean Smith, intently seated, measured, occasionally pacing, taking players aside to speak right into their ears. I remember wondering what he could be saying. And when the clock hit :00 and the day was won, Coach Smith spent a far longer moment than he had to with losing coach (and, eventually, great friend) John Thompson of Georgetown. He wanted to congratulate him, and, in a way, make sure he was okay.

Extra effort, inherent fairness, genuine interest…that, apparently, was just Dean Smith.

I miss him.

2 thoughts on “Dean Smith: An Appreciation

  1. Hey Eric, I really this enjoyed this post, especially your personal memories.  By any chance do you still have that highly detailed UNC Tar Heel logo?  Over the years I enjoyed your “doodling” as you called it.  Some of those band logos were especially impressive.  I think that’s when the obnoxious t-shirt came into my vocabulary.  You really demonstrated talent as an artist.  I wish I had encouraged you to pursue it more.  It’s not too late, you know! I’m excited for you, David, and Traci on your experiences together in Richmond this weekend.  Wish I could be with you.  I’ll certainly be there in spirit.  Much love!

    1. Unfortunately, that particular picture is 26 years old if it’s a day, and I’m 99% sure it didn’t survive the move to Mom’s farm. I remember I had it on the outside of my bedroom door for at least a year, though. I think the fact that its “obnoxiousness” was comparatively slight made it more memorable to me, in retrospect.

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