The Longest Goodbye: Friends, family mourned Dean Smith before his death
The record will reflect that former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith died on Saturday, at age 83. But to the players and assistants he had worked with most closely over 36 seasons, it felt as if he had left them years ago, when the feature that marked him so characteristically -- a dauntingly sharp memory -- began to slip away.
In December 2007, a decade after leaving the bench, Smith suffered neurological complications following knee replacement surgery. An already low public profile in retirement receded further, and he didn’t travel to the 2009 Final Four in Detroit, where former Smith assistant Roy Williams led the Tar Heels to an NCAA title. Over the summer of 2010, news of his decline went public: first in a column in the Fayetteville Observer; then in blogged confessions from longtime ACC chronicler John Feinstein; and finally in a statement from his family, which described a man who, on account of a progressive memory disorder, now had “good days and bad days.”
In fact, Smith hadn’t been the same for a number of years. He had run stop signs and fumbled phone numbers. When playing golf he could no longer keep everyone’s score in his head, much less his own. Ex-Tar Heels stopped receiving that usual note of good wishes on the eve of each NBA season, the ones that reminded them that he’d be watching when they took the floor. Longtime executive assistant Linda Woods and Bill Guthridge, who served as Smith’s aide for all but six of his seasons in Chapel Hill, became increasingly alarmed as they shared with each other accounts of his repetitive or erratic behavior.
Smith was caught in a limbo that so many families know, where a loved one can’t bear to forego an accustomed independence, yet can no longer be safely entrusted with old routines.
But several generations of Smith’s basketball collaborators did have a chance to say goodbye, and thanks, on a Friday night in February 2010, in the midst of a 100th-anniversary season that was otherwise providing North Carolina fans with very little to celebrate. Some 70 players, ranging in age from their 20s to almost 90, gathered in the Dean E. Smith Center for an old timer’s game that night. Every last one knew that the building’s namesake wasn’t what he used to be. The organizers’ challenge was somehow to fold into the festivities a man who abhorred the spotlight and wouldn’t consciously consent to anything that placed him at its center. Smith’s confused state could be an asset. Or it could be a curse.
As it turned out, this installment of Carolina basketball’s “Celebration of a Century” fell on one of Dean Smith’s relatively good days. At halftime of the old timers game the players girdled the court as lights dimmed for a five-minute video tribute to the former coach. Smith had drummed into his players that, after scoring, each should point at the teammate who made the basket possible. “We hope you’ll forgive us as we employ one of your many innovations,” went the narration by Fred Kiger, a Chapel Hill alumnus and historian who had written the script as a kind of love letter to the old coach. “In this place that bears your name, we’ll pause and point to you, thanking you for the lifelong assist.”
Before the video played, Smith’s son Scott found a pretext -- “We’ve got to meet coach Williams” -- to escort his father from their private box down to the tunnel leading to the court.
Williams, who had served as an assistant during Smith’s first championship season, in 1982, had a challenge of his own: to get Smith to agree to walk from there out to center court.
Williams fixed on a strategy. He would collect the other assistants from 1982, Guthridge and Eddie Fogler. And he would let Smith see a bit of the video -- “but not so much,” he’d later say, “that he realizes it’s all about him.”
In the tunnel, Williams went into a kind of Four Corners to keep Smith preoccupied.
“What are we going to do?” Smith asked him.
“Walk out and wave to the crowd.”
“Why are we going to do that?”
“It’s part of this weekend.”
“Whose voice is that?”
“That’s Freddy Kiger’s.”
As Smith cycled through his questions again, Williams ran more clock. “I think he was a little confused,” Williams would recall. “He sensed it was some recognition of him, but the only way I could sell it was, ‘You join coach Guthridge and coach Fogler and me.’”
The video ended. A spotlight swung to the mouth of the tunnel. As the four men walked to center court, applause began to swell, and Smith did what he’d done, reflexively, his entire career. He pointed to others. First he pointed to Williams, Guthridge and Fogler. Then he pointed at the crowd, mouthing “Thank you” through the din.
When they reached center court and the houselights came up, Smith fixed Williams with a hug. That was the cue for the players. They advanced toward the center circle in their Blue Team and White Team singlets, like versions of their younger selves huddling up at the end of a scrimmage in practice. Each stepped forward to hug and thank the coach.
Some players Smith would hug and release, only to pull them back for another hug once, it seemed, he had made a positive I.D.
Then he left, still pointing, to a spray of flashing camera phones. The sellout crowd remained on its feet, applauding and chanting “Thank you, thank you!”
“Dean got a little emotional that night,” Guthridge would say. “It’s the first time I’d ever seen that. He was in a state of mind that he was going do what he was told to do. And that wasn’t his usual state.”
Mid-October is the time of year any follower of college basketball recognizes as one of transition. It was then, in 2010, that I passed through Chapel Hill, to check in on several of the people most affected by the old coach’s decline. The campus was at its most fetching that day, swaddled in a balm of warm weather that seemed determined to stay the turn of the season. But as I stood outside the Smith Center, watching men in cherrypickers swap out Tar Heel basketball centennial banners for generic ones, I felt as if I’d stumbled onto the set of a powder-blue pageant based on Ecclesiastes.
I sought out Eric Montross, old double zero, the Hoosier who had emigrated to Chapel Hill as a college freshman and never looked back. “As a teenager and player in school, you live in the present,” he told me. “You don’t think about how what you’re being taught fits into the scope of life. Now that I’m a dad with a 10- and 12-year-old, I get what coach Smith was all about. He taught us not for the next day or the next game, but for the rest of our lives. Something he taught us each day was meant to be remembered.
“His greatest gift was that he didn’t limit his teaching to basketball. He believed that basketball is a great vehicle for success, and one way to reach people, but that there’s so much more to life.”
At every Tar Heels practice each player was expected to know, and spit back on demand, that day’s point of emphasis on offense, point of emphasis on defense, and thought for the day. Aphorisms like Do not judge another man until you’ve walked a full moon in his moccasins. Or, When moving a mountain, begin by removing the smallest stone. “You’d repeat it, verbatim, or the whole team would run,” Montross said. “There was nothing that was happenstance with Coach. ‘Chance’ just did not come into the equation. And there was always more than what was on the surface. This was a man who painstakingly examined things to make sure they weren’t two-dimensional.”
Montross had worked as both a Tar Heels radio commentator and athletic fundraiser since his NBA career wound down, and he regarded the chance to be back on campus as a great privilege, for it had allowed for unscheduled encounters with Smith even as the coach’s faculties began to fade. “I really treasured the casual meetings, because there’s nothing casual in the relationship between player and coach,” he said. “You’d been ushered into real life, and it could now be man-to-man, not player-to-coach.
“There wasn’t a team I played for in the NBA where some teammate didn’t ask me, ‘What is it about Carolina? Why do you guys all go back there in the summertime?’ Even as a player, I didn’t get it. It’s a cliché to say that, looking back, everything is crystal clear, but that’s the overwhelming theme from the players -- a pride and respect and sense of belonging to this place. There’s just nobody who says, ‘Now, why would I want to go back to Chapel Hill?’ It’s not just the guys from the '80s who feel that way, or the guys from the '90s. It’s everybody. Coach Smith had a hand in creating that.
“We kind of duped him into going out there in February. He had that great magic: He could spin things to stay out of the limelight. But that night he couldn’t spin it. And there wasn’t one of us who wasn’t thrilled that he was in complete discomfort.
“It’s hard for us” -- for those who played for him as young men -- “to display our affection for him. It’s not that he’s untouchable or inaccessible. It’s that he’s Coach. That night in February gave a lot of guys the chance to come back and pay tribute. And for guys to get to hug him? Even after a big win, how many times did we think of hugging coach Smith?”
Even on that night in 2010, despite the lead taken by so many other ex-players around him, Montross wondered if he really should be hugging Dean Smith. In the end he did, and said to himself, Wow, that was great. “It was important for him to get a sense of our appreciation. But it was probably more important for us to do than for him to get it. When you’d say ‘Thank you,’ he’d always say, ‘No, thank you.’ Well, we finally got in the last ‘thank you.’”
Steps away from Montross’ office I found Bill Guthridge, the fellow Kansan and math major Smith had gotten to know through Guthridge’s sister, Joan, whom he had once dated. The most loyal of assistants, Guthridge had taken over for the first three seasons following Smith’s retirement in 1997. He told me that Smith had faded substantially during the eight months since that February evening. Smith’s family had originally wanted to control information about his health because they feared he would see or hear a news report about his own circumstances, and it might contain details that would alarm him. Now, Guthridge made clear, Smith was no longer really following the news.
Former players would call Guthridge, wondering if he could arrange and chaperone what might be a last lunch with their old coach. So he now played the role of facilitator, buffer, softener-of-the-blow. The guys tended to come through two-by-two: Jimmy Black and Donald Williams had just done so; Billy Cunningham and Doug Moe (the only person in the world permitted, or with the chutzpah, to call him “Smitty” and “El Deano” to his face) had made the pilgrimage over the summer. A recent lunch with Phil Ford, the former Tar Heel great who was then a Charlotte Bobcats assistant coach, had been particularly hard. “Dean must have repeated 10 times, ‘If you need anything, let me know,’” Guthridge told me. “He couldn’t really carry on a conversation.
“Phil’s will probably be one of the last names to go, because he meant so much to Dean. The guys from the late '60s -- Rusty Clark, Dick Grubar, Bobby Lewis, Larry Miller -- those guys were really special to him too. Today he’d still remember them, I’m guessing.”
For a while, when they had recent retirements in common, Smith and Guthridge tried sharing an office. It worked only briefly. At one point Smith tore out the personally signed title page of a book about Tar Heel basketball, given to Guthridge by the author, thinking it was his, and then essentially made off with the copy. “We realize he’s not the Dean Smith we knew,” Guthridge told me. “Nobody wants to live the way he’s living.”
Roy Williams felt for Guthridge and the new role he found himself in. “He has to cover up,” Williams told me. “And that’s something coach Guthridge has never had to do before.”
Williams himself had also had to reconfigure the formative relationship of his professional life. When Williams first joined his staff, Smith had tasked him with the most demanding grunt work. But Smith had also noticed and admired in Williams a memory to rival his own -- how, within 24 hours of the start of Smith’s basketball camp, Williams knew every kid’s name.
At the time we spoke, Williams had won for North Carolina as many national titles as Smith ever did, in less than one-fifth the tenure, yet he had never called Smith anything but Coach or Coach Smith. “He was my coach even though I never played a second for him,” Williams said. “That’s just what he was. I have him on a pedestal as a person, as a coach, and needless to say as my mentor.”
For Williams’ first five seasons as North Carolina’s head coach, there’d be a message light on his phone within 15 minutes of a game’s end, with Smith’s congratulations after a win and encouragement after a loss. Then, as the Tar Heels won the 2009 NCAA title, the messages came less often. And the following year Smith all but disappeared, attending only two practices all season.
For a while, when outsiders would ask after Smith, Williams instinctively adopted a protective posture. “What’s happening to him is what happens to the rest of us when we turn 50,” he told one sportswriter.
“But,” Williams told me, “I was covering it up.”
Williams has his own intimate history with memory loss. Like Smith he had a lone sibling, an older sister, and Frances Williams was diagnosed with dementia in her early 50s. “She was dead at 60,” Williams said. “When we won the title in 2005, I think it was the last game she watched where she really realized what was going on.”
The chance to visit her regularly in an assisted-living facility helped lure Williams back to North Carolina from Kansas. She’d recognize him, until one day she didn’t. Before that day came, she’d told him, “Don’t come see me. It won’t help me. It’ll just make you sad.”
The day Frances failed to recognize him, Williams made sure to tell Dean Smith.
“I can understand,” Smith said.
Williams knew he could. Smith’s own mother, Vesta, had died at 94 with advanced dementia.
On that February night in 2010, after he had led his old boss back into the tunnel, Williams turned to Smith and, through his emotion, said, “Coach, thank you.”
He knew what was coming.
“No, thank you.”
And then, puddling up, Smith fixed his old assistant with one more embrace.
In a season with little to show for itself -- a 20-17 collapse from a championship run, which left him feeling, Williams said, “like I’d let coach Smith down” -- this was the highlight. “The best choreographer in the world couldn’t have done better,” Williams said. “He didn’t understand it when we started out from the tunnel. But all of a sudden he knew he had a chance to be with his former players.
“He always understood what he meant to everybody, but never wanted that to be the last thought. He wanted you to be the last thought. Ninety-nine percent of the time he’s deflecting attention, but at that moment he realized that this was a moment meant for him. He really meant ‘Thank you.’”
From that night, Williams said, Smith took away only one regret: “He said to me, ‘I couldn’t remember everyone’s name.’
“It killed him. It’s a cruel world we live in, that he no longer had that one thing that he had had so powerfully for so long.”
One night in 1965, when Dean Smith was still a 30-something basketball technocrat trying to justify his post as successor to the magisterial Frank McGuire, his Tar Heels returned to campus from a 22-point thumping at Wake Forest. There, over the front door of old Woollen Gym, the players found their coach hung in effigy. Undergraduates in the dorm across the street leered from open windows, January be damned, to watch the fallout from their mischief.
Cunningham sprang from the team bus to make short work of the effigy. Two years later the coach would reach his first of 11 Final Fours, and in another nine years he’d lead the U.S. to an Olympic gold medal, and by 1983 he’d find himself in the Hall of Fame. But in the immediate aftermath of that moment, somewhere in the bottom he had just hit, Smith found an unlikely strength. His sister Joan passed along to him a book by the theologian Catherine Marshall called Beyond Our Selves. From reading one chapter, “The Power of Helplessness,” Smith gradually accepted the futility of pretending that we can control the forces that act upon us. That realization proved to be both liberating and empowering, a glorious paradox alien to his chosen profession: Surrender, and you shall be free.
In that, Williams and Guthridge and Montross and the extended Tar Heels family might take comfort. It was cruel indeed to see the extraordinary agency with which Dean Smith commanded his own life, and so much of college basketball, edge away and ultimately vanish long before his death. But there should be some solace in knowing that, much longer ago than that, the man himself had made his peace with not being in control.