CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Susan and Sherry Dennis had to be here. It didn’t matter that mother and daughter had been snowed in for the past four days. Or that they lived in Hendersonville, N.C., 240 miles from Chapel Hill. Or that Sherry has cerebral palsy. All that mattered most was that former North Carolina coach Dean Smith was going to be honored with a public memorial on Sunday in the arena that bears his name and they knew they needed to be there.
So on Saturday afternoon, not long after the Tar Heels had whipped Georgia Tech by 29 points in the Dean Dome, Susan said to her daughter, “If I can get the driveway scraped off we’ll go.”
By 5 p.m. they were headed east toward their true north. On Sunday morning they arrived as they always did, over by the basketball office on the ground level of the Smith Center, where it is easiest for Sherry to get her wheelchair inside. They were greeted by name, just as Sherry has been since she was a student at Carolina. She graduated in 1991 and used to attend Bible study with Tar Heels players Hubert Davis and Eric Montross. Duke star Grant Hill used to come, too.
By the time the ceremony for Smith began at 2 p.m., the Davis’ were seated in Section 101. Why had they come all that way? Because, said Sherry, “If you go to Carolina you’re part of the family.”
Bill Chamberlain had to be here. If Charlie Scott is the Jackie Robinson of the University of North Carolina then Chamberlain is Larry Doby. He came to Chapel Hill in the summer of 1968 as the second African-American scholarship athlete in UNC history, shortly after Scott had completed his initial varsity season as the first. As he headed south from his native New York en route to his new home, Chamberlain passed a sign at the Virginia-North Carolina border welcoming visitors to “the home of the Klan.”
• WOLFF: Legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith dies at 83
Dean Smith died on Feb. 7, and the next day Chamberlain, who has since remarried and lives in Durham, got a call from an old teammate from the freshman team he had played on at Carolina in 1968. That’s when Roy Williams told him that their coach had passed away. And that’s when Roy Williams, the 64-year-old white man from the mountains of North Carolina, and Bill Chamberlain, the 65-year-old black man from New York City, cried together. Because they, too, are family.
Les Robinson had to be here, and thank goodness he was. If there’s anything the aptly named Blue Heaven needed after 2 ½ hours of tearful, heartfelt tributes from former North Carolina players like Phil Ford and alums like former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, all of whom praised Smith the man more than Smith the coach, it was the sort of bright smile and quick laugh that could only come from an unlikely source. And what source would be more unlikely than a former North Carolina State player and coach.
Robinson had first gotten to know Smith in the early 1960s, when he played at N.C. State. As a Wolfpack player and assistant in the days before ESPN, the only way to scout a team was to do so in person, so Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State would leave two tickets for coaches from their rival schools to come scout them. Robinson would frequently go over to Chapel Hill, often accompanied by a young hotshot with floppy socks named Pete Maravich, and check out the Tar Heels.
Robinson’s first head coaching job was at Cedar Key High School in Florida, still the smallest public high school in the state. In the summer of 1967, he attended a convention for high school coaches in Miami at which Smith was the featured speaker. Afterward, the two were sitting by the pool at the Fountainbleau Hotel when Smith told Robinson that he was on his way to Puerto Rico that day to ask an old friend of his who was coaching in a summer league there to become a Tar Heels assistant. Bill Guthridge accepted that offer and spent 30 years next to Smith on the sidelines before succeeding him as coach in 1997.
Robinson eventually became a head coach, too, first at The Citadel. Robinson’s teams went 23-51 in his first three seasons, at which point Smith, who knew well the difficulties of recruiting at a military school from his years as an assistant at Air Force, offered to help. “I want to show you an offense that you need to use,” he told Robinson. So Smith spent hours showing Robinson the motion offense that had become a staple of his teams at Carolina. Two years later, Robinson used that offense to craft a 20-7 season that remains the best record in school history.
By 1991, Robinson returned to Tobacco Road as the head coach at N.C. State. His first game against Smith was to be on Jan. 16 at the Smith Center. But when the Wolfpack arrived at the arena, Robinson was met by two very intimidating presences: the voice of Dick Vitale and a pair of police officers. “Les, what are you gonna do?” asked Vitale as the cops whisked Robinson away to a private room.
The bewildered Robinson had no idea what was going on. The Gulf War had just started, he was told. Waiting for him in the room were Smith and UNC athletic director John Swofford, who wanted to know what Robinson wanted to do about the game that was 90 minutes away.
“[Smith said], ‘As the visiting team, we’ll give you the courtesy of making the decision,” says Robinson. “I said, ‘Coach, I’ve read the NCAA rulebook from front to back and I’ve never heard of the rule about what to do if a war starts.’ He said, 'No, this is just a common courtesy because you’re the guests.’”
The N.C. State chancellor told Robinson that they should not play that night and left it to Robinson to relay that verdict to Smith. “That’s the most powerful I’ve ever felt,” said Robinson with a laugh. “Here I am in the Dean E. Smith Center, he was in control of everything and I get to tell him we’re not playing.”
The Wolfpack and Tar Heels wound up playing a home-and-home on back-to-back days three weeks later, splitting the two games. The next year, with the war long since over, there was nothing to disrupt N.C. State’s scheduled visit to Chapel Hill, though Robinson likely wished there had been. His team was headed for a 12-18 finish and had lost nine straight games since beating North Carolina in Raleigh a month earlier.
Robinson feared his young team might be intimidated playing in the Dean Dome, with its championship banners and retired jerseys. His only piece of instruction to his players was simple: “The rim is 10 feet high. Don’t you dare look up higher than 10 feet in warmups or I’m going to rip your ass.”
“And they didn’t!” he says. “We won, 99-88, and when we were shaking hands, Dean whispers to me, “Les, you ought to play us more often.”
Les Robinson may not have been family. But Dean Smith called him a friend, and that was enough for him.
Marcus Paige had to be here because his coach told him to. But it’s likely Paige would have wanted to attend anyway. Though he was three years old when Smith coached his last game in 1997, he had grown up a North Carolina fan. As the point guard and best player for the current Tar Heels, Paige has become the face of the program. So it was only fitting last Friday that Williams asked his star junior to help him honor Smith by doing something he’d never done before: run the Four Corners. The spread offense that revolutionized college basketball has largely vanished from Carolina’s repertoire since the shot clock it helped usher in was introduced in 1985, and Paige’s only familiarity with it had been from watching clips of Ford.
Coach Williams gave his players a brief diagram of the play, then after practice last Friday, he waited until the court was cleared and walked his team back onto the floor to try and run it. Williams guarded Paige himself. On Saturday, North Carolina opened the first offensive possession of its first home game since Smith’s passing by signaling for Four Corners. Paige, who called it “one of the most nerve-wracking moments of my life” did as instructed, dribbling to the middle of the floor and passing to a backdoor-cutting Brice Johnson for a layup. The crowd roared. On the sideline, Williams pumped his fists, then sat on the bench and dropped his head.
The family, it would seem, is in good hands.
Roy Williams definitely had to be here. The Tar Heels coach has endured a difficult couple years at his alma mater. Despite being ranked No. 15 in the country, North Carolina appears headed for its third straight 10-loss season. The athletic department and the entire University remain under investigation over a scandal that put a blemish on a place that had been so recognized during Smith’s 36 years for doing the right thing on the court, in the classroom and in society that it became known as The Carolina Way. And now the man who had been his mentor had died.
Like Chamberlain, Williams came to Carolina in 1968, and after one year on the freshman team he stopped playing basketball and focused on becoming a coach. As a student, he would sit in the stands at Carmichael Auditorium watching Smith conduct practice. As a high school coach, he worked Smith’s summer basketball camps. And, after Smith invited him to become a part-time assistant in 1978, he spent 10 seasons alongside the man who became the father figure Williams didn’t have growing up.
Williams spent 15 seasons at Kansas, Smith’s alma mater, and has been back in Chapel Hill for 12 years. He had led the Tar Heels to two national championships, as many as Smith won in his 36 seasons, yet he refused to think of himself as Smith’s equal. Smith would call or leave handwritten notes after every game. The two would eat together, golf together. They would discuss basketball and life. Williams never called Smith anything except “Coach.”
There was only one other thing Williams couldn’t say to him. “I never told Coach Smith that I love him,” he said to the approximately 7,500 fans in attendance Sunday. “I’ve always regretted that. I tried to give him credit anytime I did anything, but I never told him what he meant to me. I would like to encourage all of you to tell people what they mean to you.”
As he finished, Williams led the crowd in pointing to the heavens. It is a time-honored gesture to thank the passer, and it was one of the many innovations Smith brought to the sport, but it said far more than just thank you.
It was a touching moment, and you didn’t need to be Susan and Sherry Davis, or Bill Chamberlain, or Les Robinson or Marcus Paige or even Roy Williams to understand why. You just needed to be part of the family.