In the fall of 2009, I traveled to Chapel Hill to report on the Tar Heels for the Sports Illustrated college basketball preview issue. In advance of my visit, I asked the school’s sports information director, Steve Kirschner, if he could arrange for me to have lunch with Dean Smith. I hoped to get some quotes from Smith about the team and the program, but mostly I was looking to check an item off my bucket list. I had covered and interviewed Coach Smith over the years, but I had never had extended time alone with him to talk about basketball, politics, life, whatever.
I was delighted when Kirschner told me that Coach Smith had agreed to meet with me. Smith still came into the basketball office most every day to answer mail and make some phone calls, but he had plenty of time on his hands. I met Smith in his office, and then we walked to his car and drove to a spot on campus where we could sit together in an empty dining room.
Soon after we ordered, I asked Coach Smith what he thought about the current team. As he started to answer, I pulled out my notebook. “What’s that?” he asked.
“Oh, just wanted to take some notes,” I said.
“Well, I’d rather not be quoted on anything.”
I joked with him that he didn’t have to say anything revealing, or even interesting. Just something pat that I could use for the story. But he only smiled and said, “I’d rather not.”
All those years, and Dean Smith still preferred that nobody talked about him. That is impossible today after word of his death spread through the sports world. Actually, it spread well beyond the sports world, because to classify Dean Smith as a sportsman is to short-change his remarkable life. He was a man, first and foremost, a husband, a father, a teacher, a leader, a mentor, a friend, a humble servant to his Lord. He also happened to be really, really good at coaching basketball, but that seems almost irrelevant today. He won a lot of games, but his greatness could never be measured in numbers.
So today is a day to celebrate a wonderful American life, to listen to Dean Smith’s friends, colleagues, family and, most of all, his former players, and learn more about who he was and how he lived. Smith was the first coach in the modern era to really inculcate the concept of family into his program. There was a whiff of Cosa Nostra in this notion. Smith was the Godfather, and they all knew there was nothing he wouldn’t do to help them, whether they asked or not. And when he asked something of his players, they were expected to deliver, especially if it was on behalf of another member of the family.
SMU coach Larry Brown recently told me a story about when he was the coach of the Denver Nuggets. On the day of the draft, Smith called Brown, a former player and assistant of his at UNC, and told him to draft Tommy LaGarde, a center from North Carolina. Brown didn’t need another big man, and he had heard that LaGarde had a bum knee, but Smith had asked -- no, had told -- him to do it, and so Brown did his coach’s bidding.
Shortly after LaGarde got to Denver, he flunked his physical. It wasn’t until the following summer, when they were playing golf, that Brown got up the nerve to ask Smith why he had insisted the Nuggets draft LaGarde when Smith knew he was hurt.
Smith replied, “I knew you’d be all right.”
As good as Smith was at teaching the game, his interactions with his players after they were through playing define his legacy best. It didn’t matter if you were Michael Jordan or the student manager, he was always available. He worked the phones to get them jobs, he counseled them with their marriages, he assisted in managing their finances. He was an inveterate letter writer, and his memory was frighteningly good. There are countless stories about Smith meeting someone at a game or a function and then remembering their face and name years later.
That’s what made it so sad to follow his demise the last few years. Before Smith and I shared that lunch five years ago, I was not aware of his deteriorating condition, but I could tell something was not right. There were moments when he trailed off or couldn’t quite remember something he wanted to recall, which was very uncharacteristic. I thought it was normal aging until we left the restaurant and walked to the parking lot. I went to Coach Smith’s car, turned around and saw he was trying to put his key into another vehicle. “Coach,” I said, “your car’s over here.”
“Oh,” he said.
That’s when it dawned on me something was really wrong. Later, Roy Williams filled me in on what was happening. He told me that Smith had gone for knee replacement surgery, but for some reason had trouble emerging from the anesthesia. A hospital stay that should have lasted a couple days stretched to more than a month. Williams told me that Smith had a progressive form of dementia that was not going to get better. It was only going to be a matter of time before it took his life.
Williams told me this in confidence so I did not report it. The news became public several months later. I never spoke to Smith after that day, but I checked in on him often through his friends and former players. Their reports became increasingly dire. When I asked Brown last summer how his coach was doing, he told me he had recently gone to see him with Phil Ford and Scott May, the former a legendary Tar Heels point guard and the latter someone who, like Ford, had played for Smith on the 1976 gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic team. “We went to a little sandwich shop,” Brown said. “For the first hour, I don’t even know if he knew us. We started telling stories and he started loosening up a little bit and smiling. He can talk, but he can’t watch TV or film. He can’t read. He can’t focus. He has 24-hour care.”
It took five long years for the disease to finish its work. It was no way for a great and proud man to live. He lived to be 83, a good, long, wonderful life. In that respect, his passing is a blessing and a relief. Dean Smith is at rest now, so it's up to the rest of us to talk about him, even if he would rather we didn’t.