Basketball is a game that cannot be coached. It can only be
played. -- Dr. James Naismith
This is an article from the April 23, 1993 issue
AS THE GAME'S INVENTOR, DOC NAIsmith could be presumed to know.
It's perfect, then, that Naismith's spiritual grandchild -- a man who
played for Phog Allen, who in turn had learned basketball from
Naismith himself -- would spend the better part of his life
apparently proving the Good Doctor so wrong. But then North Carolina
basketball coach Dean Smith has always been a compulsive contrarian.
Conventional wisdom says you can't get through to young men nowadays
by asking them to forestall gratification or forgo personal glory.
Smith asks just that, and we know from what Bourbon and Franklin
streets looked like on the morning of April 6 just how successful he
Smith might find in the 1993 championship banner only one nettle:
that a sophomore, Donald Williams, rather than the team's indomitable
senior, George Lynch, was named the Final Four's most outstanding
player. Ah, Donald needs to work on his passing and defense, you can
hear Smith saying now, in that distinctive nasal twang. His role as a
shooter is just a small part of the team. And you know what? After
North Carolina's victory over Michigan in the title game, all those
skeptical of Smith's relentlessly enunciated philosophy were ready to
concede him the point. His 1982 champions, with Michael Jordan, James
Worthy and Sam Perkins, were more top-heavy with talent, but this was
Smith's deepest and most skillfully assembled team. This was the Dean
Team. ''It was put together in just the right way,'' says Wake Forest
coach Dave Odom. ''I've seen all of his teams, and this may be the
best job he has ever done as a coach.''
The Tar Heels' foundation had come to Chapel Hill three autumns
ago. Center Eric Montross, point guard Derrick Phelps, swingman Brian
Reese, power forward Clifford Rozier and forward Pat Sullivan arrived
with ballyhoo that didn't abate until Michigan brought in its Fab
Five a year later. Smith considered the hype so overheated that to
prove a point -- did we mention that he's a contrarian? -- he had the
freshmen play the rest of the squad in a 20-minute public scrimmage
that fall. ''The greatest recruiting class of all time'' lost by 46
points. That's a 92-point loss, Smith was quick to point out, over a
The class of '94 -- one wag has called it the Pre-Fab Five --
benefited from the perfect subtraction (the malcontent Rozier
transferred to Louisville after one season) and the perfect addition
(Williams and his crystalline jump shot arrived as Rozier left). The
perfect senior (Lynch) stood fast. Like spackling compound, a savvy
passer (Henrik Rodl) and a mobile shot blocker (Kevin Salvadori)
filled cracks and provided cohesion.
Smith would never admit it, for he flatly refuses to compare his
many teams, but no previous squad had so completely bought into what
he teaches. For eons the Tar Heels have had a system of ''tired
signals,'' by which players take themselves out of and put themselves
back into the game. Smith abolished the system several years ago
when, upon studying film, he and his staff noticed that some players,
clearly fatigued, refused to signal the bench. This year's team he
trusted to be honest with him and, more important, with each other.
So he restored the tired signals. ''It's as if Coach Smith said,
O.K., I can see you guys get it, you understand what the Carolina way
is about,'' says Phelps.
Smith invited his players to share what they thought on other
matters, too. Some of their suggestions had to do with the welter of
minutiae he keeps tabs on. Managers, for instance, had always kept
track of layups missed in pregame warmups, so slackers could be
assessed extra running. When his seniors approached him during the
off-season to ask that this particular practice be abolished, Smith
agreed. But he also gave in on more substantive things. After the
three-point shot was introduced in 1986, certain Tar Heel shooters
had a ''green light'' to take threes; those with less deft touches
had a ''yellow light,'' meaning they could shoot only under certain
circumstances; and a few players lived in Deano's ''red light''
district. '' 'Red light, green light' was making me more hesitant,''
says Reese. ''This year there was no light, and the team was more
comfortable with its shots. Coach Smith knew that a team of juniors
and seniors wasn't going to try anything wild.''
As Smith began granting them more license, the players kept
reciprocating, showing an ever keener sense of obligation. Smith
could be more malleable because they allowed him to be. The real
test came in February when with the Tar Heels sputtering at the
offensive end, Smith wrote out for each player precisely how he
thought each could best help the team. But before giving the
players their mission statements, the coach asked them to state what
they considered their individual roles to be. Lynch said he had to
rebound and score close to the basket. Montross said he needed to
perfect two basic moves and maintain an I-shall-not-be-moved
attitude. It was uncanny how perfectly Smith's goals for the players
and their goals for themselves coincided. Everyone was on the same
The word system has always caused Smith to recoil. He believes it
to conjure up images of football teams that run, say, the split T and
thus must scour the land for a split-T quarterback every few years.
''To me it connotes that we're rigid, that we don't change with our
personnel, and that's just not true,'' he says. ''Now, if you say
'North Carolina philosophy,' I love that. We change every year, even
though the basics remain the same.''
How many thousands of people, unfamiliar with the Carolina way,
watched the final minute of the championship game and, seeing Smith
platooning Montross and Salvadori on offense and defense,
respectively, were taken aback by what must have seemed to be not
just overcoaching, but lousy coaching? Why not leave Montross, with
all his bulk, in on the defensive end to challenge the Wolverines'
muscular Chris Webber? The point is, it isn't enough to define for
Salvadori a role as a defender and then refuse to allow him to
perform that role in the most decisive moments. By leaving Salvadori
in, Smith expresses so much confidence in him that whatever task
Salvadori is asked to perform is likely to become self-fulfilling.
The Carolina system has its roots almost precisely 1,000 miles
west of Chapel Hill, in eastern Kansas. Born in Emporia and raised in
Topeka, Dean Edwards Smith is the only son of strict Baptist
schoolteachers. In high school he played baseball, football and
basketball, and he always seemed to hold down the coachly positions
-- catcher, quarterback, point guard. He went to the University of
Kansas on an academic scholarship, majoring in math, but was
nevertheless an athlete, a reserve on the Jayhawks' 1952 NCAA
champions. In '58, after five years in the Air Force, he joined Frank
McGuire's staff at North Carolina and, three years later, at age 30,
was named head coach.
The circumstances of his hiring hardly foreshadowed the success to
come. The Tar Heels had just served a probation for recruiting
violations. Chancellor William Aycock, the story goes, chose Smith
because he believed the young coach would flounder around, and a
sport sorely in need of scaling back would be deemphasized by
default. ''Whoever heard of anybody named Dean?'' wondered McGuire in
his New York manner when he first met Smith. ''Where I come from you
become a dean. You're not named Dean.''
If the name signified a sort of premature maturity, Smith had to
draw on all of that precociousness as he struggled through his first
few seasons. Returning home after a loss at Wake Forest in 1965, the
team bus pulled up in front of the gym to find the coach hanged in
effigy. In the decisive months after that incident, before a recruit
from Pennsylvania named Larry Miller provided the cornerstone of
Smith's first Final Four team, in 1967, the coach found solace in a
book called Beyond Our Selves, by Catherine Marshall, which was sent
to him by his sister, Joan. One chapter, ''The Power of
Helplessness,'' allowed Smith to turn a trick of paradox: An
individual could plumb his own depths for strength, even at the most
abysmal moments, so long as he recognized that there were limits to
what that strength alone could accomplish.
That lesson can be seen in Carolina's almost pathological
exaltation of the team over the individual. It is also evident in
Smith's self-effacement, which he practices so scrupulously that it
calls attention to itself. He's fastidious about remembering not only
people's names but also the details that go with them, and he uses
those recollections as a shield to deflect any attention that might
hunt him down. In New Orleans, Smith was feted, along with the other
Final Four coaches, at a huge NCAA gala during which he was obliged
to speak under conditions -- at the center of a cavernous hall, with
no podium to hide behind, literally in the spotlight -- that made his
discomfort palpable. Sure enough, Smith was soon pointing out someone
at a back table, a woman who had asked him for an autograph earlier
in the evening, a Margaret from Arkansas.
There also abides in Smith much of the activist spirit of a man
who once helped integrate lunch counters and campaigned for a nuclear
freeze -- the stuff of someone who, like John Stuart Mill, believes
that society is perfectible. Smith the coach takes after Smith the
public man, and thus his teams are the product of constant
refinement. This season the legend of his obsession with detail grew:
At halftime of a game against Georgia Tech, Smith chided a courtside
statistician about a two-rebound discrepancy between the official
count and a larger, presumably more accurate figure kept by one of
his managers on the bench. And when Williams nearly missed the bus
over to the Superdome for the NCAA semifinal game against Kansas,
Smith told him, ''You had eight more seconds, Donald.'' The sophomore
would have likely missed his start in the game had he hopped aboard
moments later than he did.
But there is also a part of Smith that repudiates secularism and
holds fast to the lessons of Beyond Our Selves. Rodl, the senior who
once considered going to divinity school, suggests that the
interdependence Smith tries to instill in each team is well expressed
in the epistles of St. Paul, which speak of the body's many parts.
''You may not be equal in talent,'' Rodl says, ''but everybody is
equal in the eyes of God, whether you're a good player or a bad
player.'' The coach is a sort of minister, vested with the duty to
serve his ad hoc flock. He must see that the best players play most,
of course, and remind players and press alike that differences in
talent are matters more relevant to how we make our way in the world.
But Smith must also see to it that three years of investment in ''how
we do things at North Carolina'' bring a young man closer to a state
of grace than three months do. That's why the senior walk-on adorns
the cover of the media guide while the hotshot freshman helps the
managers lug equipment.
The Associated Press has never named Smith its Coach of the Year;
that may be because the award is altogether too worldly for the
struggle Smith goes through. ''I suppose my first goal was to keep my
job,'' he said in New Orleans during a rare moment of public
introspection. ''Then I wanted to win. Then I got more mature and
said, 'Oh, we want to play well.' Then I'd ask myself, 'Why do I feel
good when we don't play well and win?' '' Who but college
basketball's original philosopher king would even think to ask such a
question of himself?
It's amusing to think that some North Carolina Democrats
unofficially approached Smith a few years back to see if he could be
cajoled into running against Republican Senator Jesse Helms, a man
Smith finds more objectionable than a tardy freshman. It would never
have worked. Smith has never uttered a sound bite in his life. Ask
him a question and he might begin by challenging some element of the
premise of the query. Then he'll throw in some historical aside --
usually only tangentially related to the issue at hand -- drawn from
% his staggering memory for detail. If possible he'll find some
pretext to praise a senior or a reserve. Finally he'll disclaim the
significance of the entire whoopee over college sports, leaving all
involved to wonder why they are wasting their time. The result is a
great rhetorical Sunday drive, in which the turn signal for each
detour is the phrase ''but of course.'' Ah, we like to call what we
do here at North Carolina a philosophy, not a system, but of course a
second cousin of my old college coach, Doc Allen, used a lot of the
elements of that particular scheme once in a tournament game at
Tonganoxie Teacher's College, but of course it never would have
worked for us tonight if Scott Cherry hadn't done such a fine job off
the bench, but of course we're pleased with the victory even if we
all know there are still people starving in Somalia.
There is no such meandering in the Smith record. It is one
seamless declamation of excellence. Since Miller's arrival, the Tar
Heels have finished in third place or higher in the Atlantic Coast
Conference at the end of every regular season. Since that 1982
championship Smith's teams have never failed to go at least as far as
the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Smith has now taken teams to
Final Fours in four different decades. Yet even as the victories pile
up -- he has 774 now, which means that Adolph Rupp's alltime record
of 875 will fall well before the millennium -- people still ask: Why
only two NCAA titles?
The answer may lie in the fact that Smith has never really placed
winning it all above all. How many times could he have brought in
some junior college studhorse to fill a gap in his lineup? How many
times could he have succumbed to the urge to leave a Montross on the
floor and a Salvadori on the bench just a little longer, just this
once, to win just this game? There might have been short-term profit
in doing these things, but over the long term Smith and his players,
with only each other to answer to, would have felt some diminishing
of their trust in one another.
''The game is for the players, not the coaches,'' the coach likes
to say. Of course basketball can be coached. But Dean Smith's great
achievement is recognizing that ultimately the game must be coached
for the team, just as it must be played as a team -- and the players
compose the team. So the contrarian's ultimate contradiction may be
that while seeming to refute Naismith, he really doesn't.
Suddenly down 10 points during the first half of the 1993
championship game, - with the Tar Heels in danger of taking the full
force of a Michigan blowout, Derrick Phelps cast a quick look over at
the sideline. Would the master's hands come together, in the gesture
Chris Webber would be so unfortunate to make later that evening?
They didn't. Instead of calling time, Dean Smith wiggled the
fingers of one hand over the palm of the other in a sort of
sorcerer's pantomime, urging his players up, up the floor. Play, his
hands said. Play this game that in the end can only be played.