THE RECORD will reflect that former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith died on Feb. 7, at age 83. But to the players and assistants he worked with most closely over 36 seasons, it felt as if he had left them years ago, when his most characteristic feature—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. His already low public profile in retirement receded further, and he didn't travel to the 2009 Final Four in Detroit, where his former assistant Roy Williams led the Tar Heels to the NCAA title. Over the summer of 2010 news of his decline went public, first in a column in the Fayetteville Observer, which said Smith had "good days and bad days"; then in blogged confessions by longtime ACC chronicler John Feinstein; and finally in a statement from Smith's family, which described his "progressive neurocognitive disorder."
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 his own score, much less everyone else's, in his head. Former Tar Heels stopped receiving Smith's usual notes of good wishes on the eve of each NBA season, which had reminded them that he'd be watching when they took the floor. Linda Woods, Smith's longtime executive assistant, and Bill Guthridge, his aide for all but six of his seasons in Chapel Hill, became increasingly alarmed as they shared accounts of his forgetfulness and erratic behavior. Smith was caught in a limbo that so many families know, in which a loved one can't bear to forgo his customary independence yet can no longer be trusted to safely carry out 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 giving North Carolina fans little to celebrate. Some 70 players, ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s, gathered in the Dean Smith Center for an old-timers' game. Everyone knew that the building's namesake wasn't what he used to be. The organizers' challenge was to fold into the festivities a man who abhorred the spotlight and wouldn't consent to anything that placed him at its center. Smith's confused state could be an asset. Or it could be a curse.
February 23, 2015
As it turned out, this installment of Carolina basketball's Celebration of a Century fell on one of 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 as we employ one of your many innovations" went the narration by Fred Kiger, a Chapel Hill alumnus and historian. "In this place that bears your name ... we'll pause and point to you, for a 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 been 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 settled on a strategy: He would collect the other assistants from '82, 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 distracted.
"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."
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 lights came up, Smith fixed Williams with a hug. The players advanced toward the center circle in their Blue Team and White Team singlets. 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 to do what he was told to do. And that wasn't his usual state."
MID-OCTOBER IS what any follower of college basketball recognizes as a time 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 swaddled in warm weather that seemed determined to hold back the turn of the season. But as I stood outside the Smith Center, watching men in cherry pickers swap out Tar Heels 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 North Carolina 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 a 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."
At every Tar Heels practice each player was expected to know, and spit back on demand, that day's point of emphasis on offense, the point of emphasis on defense and the thought for the day—an aphorism such as 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," Montross said, "or the whole team would run."
Montross had worked as both a Tar Heels radio commentator and an athletics fund-raiser after his NBA career wound down, and he regarded being 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.
"There wasn't a team I played for in the NBA where someone 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?' Coach Smith had a hand in creating that.
"We kind of duped him into going out there in February. 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 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?
"It was important for him to get a sense of our appreciation," Montross said, "but it was probably more important for us to do that than for him to get it. When you'd say, 'Thank you,' he'd always say, 'No, thank you.' Well, we got in the last 'Thank you.' "
Steps away from Montross's 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 celebration. Smith's family had originally wanted to control information about his health, because they feared he would see or hear a news report that 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 Guthridge 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 had made the pilgrimage over the summer. A recent lunch with Smith had been particularly hard for Phil Ford, the former Tar Heels great who was then a Charlotte Bobcats assistant coach. "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.
"We realize he's not the Dean Smith we knew. Nobody wants to live the way he's living."
Williams felt for Guthridge in his new role. "He has to cover up," Williams told me, "and that's something Coach Guthridge has never had to do before." Williams too had had to reconfigure the formative relationship of his professional life. When he first joined Smith's staff, Smith tasked him with the most demanding grunt work. But Smith also noticed and admired in Williams a memory to rival his own. 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 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. "I have him on a pedestal as a person, as a coach and, needless to say, as my mentor." For Williams's 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, during the season the Tar Heels won the 2009 NCAA title, the messages came less often. And the following year Smith attended only two practices all season.
For a while, when outsiders would ask after Smith, Williams was instinctively protective. "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, Frances—and she was diagnosed with dementia in her early 50s. "She was dead at 60," Williams said. The chance to visit Frances regularly in an assisted-living facility helped lure Williams back to North Carolina from Kansas. She recognized 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 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."
Williams knew what was coming: "No, thank you." Then, puddling up, Smith gave his old assistant one more embrace.
In a season with little to show for itself—a 20--17 record after a championship run, which left Williams feeling, he 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. "[Smith] 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 thirtysomething basketball technocrat trying to justify his post as successor to the magisterial Frank McGuire, his Tar Heels returned to campus after a 22-point thumping at Wake Forest. There, over the front door of old Woollen Gym, the players found their coach hung in effigy. Billy Cunningham sprang from the team bus to make short work of the scene. Two years later Smith would reach his first of 11 Final Fours. In another nine years he'd lead the U.S. to an Olympic gold medal, and by 1983 he'd be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. But in the aftermath of that moment outside the gym, somewhere in the bottom he had just hit, Smith found an unlikely strength. His sister, Joan, gave him a book by the theologian Catherine Marshall called Beyond Ourselves. 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 life, and so much of college basketball, edge away and finally vanish long before his death. But there should be some solace in knowing that, much longer ago, the man himself had made his peace with not being in control.
"Now I get what Coach Smith was all about," Montross said. "He taught us not for the next day, but for the rest of our lives."
"He was my coach even though I never played a second for him," Williams said. "I have him on a pedestal."