Friday, February 13, 2015

A gentleman and a Dean

 I was out of the country when the news broke that Dean Smith, longtime coach of the University of North Carolin Tar Heels, had died last weekend. The tributes that rolled in for Coach Smith were moving especially to those of us who had watch this Kansan revolutionize the game of college basketball while at the same time serving as the conscience of the larger community for so many things.  And it reminded me of the basic, fundamental humility of this giant among the coaching profession.  I never knew him well, but on one magic evening a little more than a decade ago, I sat at his side at dinner and listened to him talk about important things -- winning, for sure, but more importantly, about life.  He was fascinating, informative, inquisitive and gracious as he quietly answered questions from a group of North Carolina's editorial writers and columnists. 

 In 2010, after it became widely known that he was struggling with memory loss and other adverse effects of dementia, the following column appeared in The Charlotte Observer, where I was an associate editor, and The News and Observer.

A gentleman and a Dean

July 27, 2010 

Watching Dean Smith walk onto the playing floor of the basketball palace named for him in February was a thrill for many who didn't know they'd ever see the famed coach on the hardwood again. Adoring fans and players cheered for the innovator from Kansas, sending up thanks for hundreds of memories of the way he coached his teams to success and the way he treated his players - stars, role players and bench warmers alike.

There had been rumors for a while about Smith's condition. Only recently has the news become widespread that his memory is failing him. The man who revolutionized college basketball and set a standard for conduct could no longer always remember those who had been close to him throughout his life.

Smith's family acknowledged these signs of aging in a graceful statement about his progressive neurocognitive disorder. It deprives him of his ability to remember every name, every game, every signal event in a long and productive career.

I've had a few interactions with him over a long period - a handshake and a chat a time or two back in college days when I was a cheerleader. In those days the packed crowd in Carmichael made the place thunder when Bobby Lewis or Larry Miller finished a full-bore fast break with an unbelievable twisting reverse layup followed by Lou Bello's whistle signaling a foul in the act of shooting.

Those were dizzying days. Smith's teams did amazing things - including turning my mother, a conservative, prim grammar teacher who brooked no nonsense from anyone on the globe, into a rabid basketball fanatic. At a game in the 1970s I saw this tiny survivor of the Great Depression and lifelong health challenges practically knock down grown men to plant herself in Phil Ford's path and ask for his autograph on a program.

Maybe it was all those games Smith's teams won that made her such a fan. But I suspect it was more the way he treated those who played for the blue and white - and the discipline and determination he instilled in his players.

Years later I came to find other reasons to admire Dean Smith. In 2004, a group of editorial writers and columnists from the state's newspapers were planning their annual get-together in Chapel Hill, a weekend heavy on discussions of public policy, research findings and brainstorming about upcoming issues. We talked about a dinner speaker, and someone suggested Dean Smith.

I thought it was unlikely we could get him to join us. He was probably getting hundreds of such invitations, and it was well-known that he declined most of them. And since basketball season was still on, he'd be tuned to the TV, not to the questions of opinion writers.

A couple of days after I wrote inviting him to join us, his office called back. Coach Smith loved to read the editorial and op-ed pages of the newspapers and, as long as the Tar Heels weren't playing that Friday night, he'd be delighted to join us.

That was the prelude to the most enjoyable evening with a public figure that I can recall. Smith didn't want to give a speech, but he was happy to have a long conversation about any topic we wanted to pursue. So as we tore into platters of food at a room over Spanky's on Franklin Street, we talked about players, NCAA rules, recruiting, politics, the upcoming presidential election, the U.S. Senate race (and how he had resisted entreaties to run for office) and how college life had changed so dramatically over his career.

I reminded him of some unforgettable moments from the late 1960s when his teams were beginning to win consistently - and mentioned a player who had recovered the ball in a scramble and found himself sitting in the lane, back to the basket and no one to pass to. He flipped the ball back over his head - and might have been the only one in Carmichael not to have seen it drop through the bucket for two.

Smith smiled, reminded me of a few other details about that play and recalled the recruiting of a key player. He was from a family so poor that he had never been to a restaurant and didn't know how to use a menu. When he got to Carolina, the blue blazer the team issued him in the years when the practice was common was the first such jacket he had ever worn. Smith thought NCAA rules governing such things, well-intentioned as they were, sometimes go too far.

In time the conversation turned to opposing coaches. My longtime friend Rosemary Roberts, a columnist for the Greensboro News & Record, wanted to know what Smith thought about Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski's habit of using strong language that appeared on TV to include barnyard expletives.

"Mike's a friend of mine," Smith said, "and I'm not going to say anything bad about him."

Then he smiled and added, "But in the home where I grew up, 'gosh' and 'darn it' were considered pretty strong stuff."

I'm pretty sure I saw Dean Smith express himself in plain terms to the refs a time or two. But I appreciated his gentle answer about a rival coach many thought surely was his mortal enemy.

Reflecting on it later, I remembered that before Dean Smith became famous many folks wondered what it was he was dean of.

It was dean of a lot more than just basketball. It was also how to live and how to conduct oneself.

Thanks, Coach.

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