Lebo Reflects on Dean Smith's Passing

GREENVILLE, N.C. — Fifth-year ECU head basketball coach Jeff Lebo reflected on the life of his former college coach, Dean Smith, after Smith died at the age 83 years old.

Jeff Lebo’s phone rang at 7 o’clock Sunday morning. On the other end of the line was North Carolina head basketball coach Roy Williams.

“I knew it wasn’t good,” Lebo said.

That is how the fifth-year East Carolina coach learned about the death of Dean Smith, who he played for from 1986-1989 in Chapel Hill.

While still processing what he had just been told, Lebo went for a walk with his wife, Melissa, and the memories he shared with his old coach began flooding back to him.

“I couldn’t help but think back to my first trip to North Carolina. I’ll never forget going down there and I was just stunned at the blue skies that were there,” said Lebo, who was recruited by Smith out of Carlisle, P.A. “When we walked today, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky walking through Greenville. I was flushed with a lot of emotions, a lot of thoughts about him and my experiences there.

“I owe a lot. We all do, as former players, to him and what he meant to all of our lives. It’s a tough day for all of us.”

One of the last times Lebo spent meaningful time with Smith while he was still Smith, before his memory began to dim in 2010 due to dementia, was a coaching clinic at Auburn, which turned out to be one of the last basketball clinics Smith would ever do. Lebo has visited Smith on a few occasions since then, but admitted, “It wasn’t the same.”

Now that Smith has passed, all that Lebo and everybody else are left with are memories.

One of Lebo’s favorite Dean Smith stories took place in New York, when Lebo, a captain for the Tar Heels at this point, was in a taxi with Smith on their way to a news conference.

When Lebo got into the cab, he noticed Smith had a considerable amount of cash in his pocket, likely to pay for the ride fare. But when the car pulled up to a red light, Smith spotted a homeless man standing at the street corner and rolled down the window. After gaining his attention and motioning him over, Smith gave him everything in his pocket. According to Lebo, all Smith said to the man was, “Please don’t use this for alcohol.”

“That story will stay with me for as long as I live,” said Lebo.

Lebo was an outstanding player at UNC, building a 116-25 record during his four years in Chapel Hill. However, he only lasted one year in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs, which forced Lebo to think about what alternate field would be the best fit for him to pursue.

His passion was in basketball, so he strongly considered coaching. But before making any decision, Lebo called his former coach.

“We, as former players, always consulted him in any kind of large decisions we would have to make,” said Lebo. “Rarely did you want to go against what he said. One time I did and that didn’t work out too good. He was a guy that you leaned on and he was like your second father.”

As Lebo moved up the ranks as a head coach, Smith watched as many games as he could and offered Lebo feedback and support in the form of personal letters and phone calls. Sometimes Smith was candid. Lebo cited one time, before he arrived at ECU, that Smith told him that he just simply needed to recruit better players.

Smith’s laser-sharp memory and ability to stay connected with all of his former players is what made him special. But soon the letters and calls stopped coming as Smith began to get sick.

At that point, Lebo knew that this day was inevitable and although he wishes he could field another one of those phone calls from his old coach, he is confident Smith would have been proud of what he has built at East Carolina.

“I’m going to tell my guys today that he would have loved watching them play here recently, and he would know everybody on my team," Lebo said. "And he would be an East Carolina fan if he was able to watch them play here the last couple of years.”

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