Indulge me today. I’m not writing about the Gators but something important to me that I want to share.
My friend Dean Smith passed away Saturday night, ending a remarkable life that extends well beyond what he accomplished as the basketball coach at the University of North Carolina. I’m sad that Dean is gone, but in reality, he’s been gone from us for several years now. Dementia long ago took away that incredibly sharp mind and reduced his life to what a mutual friend of ours called “being there.” Dean’s body was there, but the joy in his heart and those precious memories he stored in his mind had long since departed.
My last lucid conversation with Dean was April 2, 2007 in Atlanta, the night the Gators won their second straight NCAA basketball championship by beating Ohio State at the Georgia Dome. Dean was among the basketball legends introduced pre-game (Bill Russell was one, so was John Havlicek). He sat quietly at midcourt as one person after another stopped by to shake his hand. He didn’t recognize me instantly – his memory was starting to go even then – but when I sat down beside him and spoke my name, he broke into a grin, grabbed my hand and held onto it for what seemed like a full minute.
After a little bit of small talk in which he asked about my parents, he talked a little bit of basketball and it was vintage Dean. He told me he thought Florida would win the game (Gators won it, 84-75) because the Gators truly understood the team concept. He liked that the Gators didn’t have a dominant scorer but all five starters averaged double figures. I reminded him that the concept of spreading the ball around was his.
In 1970, Charlie Scott made first team All-America while averaging 27.1 points per game. Charlie was exciting to watch but the Tar Heels only won 18 games and lost in the first round of the NIT (it was a very important tournament in those days, almost as important as the NCAA. That was the last year anyone ever averaged 20 points per game for a Dean Smith-coached team and the last time the Tar Heels failed to win 20 games. When he retired in 1997, Carolina had won 20 or more games 27 straight years, usually with a team that had four or five guys averaging double figures. The 1971 Tar Heels won the NIT (only 32 teams played in the NCAA Tournament then and only conference champs or independents) the next year with a team so unselfish that the late Dick DeVenzio, Duke point guard and later college athletics activist, said “We (Duke) take 20 foot jump shots and they (Carolina) pass up 10-footers because there is someone open from five feet.”
That 1971 Carolina team and the subsequent teams Dean coached set the standard for spreading the ball around. The number of 20-point per game scorers has dipped each year since then. That’s just one of so many lasting effects Dean Smith had on the game of basketball.
I first got to know Dean during that 1971 season. I was a young sports writer for the Wilmington Star-News who got to go to Chapel Hill a couple of times to write about Kim Huband, a sophomore wing with one of the prettiest jump shots I’ve ever seen. Huband wasn’t good enough to start but he was the star of what Dean called “the Blue Team.” Dean always dressed 15 guys. The Blue Team was made up of the last five guys on his bench. On most teams those guys sat but Dean put them to good use. For two or three minutes in each half of most games, the Blue Team went into the game charged with being a disruptive force. They developed a cult following in Chapel Hill and throughout the ACC and became a vital part of Dean’s strategy.
Three years later, when I was the sports editor of the Rocky Mount Telegram, I asked Dean about the Blue Team concept one day. His response amazed me.
“Not everyone can be a star, but every member of a team can be important,” he told me. “When everybody on your team knows they are a vital part of any success we have, they play harder because they have a vested interest in the outcome.”
Those guys also played harder because they understood that Dean had a vested interest in them both on and off the court. He coached Carolina for 37 years and 96.6% of his players got a college degree. More than half went on to get advanced degrees.
One of his biggest stars was Phil Ford, a three-time first team All-American who was the MVP of the ACC Tournament as a freshman in 1975. Phil was from Rocky Mount where he was a Parade All-America basketball player and a shortstop who would have been drafted high if not for basketball. Phil went on to become the 1979 NBA Rookie of the Year but after four years in the league injuries mounted and Phil turned to alcohol and painkillers to get through the intense pain.
Three years later he was out of the league and looking for a job. Like most former Tar Heel players who had a problem, Phil went to see Dean Smith. Feeling like he had let Smith down, Phil expected a stern lecture and a good chewing out. He was shocked at how Dean handled things.
Phil told me that Dean never raised his voice and never once made him feel like he had failed. Phil recalled Dean saying, “It seems we have a problem. What do you think we should do about it?”
“He said we and I know immediately that he was there with me every step of the way,” Phil told me a few years after the meeting in Dean’s office. “He treated me like I was his son. He treats all of us [former players] like we are his sons. That’s what makes him so special.”
Saturday afternoon, March 2, 1974. Duke led Carolina, 86-78, with 17 seconds to go. Carolina fans were accustomed to late game heroics, but some of the hardiest Tar Heels were already heading to the exits. The ones that got out the door missed one of the greatest comebacks in college basketball history.
It began with a couple of free throws by Bobby Jones followed by a time out by Carolina to set the defense. When the game resumed, Jones deflected Duke’s inbounds pass to Walter Davis, who found John Kuester under the basket for a layup. That 8-point deficit had been trimmed to four. Dean called another time out to set up the defense. Once again, Jones was all over the inbounds pass, forcing a low pass that hit the shin of a Duke player and bounced out of bounds. Carolina went straight to Jones on the inbounds play for a layup that cut the lead to two. Another time out by Dean. This time Duke got the ball inbounds to Pete Kramer, who was fouled immediately. Kramer missed the front end of the one-and-one and Ed Stahl rebounded with three seconds to go. Dean called the final time out. On the inbounds play, Duke was so conscious of Jones and Mitch Kupchak at the basket for a Hail Mary pass that Coach Neal McGeachy left Walter Davis free. Davis took the pass one step from midcourt, took four dribbles to the time line and let loose with a 30-foot shot that banked in to tie the game at 86-86. Carolina dominated the overtime and won the game, 96-92.
What made the comeback possible was that Dean saved all four of his time outs for the end of the game. He explained after the game that he had four media time outs in each half, so his four time outs were saved for the end of the game.
In the Carolina locker room after the game, Kuester kept shaking his head in amazement. In the locker room Kuester said (paraphrasing once again), “Coach Smith kept telling us if we’ll just do our jobs that we’ll win the game. He’s smiling and laughing in the huddle like we’re up by 20, not like we’re down four with 10 seconds to go.”
After the game, Dean spent his time praising Duke for coming into Carmichael and putting up such a great fight and talking about how proud he was that his team did the things at clutch time that they practice every day. He never took any credit for one of the most brilliant 17 seconds of coaching in history.
A couple of years before he retired, Carolina was playing Wake Forest in a nationally televised game. Dave Odom coached the Demon Deacons in those days and they were formidable, led by Tim Duncan. With a couple minutes remaining in the game, Wake Forest led the Tar Heels by 10 points when a dead ball led to a media time out.
During the time out, Dick Vitale looked at the two huddles and commented (I’m paraphrasing), “Wake Forest is ahead by 10 points and they think they’re going to win. Over there in the North Carolina huddle is Dean Smith. The Tar Heels KNOW they’re going to win.”
North Carolina came back to tie the game and eventually won in overtime. When Dean was in charge, the Tar Heels were never out of the game.
I sat on the side of my bed Sunday morning, reflecting on the 46 years of my life that I was able to call Dean Smith my friend. I went over to the dresser and in a box in which I’ve kept some of my more cherished possessions since I got it on my 23rd birthday, I dug out two letters that I’ve kept all these years, both of them written to me by Dean Smith. The one that meant the most to me was hand written on white stationary that has faded yellow with Carolina blue trim.
Written a few days after Carolina beat Maryland in Chapel Hill on January 26, a game in which Maryland coach Lefty Driesell got teed up for stomping a chair and then acting like a total jerk to the media afterwards, the letter says:
I am sorry that I didn’t have more time to spend with you after our game against Maryland, but I was in a terrible rush.
Thank you for your kind words about our basketball program. It means a lot to me that you would talk about the way they handle themselves on and off the court and have success in the classroom and after their basketball careers are over.
I’m not the only sports writer that ever got a hand written note from Dean Smith. He knew all of us by name, learned about our families and always politely asked about them, and had that uncanny ability to make us feel far more important than we actually were. He did that with everyone. He was a great coach, but a far better person. The world is a better place because of Dean Smith.
Who would you rate as the top five college basketball coaches of all time? Who would you rate as the top five college basketball coaches coaching today?
As well as he coached the game of basketball, Dean Smith coached the game of life even better. Today’s song is Eric Clapton’s “Change the World.” Dean did his part to change the world and make it a better place.