A lot has been written about North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith in the days since he died. I’m sure much more will be written in the coming days and weeks.
I wanted to use this space to share some of my favorite stories about the great man, Coach Smith. I’ve struggled to put words to his death, so I’m going to let others do it for me.
Let’s start with my colleague Scott Fowler, who wrote this piece about the kiss Michael Jordan put on Dean Smith’s head when the 1957 and 1982 national championship teams were honored a few years back. (I was at that game, standing in the risers.)
It was sweet and perfect, the sort of thing a parent will do to a well-loved child just before something big is about to happen. In this case it was the younger Jordan, towering over his beloved coach.
–Fowler: Michael Jordan’s kiss symbolized all Dean Smith meant (Charlotte Observer)
Charles P. Pierce is one of my favorite writers and stories like this one are the reason why. Pierce, who’s known for writing so fast and so well, writes about politics and sports. I recommend reading everything he writes.
He was very much an eccentric in his own way, and had his best days before the game was so homogenized and commercialized that the eccentricity was bled out of it. He coached at the same time as Bob Knight at Indiana, and Abe Lemons at Texas, and McGuire at Marquette. It was a game for poets then, not for the slick salesmen of the modern era. Some of them were beat poets, and some of them wrote epics. I always thought of Smith as one of those all-American craftsmen-poets — Longfellow, maybe, or Edgar Lee Masters. His lines were always perfectly metered. Lord, how his game always rhymed.
Adam Lucas has a habit of leaving Tar Heels fans sitting in a puddle of their own tears with his columns. This one is no different.
About a year ago, I was at the Smith Center on a typical weekday afternoon. A customized van was parked in the first parking space outside the basketball office, and I knew. As I walked into the basketball office, Dean Smith came out, being pushed in a wheelchair, a Carolina hat on his head.
It was awful, and it makes my eyes moisten even now to think about it. It was not at all the way I wanted to think about him. And I would like to admit something to you now: from then on, when I saw that van, I would sometimes take a different path into the building, because I wanted my Dean Smith to be the one I remembered. I wanted my Dean Smith to be the one who I mentioned my daughter’s name to on exactly one occasion, and six months later when passing me in the parking lot, he recalled it perfectly and asked how she was doing.
That’s my Dean Smith and I wanted that to be everyone’s Dean Smith. I don’t want today’s students to think of him as old or sick. Understand this: this man could do anything. This man could coach and this man could help integrate a town or a league and this man changed the lives of hundreds of teenagers who played for him plus thousands of the rest of us who lived vicariously through their exploits.
This final story is the only one of the bunch written before Dean’s death. Tommy Tomlinson, a longtime columnist at the Charlotte Observer, wrote about Dean Smith nearly a year ago, focusing on the dementia that robbed him of his memory late in life.
Here is the special cruelty of it: The connector has become disconnected. The man who held the family together has broken off and drifted away. He is a ghost in clothes, dimmed by a disease that has no cure. Even the people closest to him sometimes slip into the past tense: Coach Smith was. They can’t help it. They honor him with what amounts to an open-ended eulogy. At the same time, they keep looking for a crack in the curtains. They do what people do when faced with the longest goodbye. They do the best they can.
If you have suggestions for other great Dean Smith stories, let me know.