Dean Smith: A life well-lived

Legendary North Carolina basketball coach had impact on lives of players, but that's just the beginning

Getty Images

American newspapers may go through hard times in this age of on-demand, high definition and unlimited data, but one thing they still do best is memorialize people. Little stories are the reason. Newspapers excel at telling little stories, the kind that clutch at the heart. Everyone can tell you just how big a figure Dean Smith was. Everyone can recite the remarkable statistics, detail the basketball advancements and discuss the pioneering spirit of the man.

Little stories, though. Gary Schwab woke up in Charlotte on what he expected to be a sleepy Sunday. Schwab is the senior sports editor of North Carolina’s largest newspaper, the Charlotte Observer. Charlotte’s sports department works in conjunction with North Carolina’s second-largest paper, the Raleigh News & Observer. He quickly realized this would be one of the most important days of his professional life.

There would be a Dean special section, of course. Newspapers have prepared obituaries for just such days, and the Dean Smith obituary had been written and rewritten through the years. That would have to be updated and polished. Reporters would call or email all of their sources to get a comment. Photographs would be pulled from the library. The paper would have to give an outlet for fans to speak their minds.

But beyond all of this, there had to be something more, something magical. Dean Smith was 83 years old when he died late Saturday night, and his impact … well, how do you tell the story of Dean Smith in North Carolina? How do you capture what made the man important but also common? How do you explain what made him great but also human? How do you reach out to the people who loved him and the people who despised him because of the team he happened to coach?

One of the first things Gary did was call Ron Green. Every city has a legendary sports columnist, and in Charlotte, that’s Ron Green Sr. — he wrote about sports in North Carolina for more than a half-century. His son, Ron Green Jr., also wrote about sports for the Observer.

READ MORE: Smith dies at 83  |  College basketball world reacts

The first thing Ron Green Sr. thought about when he heard that Dean Smith died was Smith’s first game as coach. It wasn’t the game itself he remembered so well — an 80-46 blowout of Virginia in 1961 — but the scene afterward. Green was there along with a couple of other sportswriters and the North Carolina sports information director, Bob Quincy.

“So,” the young Smith said as he looked around. “What do I do now?”

Little stories. Big life.

* * *

I moved to Charlotte at 14, and on one of my first days of school I was pressed to name my favorite ACC basketball team. Being from Cleveland, I did not have a favorite ACC basketball team and, to be honest, wasn’t entirely sure what ACC basketball even meant. But in North Carolina, especially in high school, ACC basketball was bigger than sport and deeper than religion and more important than personality; it was thing that defined you. During the ACC basketball tournament, classes would be canceled and television would be rolled in for those students unaware enough to actually show up at school. When your team lost, you came to school expecting misery. And you got it.

Anyway, I said that my team was North Carolina. I’m fairly sure I said that because North Carolina was the only team in the ACC I could name with any confidence. And, instantly, I became known as a North Carolina fan. It was the easiest club I ever joined. Within a year, a North Carolina team, led by a brilliant junior named James Worthy and a gifted freshman many were still calling Mike Jordan, won the national championship.

Car horns blared all around our neighborhood when North Carolina won. For the first time in my life, a team that I was even moderately connected with won a championship. The next day, people happily and grudgingly congratulated me as if I had something to do with it. Dean Smith, as much as anyone, made me a North Carolinian.

* * *

(AP Photo)

Scott Fowler, a Charlotte Observer columnist, woke up Sunday thinking about the kiss. It happened one of the last times that Michael Jordan and Dean Smith were seen in public. It was 2007. Jordan was basketball’s all-time legend. Smith had been retired for a decade. There were whispers that Jordan was unhappy with his his life after basketball; he never could quite adjust. There were whispers that Smith’s health had deteriorated … specifically, that he was losing his memory. One of Dean Smith’s greatest gifts was his remarkable memory.

It was a very specific kind of memory — Dean Smith couldn’t remember names. He would often call players on other teams by their numbers; sometimes he would even call players on his own team by numbers. And I have no idea about his memory for dates or historic events. But he had a spectacular memory for details when it came to other people. His players constantly marveled; he remembered things about every one of them. Fans tell story after story about seeing Smith at an event and then, a few years later, seeing him again and finding that he remembered them.

I have one of those stories. The first time I talked to Dean Smith was in 1990; I was writing a story about former North Carolina coach Frank McGuire. I saw Smith many years later when he came to Kansas to celebrate the 1952 Jayhawks national championship team. We had not talked at any length in more than a decade. He not only remembered that Frank McGuire story, but he knew all about my life for the previous dozen years, including that I had married a Kansas girl and that we’d just had a daughter.

But the memory faded in those later years. In 2007 the school was honoring the 25th anniversary of Smith and Jordan’s national championship team, and that was one of the last times anyone saw Dean Smith publicly. Fowler was there in Chapel Hill, in the building named for Dean Smith, in the roar of the crowd.

“Just before Smith was introduced,” Fowler wrote, “Michael Jordan pulled his old coach close, leaned down and briefly kissed Smith on the side of his head as Smith smiled. … 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.”

* * *

There is a little story I never got to ask Dean Smith about. A former player told me that before every North Carolina basketball game, every one, there was someone with a notepad assigned to stand under the goal during warm-ups. This person’s sole job was to mark down whenever a Carolina player missed a layup. At the next practice, Smith would call the names of the offending players and have them run an extra lap or take 25 extra free throws or something like that.

The story has fascinated me for decades. I have asked Smith’s beloved former assistant Roy Williams if it is true, and he said it is not … but, honestly, Williams would not have told me if it were true. There was something sacred about playing for Smith, coaching for Smith, rooting for Smith. His students didn’t just admire him, they loved him. They didn’t just love him, they admired him. Even after some of them became grandfathers, they still called him Coach Smith — never Dean. To quote Roy Williams or Eddie Fogler or Michael Jordan or Larry Brown saying “Dean” was to assure never getting another interview with them.

If the layup patrol existed, it might be viewed as extreme, a bit too controlling, something that might not put Coach Smith in the most positive light. You will notice I don’t mention the name of the former player who told me; he insisted I not mention his name for that very reason.

But the thing is, I hope the layup patrol did exist. Because it’s genius. It explains a lesson Dean Smith was teaching, a reason why his teams ALWAYS won, every single year. The lesson: Life is about trying hard. Even in warm-ups.

* * *

Mike Persinger and Harry Pickett have been editors at The Charlotte Observer for more than 25 years. Their job on Sunday was to put together the newspaper’s coverage and special section – in other words, to tell Dean Smith’s story without missing anything. It was a daunting task. Dean Smith lived a huge life.

There was Dean Smith, the basketball coach whose teams reached the NCAA Tournament for 23 straight seasons. There was Dean Smith, the teacher who worked with the young Michael Jordan and James Worthy and Vince Carter and Walter Davis and Bobby Jones and Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse and Billy Cunningham and others before they became iconic NBA players.

There was Dean Smith, the educator who reportedly graduated 96.6 percent of his players. He then insisted on putting all of the names of graduated players in the back of the media guide along with their professions.

There was Dean Smith, the pioneer who recruited Charlie Scott, the first black scholarship player at North Carolina and who — a year before the famous sit-ins at a Woolworths in Greensboro — quietly helped integrate a restaurant in Chapel Hill by taking a black student and his pastor into what had previously been an all-white restaurant. There was Dean Smith, the activist who publicly fought against the death penalty and would sometimes have basketball practices at prisons, so his players would be opened up to a few of the harsh realities of the world.

There was Dean Smith, the innovator; Dean Smith, the family man; Dean Smith, the father figure; Dean Smith, the friend; Dean Smith, the golfer; Dean Smith, the …

The paper assigned story after story. One would be about how Dean Smith never left North Carolina, even when opportunities came along. Another would be about how he coached the 1976 Olympic team to gold – this four years after the United States lost to the Soviet Union in a crushing and controversial gold medal game that still haunts people. There would be a story about people who played for Dean Smith and a story about people who played against him. There would be stories about how he fought for what he believed in.

READ MORE: Smith’s 10 best players  |  Smith’s coaching tree

Years ago, when I worked the late night shift on the copy desk, Harry Pickett used to tell me Dean Smith stories. He had grown up watching Dean Smith’s teams played, and he had fallen in love not so much with the teams as with the way they played basketball. He would say there was a rhythm to the way they played basketball, something musical in the way the ball would move: side to side, in and out, until someone got an open look. And someone always got an open look — for years, North Carolina teams would be among the nation’s leaders in field goal percentage, usually above 50.

“Let me tell you something,” Harry used to tell me. “North Carolina is everybody’s rival. They’re N.C. State’s rival. They’re Duke’s rival. They’re Wake Forest’s rival, Maryland’s rival, Clemson’s rival. Everybody wants to beat North Carolina. But it doesn’t matter.”

It didn’t matter. Dean Smith was beloved by North Carolina fans, despised by the rest, but he towered over the state, towered over the South, and how do you tell that story?

* * *

Years ago, I took a friend to a North Carolina-Georgia Tech game to teach him about Dean Smith. My friend, Jim, had no use for Smith; he would sometimes quote that line about how Dean Smith was the only person who could hold Michael Jordan to less than 20 points per game. It was a cute line, but it wasn’t quite true. Jordan averaged 20 points per game as a sophomore at North Carolina, 19.6 points a game as a junior, and this was in the days before the NCAA put in the shot clock. Anyway, Jim thought Dean Smith’s record was a creation of great recruiting and little else.

Then, he watched the game. I’ve written about this before — it was a magnificent to watch Dean Smith coach. Like watching a flamboyant conductor. We watched as Smith substituted players in and out, changed defenses on seemingly every possession, designed an offense that a very good Georgia Tech team simply had no idea how to stop. Somewhere in there, Smith had his team run the jump trap — the same defense the Tar Heels had been throwing at teams for 25 years — and the Yellow Jackets were helplessly dribbling into double-teams. North Carolina won by a bunch.

And on the car ride back, Jim preached the Gospel of Dean Smith with the fervor of the converted. “Did you see how he countered that offense?” he shouted. “Did you see how he cut down that three-point shooter?” On and on he went, the whole way back home, and even now, more than two decades later, if I say the words “Dean Smith,” Jim will launch into a soliloquy of his basketball coaching genius. That’s what it was to see Smith up close.

* * *

(Getty Images)

More or less the entire Charlotte Observer editorial staff, including the editor and managing editor and editorial board, came in Sunday to try and help out. There are only a few people who transcend into people’s lives. Dean Smith was one of those.

An editorial was written: Four lessons we can learn from Smith’s life. They are:

1. It’s not about you — even when it is.

2. Family isn’t just your relatives.

3. Stand up for what you believe in.

4. Small graces loom large.

You notice none of these are basketball things. The first is about humility, the second about loyalty, the third about courage and the fourth about kindness.

Dean Smith grew up in a small Kansas town; he was the son of Baptist school teachers. He wanted only to be a basketball coach. When he was a bench-warmer for the Kansas basketball team, he would closely watch the Jayhawks’ legendary coach Phog Allen, a man who learned the game from James Naismith himself. Smith would carefully keep statistics because that was how his mind worked — he liked numbers, liked orderly things. Basketball was chess to him. Everything was chess to him.

When there was no shot clock, he invented the Four Corners offense to run out games. He was among the first to teach players exactly how to take charges. There was no one better at designing plays. When his team came back from eight points in the final 17 seconds against Duke and tied the game on a desperation 30-foot bank shot from Walter Davis, Smith wasn’t happy. He had designed the play for Davis to get a 20-foot jumper. The players had run it wrong.

His mind whirred constantly. He had opinions about everything. When the NCAA made freshmen eligible (something he never believed in), he would insist that they not talk to the media and that they get as little attention as possible until they had adjusted to college life. He was a competitive son of a gun too, despised losing at everything, especially basketball and golf. He could be thin-skinned; just minutes after Smith won his first national title he sought out a writer named Frank Barrows who had written that Smith’s system was too structured and methodical to win a championship. He could also be magnanimous.

And in the end, a man who grew up hoping to coach basketball ended up doing so much more. The writer Rick Reilly once asked Smith how he would feel if Michael Jordan had wanted to express his political views. Smith responded: “An individual has rights. You don’t give them up when you put on a basketball uniform.”

* * *

Every week when I was in high school, I would watch Dean Smith’s show on television. It was choice television. My favorite part, and this would happen every week, was when Dean Smith would praise one of his players after a basket. Smith would not praise the player for scoring the basket, but for pointing at the teammate who had passed him the ball.

“There’s Sam pointing at a teammate,” Smith would say with his famously nasal voice. “We like to see them acknowledge each other.”

“What I really like here is the way Brad points back at his teammate,” he would say. “That shows you how much he appreciated the pass.”

“There’s Michael pointing at the passer,” he would say. “He understands that he couldn’t have any success without his teammates finding him with the basketball.”

Every week. At first, I found it funny. After a little while, I found it charming. And soon after, I would look for Smith to say it, wait for it, because pointing to a teammate seemed the most important thing in the world to him.

* * *

When Ron Green sent in his column about Dean Smith, he immediately said that it felt inadequate. This was how Ron Green often talked about his columns through the years. He seemed to me, in many ways, like Dean Smith … humble, loyal, kind. When I was just a kid in the business, he would sit and talk with me about things. He was the person in the business I most wanted to make proud.

In any case, he ended his wonderful column by speaking directly to the readers.

“Over my years writing sports,” he wrote, “I’ve been accused many times of being biased in favor of North Carolina. I’ve denied it, saying, ‘I’m in favor of excellence,’ and I think I’ve stuck close to that.”

He was right on both accounts. People around Charlotte always did say that Ron Green was a closet North Carolina fan. And he was right that in his work he was always a fan of greatness, it didn’t matter the school, it didn’t matter if it was Dean Smith or Mike Krzyzewski; Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods. That seems to be how it is for most sportswriters. The joy in this work comes from seeing people who are wonderful at what they do. It can mean watching Steph Curry turn a defender inside out or Serena Williams overpower an opponent with both will and strength or Greg Maddux paint the corners with pitches that juke like running backs. There are so many things wrong with sports, but don’t they disappear when you watch Usain Bolt run, Tom Brady throw, Diego Costa find the back of the net.

And it can mean watching Dean Smith coach a game, run a program, stand up for what he believes. Green watched Smith from his very first game at North Carolina, the one he ended by saying ‘What do I do now?” The last paragraph of Ron Green’s column went like this:

“But if anyone wants to say I was biased toward Dean Smith, that’s OK. He was excellence.”