Why We Loved Dean Smith
Two decades ago, at my wife's reunion at Duke University, one of her classmates asked if we were going to the party scheduled before dinner. No, Judy explained, the University of North Carolina basketball coach had invited our children over to watch a private practice.
"You're going to expose your kids to that man?" she asked incredulously.
"That man" was Dean Smith, one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time, and an even better human being. I've never met anyone in the sports world so admirable. Smith died last weekend at 83.
For years I thought this extraordinary man was the incarnation of evil. I went to Wake Forest University. Like my wife's friend, I'm one of those irrational North Carolina basketball fans -- we're as crazy as Texas football fanatics.
Smith became head coach at North Carolina in 1961, at about the time I began studying at Wake Forest; neither was an auspicious start. He succeeded Frank Maguire, who had taken UNC to a national title in 1957. Wake Forest (led by future National Basketball Association all-star Len Chappell and guard Billy Packer) clobbered UNC twice. Smith was hung in effigy in Chapel Hill.
The tough times didn't last. Smith turned the Tar Heels into a perennial powerhouse, winning thirteen Atlantic Coast Conference championships and two national titles. (He seemed always to beat Wake Forest, which I attributed to his owning the referees.)
Then my wife and I met Smith and his wife, Linnea, at a Young President's Organization event and my blind bigotry ended. We had dinner several times that week. I wanted to talk basketball, he wanted to talk politics. We compromised, and I got the much better deal.
Smith cared passionately about civil rights, supported sensible gun policies and deplored the reactionary politics of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, a powerful force in the state's politics. Smith's devotion to his players was striking. He periodically stepped away that week to check on some, in particular Scott Williams, an accomplished player whose parents had died in a murder-suicide while their son attended UNC.
When Judy and I brought the kids to the "Dean Dome" at UNC to watch the team practice we were the only spectators in the 21,000-seat arena. Smith put his defending champions through exquisitely precise drills. On another visit to Chapel Hill, Smith let my son hold the NBA championship ring that Smith's star, Michael Jordan, had given him. I've never seen a happier seven-year-old.
Along with UCLA's John Wooden and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Smith is in a small circle of the best college basketball coaches. No one brought better values to the game.
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