Monday, February 9, 2015

The Dean of Them All

I awoke yesterday to learn that Dean Smith, the longtime men's basketball coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, had passed away. He was 83. Social media and ESPN were filled with remembrances, stories and tributes. And all of them were well deserved.

Dean Smith was a great basketball coach. He was the head coach of my beloved UNC Tar Heels from 1961-1997 and for many of those years they were among the nation's elite programs. Dean was an innovator, constantly changing the way college basketball was played and coached. The late John Wooden of UCLA, considered by most to be the greatest coach in history, once said that "Dean Smith was the best teacher of the game of basketball he had ever known." Dick Vitale often referred to him as "the Michelangelo of coaching," and I always loved that description. He was indeed an artist. His teams played in 11 Final Fours and won 2 NCAA championships. He also coached the 1976 U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal. Dean Smith was a winner.

But he was so much more than that. He taught team first, always. He coached many great players over the years, and they all loved him. Up until he got sick several years ago, he not only remembered all of the stars by name, he knew every recruit, every walk-on and every equipment manager that had been a part of the Carolina basketball family. He also knew their wives and their children by name, and often sent notes throughout the year. No matter how famous a player became after reaching the NBA, they were never too busy to turn down a request to come be part of his basketball camps in the summer, or to come teach current players more about the "Carolina Way." Michael Jordan has said that Dean Smith had more more influence on his life that anyone other than his parents. His players graduated. He made college athletics everything it can and ought to be. And he was a tireless behind-the-scenes worker for civil rights and human equality, including recruiting Charlie (The Great) Scott (pictured below) as the first African-American player at a southern university. He was a great man.

Growing up in NC and being a Carolina fan, Dean Smith was one of my heroes. I will never forget things like the 4 Corners Offense, the huddles at the foul line, the changing defenses, the raised hand to signal a player needed a rest and the infamous "Carolina spurts" in which their press and their fast break would blow opponents out of the gym. I will remember the 8 points in 17 seconds comeback against Duke- BEFORE the time of the 3 point shot. I will remember the time he called a timeout after cutting Florida State's huge lead to 17 in the second half and knowing- KNOWING- that FSU was going down. And they did. I will remember lots of things. And so I just want to say "thank you" to the Dean of them all. College sports was better because of you. And in so many small ways, so was I. May he rest in peace, and prayers go out to his family and his former players. I join with MJ, James Worthy, Vince Carter, Bobby Jones, Phil Ford and so many other players I loved in saying farewell to the greatest Tar Heel of them all...

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