Memories of Dean Smith linger, even as his memory sadly fails him

John Feinstein
Columnist March 1

Dean Smith celebrated his 83rd birthday on Friday. In all likelihood, there wasn’t much of a celebration. Smith is suffering from dementia and only occasionally is aware of what is going on around him.

No one deserves such a fate, but anyone who has ever known Smith finds it especially galling that this disease would befall him.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

“Of all people, for it to happen to him is beyond cruel,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said recently. “You’re talking about the person who had the sharpest mind and the most remarkable memory of anyone I’ve ever met. It’s just not fair.”

If he could, Smith would undoubtedly tell people not to shed tears for him, that he’s lived a great life and there are people who are suffering far more than he is suffering. There’s not a self-pitying bone in Smith’s body. When his memory began to fail, it frustrated him because he was so accustomed to being able to find anything in his memory that had ever been there — even if it had been only for an instant.

The first time I ever saw him have difficulty recalling something was in 2005. I was interviewing him for a book I was writing on the Final Four and he had trouble remembering the name of a coach he had met the first time he went to the national semifinals as Frank McGuire’s assistant coach at North Carolina.

Dean Smith reaching for a name and not finding it was slightly more stunning than waking up to find the sun rising in the west.

“My memory’s slipping,” he said. “I forget things now.”

He had just turned 74, so a little memory loss didn’t seem like a big deal.

“Most people would kill to have 50 percent of your memory,” I said. “We’ve been talking an hour. This is the first thing you couldn’t remember.”

He shook his head, still upset. “I know,” he said. “But that never happened in the past.”

He was right. Dean Smith remembered every name, every game, every play in every game. He also remembered every call that went against him and anything written or said about one of his players or friends that he thought was a slight — real or perceived. He never asked me how my kids were. He asked how Danny and Brigid were.

But his memory was only a tool — an impressive one — and nothing more. His true greatness lay in his loyalty, in his passion, his compassion and his selflessness. He was appalled in 1986 when he learned that the new basketball arena at North Carolina was going to be named the Dean E. Smith Center. “They should name it for the players,” he said. “I never scored a single point.”

Such a name would have been unwieldy, but there was no doubt he meant it. The only thing he ever enjoyed pointing out in the building was the bust of him in the main lobby.

“Look at the plaque,” he would say, pointing to the plaque underneath the bust of him.

It said: “Dean E. Smith . . . 1931- ”

“They’re just waiting to fill in the second number,” he’d say, gleeful because in spite of his God-like status in North Carolina, he could point out tangible evidence that those who had built the building named for him knew he was mortal.

No coach ever genuinely cared about his players — from Michael Jordan to walk-ons who never scored a point — more than Smith. He had one firm rule that Linda Woods, his longtime assistant, knew had to be followed to the letter: If any player — any player — showed up in his office needing to see him, she was to interrupt whatever he was doing, regardless of who he might be talking to. No one came before the players. It wasn’t a credo or a motto; it was a way of life.

He was also as competitive a human being as has ever lived. It wasn’t just in basketball. He was almost ruthlessly competitive on the golf course, even when playing with close friends. He might have despised losing an argument even more than he despised losing a basketball game. As with basketball, he won a lot more than he lost.

There’s one story that — to me — defines him. I’ve told it in the past, but it bears re-telling. In 1981, Smith very grudgingly agreed to cooperate with me on a profile for this newspaper. He kept insisting I should write about his players, but I said I had written about them. I wanted to write about him. He finally agreed.

One of the people I interviewed for the story was Rev. Robert Seymour, who had been Smith’s pastor at the Binkley Baptist Church since 1958, when he first arrived in Chapel Hill. Seymour told me a story about how upset Smith was to learn that Chapel Hill’s restaurants were still segregated. He and Seymour came up with an idea: Smith would walk into a restaurant with a black member of the church.

“You have to remember,” Reverend Seymour said. “Back then, he wasn’t Dean Smith. He was an assistant coach. Nothing more.”

Smith agreed and went to a restaurant where management knew him. He and his companion sat down and were served. That was the beginning of desegregation in Chapel Hill.

When I circled back to Smith and asked him to tell me more about that night, he shot me an angry look. “Who told you about that?” he asked.

“Reverend Seymour,” I said.

“I wish he hadn’t done that.”

“Why? You should be proud of doing something like that.”

He leaned forward in his chair and in a very quiet voice said something I’ve never forgotten: “You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right.”

That’s what Dean Smith has done his entire life. There isn’t a single player who played for him between 1962 and 1997 who wouldn’t run through fire and a brick wall for him. It has nothing to do with the games he won. It has everything to do with each of them knowing he would do the same — and more — for them.

Recently, I asked Larry Brown, who played on the first team Smith coached at North Carolina, what one thing made Smith so special to all those who knew him. Brown thought for a moment.

“He’s the single most decent man I ever met,” Brown said.

That’s a wonderful way for anyone to be remembered.

On the night Cal Ripken Jr. retired, he told a packed house at Camden Yards that he had thought often about how he wanted to be remembered.

“What I finally concluded,” Ripken said, “is that to be remembered at all is enough.”

Dean Smith can no longer remember all the lives he touched. But he should be remembered every single day — on his birthday, today and forever.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

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