Words will come pouring forth in the next few days from those who played for Dean Smith, those who coached for and against him and from the president of the United States, who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom a little more than a year ago.
The news of the legendary North Carolina basketball coach’s death at age 83 is hardly shocking. He had been seriously ill with dementia for several years. Knowing him and knowing the condition he has been in for a long time now, I think I can say with confidence that for those who loved him most, this is a blessing. Dean Smith was a spiritual man, and there is no doubt if he had any say in the matter, this escape would have come long ago.
As a coach, he had many great rivals, none more intense than the one he had for 17 seasons in Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. On Sunday morning, Krzyzewski was getting gas when a text popped onto his phone telling him Smith had died.
“I looked at it and said, ‘Oh no!’ ” Krzyzewski said. “Obviously, I knew he’d been sick. I knew he was in tough shape, but for some reason I never thought about him dying.” He paused. “Maybe that’s because he’s one of those people who you think is going to live forever.” He paused again, and there was a catch in his voice when he continued. “Of course he will live forever. Not because of what he did but because of what he taught.”
That’s exactly it. Above all, Dean Smith was the ultimate teacher. Sure, he taught on the basketball court. All the extraordinary numbers he produced are testament to that. But his teaching went way beyond that. He taught loyalty — by being loyal, often to a fault. He taught passion — not just about winning games but about doing the right things in life. He was outspoken on issues that often didn’t make him very popular in the state where he lived, including the death penalty, a nuclear freeze and the Vietnam war.
The story about his involvement in desegregating restaurants in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1958 — when he was still an assistant coach — now has been told often, but for many years no one knew it had taken place. Not surprisingly, the first person to tell the story publicly wasn’t Smith but the Rev. Robert Seymour, the minister at the Binkley Baptist Church, where Smith worshipped from 1958 until his death.
When I asked Smith to fill in details on that night, he said, “Who told you that story?” I told him it had been Seymour. He shook his head and said, “I wish he hadn’t done that.”
Surprised, I said, “Dean, you should be proud of doing something like that.”
He looked me in the eye and said, “John, you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.”
Talk about a teaching moment.
His competitiveness, even in a world filled with fanatic competitors, was legendary. He couldn’t stand losing a basketball game or a golf match or an argument. He didn’t lose many arguments because, inevitably, he was the smartest guy in the room.
He was one of the great innovators basketball has ever seen. His use of the four corners delay offense made opponents crazy, but it led to college basketball putting in a shot clock in 1985 — which was exactly what Smith wanted. As successful as he had been at slowing the game down, he knew playing the game faster would be to his advantage because he almost always had the best players. The more possessions there were in a game, the more time there was for that talent to take control.
He wasn’t just innovative on the court. He was the first coach to insist that his seniors be recognized before their last home game. He started them all — from stars to walk-ons — and if he had six seniors, they all started and North Carolina began the game with the other team shooting a technical foul free throw. No one thought to do that before Dean Smith.
Everyone who spent time with him has multiple stories about him: stories about his generosity, his dry humor, his legendary sarcasm. Smith never cursed — not in practice, not in a game — never. But he could cut people down in an instant without ever raising his voice.
“In practice, he’d say, ‘Buzz, do you really think that was a good shot you just took?’ ” said Buzz Peterson, who was Michael Jordan’s roommate at UNC. “Before I could say anything, he’d say, ‘Let’s ask your teammates what they thought. Or do you just want to tell me if you think that was the best shot we could have gotten right there.’ There was no hole deep enough to crawl into at that moment.”
All his players remember those moments, but they also remember the late night phone calls after they graduated, checking up on them or offering help when someone might be out of a job or when a marriage had gone south or a relative had been lost. It often has been said — accurately — that there was nothing Smith wouldn’t do for a member of the North Carolina basketball family.
That said, it often went beyond that. Smith recruited Bobby Hurley when he was in high school, but Hurley went to Duke, where he helped the Blue Devils win two national championships. After Hurley had played his last college game, he received a letter from Smith telling him how proud he should be of what he had accomplished in college.
No one better defines the cliche about the measure of a man’s life being the number of lives he touched than Dean Smith. I thought about that Sunday morning when I first heard the news he had passed away. It occurred to me that if Dean ever sat down and started listing all the people who meant something to him during his life, I wouldn’t crack the top 1,000. And yet outside of family and close friends, very few people were more important to me than Dean — because of what he taught me about how to treat people and how to live my life.
I first met him when I was a college junior, when I introduced myself after Carolina had pounded Duke in a game in Chapel Hill. I had written a column a few weeks earlier in the Duke student newspaper urging Bill Foster, who was then Duke’s coach, to look at the model Smith had built 10 miles down the road as he tried to rebuild at Duke.
“Oh yes, I read the column you wrote about Bill and how to rebuild at Duke,” Smith said — almost causing me to faint. “I thought you were very fair to us — especially for someone from Duke.”
Years later, I was sitting in his office, working in the nascent stages of the biography I had wanted to write about him for years. This was 2009, and he had finally agreed to let me write the book. Sadly, his extraordinary memory was already failing him then, and it was becoming apparent to me that I had blown it — I had gotten him to agree to the project too late.
As we sat there on a summer afternoon, my cellphone buzzed, and I could see it was Lefty Driesell calling. Thinking Dean might get a kick out of talking to his old rival, I answered, told Dean who it was and handed him the phone.
“You really gonna let a Duke guy do a book on you?” Lefty — a Duke graduate — said to Dean. “You gonna trust a Duke guy like that?”
Dean looked at me and smiled. “I trust him,” he said, “because I don’t think of him as a Duke guy but as a good guy.”
I never got to finish the book. But I treasure that moment. Krzyzewski had it right. Dean Smith will live forever.
John Feinstein is working on a new book about Smith, Krzyzewski and Jimmy Valvano.