The learning curve was sharp, but easy to navigate.
Growing up in what was still a basketball hotbed at the time, in an era when college hoops still seemed to matter there, it was hard to ignore Dean Smith and the place he held in the sport, the way he was held in such high esteem and why.
Even from a distance, from as far away as Philadelphia, where I toiled away on hardwood and blacktop courts as a youth, with pie-in-the-sky dreams of becoming become the next Tom Gola or Guy Rodgers, local legends still revered in my hometown and remembered by longtime fans beyond the city’s limits, Smith was impossible to overlook as he held court in Chapel Hill, N.C.
His class, his calmness, his coaching acumen, all of it was apparent while watching him and his University of North Carolina squads take on high-level competition inside and outside the Atlantic Coast Conference. That aura just jumped off the television screen, as did those laser-focused eyes studying every move by his Tar Heels and every counter move by their opposition, along with the prim and proper attire adorning the body attached.
His on-court success was obvious. Two national titles, 11 Final Four appearances, 17 ACC regular-season crowns and being the all-time Division I wins leader with 879 when he retired in 1997 secured a spot somewhere on the sport’s Mount Rushmore, or in ridiculously close proximity to it.
But it wasn’t just the winning. It was how his Tar Heels played. By the time I had tuned in, they were en route to reaching the 1977 NCAA championship. They lost that title game, but they were something to behold along the way. Talented, but team-oriented, UNC played with an understated brilliance that was as deadly to the opposition as it was organized – which was pure Smith.
Indeed, there was a certain degree of elegance to how he handled himself, far removed from the mostly domineering and demonstrative lot who seemed to dominate the X’s and O’s profession, and that was to be appreciated and applauded.
In short, he deserved respect.
He still does, just days after his passing at the age of 83 – which is why we have seen such an outpouring of emotion and positive words by those he touched, from players to fellow coaches to media members since it was revealed that he died Saturday night at his home.
From Michael Jordan, his most famous player, to some of his staunchest rivals, such as Lefty Driesell, who, while coaching at then-ACC rival Maryland, couldn’t bring himself to even speak to Smith due to his own intensity, the compliments abound. Jordan credited Smith with being the single most important figure in his life outside of his parents. Driesell commended Smith for being a gentleman and then shared that when his own son had shown an interest in coaching that he pointed at Smith to emulate and not himself because Smith “did it the right way.”
For me, it went beyond the accolades and kind words. What made him such a treasure in my eyes was his honesty. Beyond all the hype and hoopla, all the hero worship and praise-be-the-coach patronage, he was a down-to-Earth, straight-shooting guy.
He was, in a word, genuine – at all times.
While it was his national runner-up squad spearheaded by Phil Ford, Walter Davis and freshman Mike O’Koren that first caught my eye to both his program and Smith himself, it was a TV appearance before the 1985 national title game pitting heavily favored Georgetown against Villanova that sold me on him.
Why? Because he stated exactly what he felt, regardless of what the general consensus believing a blowout was guaranteed almost demanded. Going well against the grain, Smith said that the difference between the two teams was minimal, and that Georgetown’s talent level was vastly inflated. Indeed, the two teams, both members of the old (and current) Big East Conference, had squared off twice in the regular season, with the Hoyas winning both, by scores or 52-50 and 57-50.
Smith even pointed out that beating the Wildcats a third time in one season might be more than the Hoyas could pull off, and that the idea of Georgetown steamrolling ‘Nova was preposterous. He stated it all with conviction, but lacking not a smidge of sincerity and respect.
Turned out he was right. The Wildcats pulled off the “upset.” They also turned out to have just as many first-round draft picks as the far more ballyhooed Hoyas did from players in that game.
Rest in peace, enlightened man.
- Mr. Jack Kerwin is the Director of Communications at the United States Sports Academy and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.