It's especially cruel that coaching icon Dean Smith is losing his memory. As John Feinstein pointed out this week, the man once had the ultimate steel trap of a mind. He retained everything.
Two personal experiences with Smith’s powerful memory, from two different one-on-one interviews in the North Carolina coach’s office during the 1990s:
In an effort to break the ice before getting down to the business portion of the interview, I mentioned to Smith that I grew up in Colorado Springs. That’s where he got his start in college coaching, as an assistant to Bob Spear at the Air Force Academy in the 1950s.
To further the connection, I told Smith that Spear’s son was my English teacher in high school. His eyes lit up and he said, “Oh, Brink?” Correctly identifying the first name of the son of a man he worked for 40 years earlier.
During that first interview with Smith, I also mentioned that I grew up a fan of North Carolina great and Smith favorite Bobby Jones, pointing out his defensive prowess as a forward for the Denver Nuggets in the 1970s. The next time I interviewed Smith, a couple of years later, he reminded me of my affection for Jones -- he said it showed I knew something about basketball to appreciate a defense-first player.
I was immensely flattered that Dean Smith, of all people, remembered what I said. And that he thought I had some basketball sense. But mostly I was astounded that a man who had so many interactions with people could recall a small portion of a conversation with a reporter years earlier.
To read now that Smith’s great mind is malfunctioning is heartbreaking. I know all too well what those close to the man are going through -- my mom was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease at an unusually young age. We knew something was wrong with her recall and focus as early as her mid-50s.
It’s a tragedy that Smith’s mind is faltering. Fortunately, he’s left all those he touched with many great memories.