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The lessons of Dean Smith

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Dean Smith: Lasting Impact On, Off Court (3:34)

Journalist and author Bill Nack explores the legacy of Dean Smith, who was known as the best teacher in basketball and a strong advocate for social justice. (3:34)

After my story on Dean Smith ran this past March, I got an email from Kenny Dennard. Dennard started as a freshman on Duke's 1978 Final Four team and was a senior in Mike Krzyzewski's first year at Duke. Dean had recruited him hard, and before every UNC-Duke game, Dean would walk over to Dennard with a smile and remind him.

Dennard played 52 games over two years in the NBA with the Kansas City Kings, then developed testicular cancer. The Kings didn't want to pay him for the rest of his three-year deal. Dennard sued. Dean called his friend Doug Moe, the Denver Nuggets coach. Moe had played at Carolina when Dean was an assistant. Dean had a request.

Not long after, Denver traded a future third-round pick for Dennard. He played his final 43 NBA games with the Nuggets. His stat line was never much -- for his career, he averaged 2.8 points and 3.0 rebounds a game -- but he won his suit and finished his contract.

Dennard now runs an investment relations company in Houston. When he assembled his résumé to send out into the business world, he put down just one reference from his life in sports: Dean Smith.

"To me," Dennard said, "he was a great man before he was a great coach."

On one level, that's a sweet story -- a Carolina man helping a Dukie in his time of need. But there's another level to it: Dean Smith, decent and caring as he was, loved to be in charge. He liked running things and running them his way.

Looking through my notes on the story, I see it so many times. He loved playing golf with his buddies, but if it was a close match, he'd make you sink every last putt -- no gimmes. Linnea Smith, his wife, talked about how she and Dean would bring the parents of recruits to their home just outside Chapel Hill. Dean didn't cook much, but on those occasions he grilled the steaks. "He was very good at it," she said. "Everybody got what they wanted."

In his memoir, "A Coach's Life," Dean talked about his days as a high school athlete: "I was a quarterback in football, and in those days, quarterbacks called their own plays. I was a guard in basketball, which meant I got to call the plays there too, and I was a catcher in baseball, which meant I got to call the pitches. A pattern was developing: I liked to be in control."

He had a philosophy of loyalty and teamwork, in basketball and life, that came to be known as the Carolina Way. But it wouldn't have meant much without the execution. His fans loved him (and fans of other teams hated him) for lots of reasons, but mostly because he won games. Losing coaches don't create disciples.

All forms of dementia lead to the same cruel result: loss of control. Dean's family and friends love to talk about his astonishing memory, and how tragic it was the dementia stole it away. But I think that for Dean, the loss of control was probably more painful. By the end of his life, he wasn't in charge of anything. That was the opposite of the coach who ran one of college basketball's most powerful programs for 36 years.

His family and friends learned well. Dean was protective of them when he was able, and they protected him when he wasn't. It took months to persuade Linnea to talk to me for the story. By then I had talked to many of Dean's friends and former players. Nearly all of them said they didn't want to be interviewed unless Linnea gave her blessing. Once she did, they opened up.

Every tombstone could read: A COMPLICATED LIFE. Dean Smith's background and nature taught him to be humble, but he built himself into a legend. He tried to mold young men into better human beings but made many into stars. He ran his life the way he wanted, until the day he couldn't. Maybe this is his lesson. There's only so much you can control.

North Carolina plays basketball in the Dean Smith Center. He never wanted it to be called that. Doug Dibbert, who runs alumni affairs for UNC, told me a story about when the arena was being built in the mid-'80s. One of Dean's best friends, Chris Fordham, was chancellor at the time. Dean went to Fordham and begged him to name the arena something else.

As long as I'm alive, Dean said, there's always the possibility I'd do something to embarrass the university.

Fordham laughed. Hush, he said, and pretend you're enjoying it.

Dean Smith can rest now. He did not embarrass the university.

Tommy Tomlinson is a contributing writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can reach him at tomlinsonwrites@gmail.com or on Twitter @tommytomlinson.