CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- As much as North Carolina coach Roy Williams shared stories with his current players about the man and coach who was Dean Smith, he’s never brought up dedicating the season to his memory.
At this point, he really doesn’t have to.
“Whether you know him or not, his impact on Carolina basketball is great,” sophomore center Kennedy Meeks said. “Whether you talk about him or not, it’s still going to be impactful for the team just in his style of play. I just think it’s important for us to honor him.”
On Saturday, North Carolina pummeled Georgia Tech 89-60 in its first home game since Smith passed away at 83 on Feb. 7.
Sunday’s public service for Smith will signal the end of official events the school has scheduled, but it’s really only the beginning for this team. Even though most of the current players were still wearing diapers during Smith's final season as the Tar Heels' coach in 1996-97, junior guard Marcus Paige said in a sense it seemed like the team was playing for him.
“It felt like it today, the first however many games after he passed it felt like it. I guess it’s continuing to feel like it,” said Paige, who recorded his first career double-double with 13 points and 10 assists. “It would be great to make some noise, go on a run because that’s one thing you automatically connect to our program is Coach Smith. To do it for him, and honestly for us, it would be great.”
Paige was the lone player who represented the current team at the reception following Smith’s private memorial Feb. 12. He earned a greater sense of not only Smith but the program as a whole mingling with the likes of James Worthy, Jim Delaney and Jerry Stackhouse.
“I was debating whether or not I even deserved to be in that room with some of those people,” Paige said. “To experience the love that everyone had for Coach Smith was a great experience, something I’ll never forget.”
Many former players from across different decades -- including J.R. Reid, Ed Cota and Marcus Ginyard -- occupied the section generally filled by students behind the home team basket Saturday.
Smith’s presence was felt in all aspects of the game. Thousands of placards were handed out to fans who entered the arena bearing his name with a collage of pictures of Smith on one side, and on the other, an outline of the four corners play with the phrase later coined the "Carolina Way" written over it: “Play hard, play smart, play together.”
The Heels ran out of the tunnel wearing throwback uniforms from the '70s and '80s, and Smith's initials will be on a patch on their jerseys for the rest of the season. There was a moment of silence beforehand, when the announcer labeled him a “most precious jewel."
Carolina won the tip, and on the first possession of the game, Williams held up four fingers in the air. The Heels ran the four corners offense, made famous by Smith, which essentially led to the shot clock in college basketball. Brice Johnson scored on a backdoor cut, marking the first of 10 assists for Paige.
“I felt like Coach was on cloud nine after we got that,” forward J.P. Tokoto said. “In the locker room, he was very happy with the way we executed it.”
The Heels only practiced the play once, and Williams waited until some of the former players and others invited to observe had cleared out from the gym. He didn’t want their intentions leaked onto social media before the game.
“I wanted it to be something very sincere from our team -- University of North Carolina basketball team -- to Coach Dean Smith,” Williams said.
Carolina’s recent play has also reflected a sincere effort that had been inconsistent throughout the season. The players acknowledged the intensity they showed in the loss to Duke on Wednesday established the level that they need to maintain.
It’s their unspoken way of honoring Smith.
“We drew a line in the sand after the Pitt game like we have to bring it every night,” Paige said. “We’re not exactly where we want to be in the standings, but there’s a lot of basketball left to be played and we can make some noise. But we have to play.”
Hard. Smart. Together.