They came to remember, honor Dean Smith

Dean Smith's Lasting Legacy (1:10)

College basketball coaches Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski discuss the legacy and contributions of UNC legend Dean Smith. (1:10)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Some people wore their Sunday suits, but most people dressed for a game day. It felt like a game day. The line was hundreds deep two hours early outside the Dean Smith Center. They wore countless variations on Carolina blue. One guy had a Michael Jordan jersey. Not a UNC jersey. Not a Bulls jersey. His high school jersey. Laney High of Wilmington. Now there's a throwback.

"We're finished with grieving because we've grieved a lot," said UNC coach Roy Williams once everybody got inside. So the memorial service for Dean Smith wasn't a party, exactly, although they did give away soft drinks. It was more of a post-funeral wake: a bunch of stories, some music, a time to take account of what one man meant.

There was an uncomfortable moment at the end, and Smith would've liked that. He enjoyed those moments when the truth slipped out. And so as the Rev. Robert Seymour, Smith's longtime pastor, listed ways to live up to the coach's example, he came up on this one:

"We honor his memory by never allowing athletics to eclipse academics."

That got an ovation from the thousands gathered for the service. But a bass note buzzed under the applause. UNC, as everyone in the building knew, is in the midst of an academic scandal that is still unfolding. For years, athletes (and some other students) took bogus, no-show classes to stay eligible. It's not clear how high up the blame goes, but it's clear that, for a lot of people involved with the university, athletics eclipsed academics. The pastor's words cut deep.

The day as a whole, everybody agreed, would have driven Dean Smith crazy. All those people getting up to praise him -- former players from Billy Cunningham to Phil Ford to Brad Daugherty to Eric Montross to Antawn Jamison. More than 300 lettermen -- players and team managers -- seated on the floor. The governor and a couple of members of Congress. A photo slideshow. Two video tributes. You could almost see Dean sneaking off to another room. He would've enjoyed the music -- the big-band tunes he loved, like "String of Pearls" and "Satin Doll." But all the rest? He'd just as soon have had everybody run laps.

But they can't quite let go of Dean Smith. "I still want to have lunch with him," said Phil Ford, the star point guard from the 1970s. Brad Daugherty, the former NBA center who was 16 when he enrolled at UNC, still spoke of his coach in the present tense. "When he hugs you, you can't get away from him," Daugherty said. "He holds on to you."

He holds on to you: That's not a bad way to sum up how he treated his players. Nearly all of them have a story about how Smith kept in touch decades after they played for him. Mickey Bell, a defensive specialist who played for UNC in the '70s, told a story about how Smith sent him a note congratulating him on the birth of his son. Bell hadn't told Smith he was going to be a father. But somehow Smith even knew the boy's name.

Those connections, that astounding memory -- that made it even harder when dementia started to chip away at Smith's mind. Some of his players couldn't take seeing him like that. Bill Guthridge, his friend and assistant for decades, would leave the room when Dean came in, because it broke his heart. (Guthridge was at the memorial on Sunday in a wheelchair, and got a standing ovation.)

Several people mentioned how Smith's wife, Linnea, and his five children persevered as Dean declined over the years. Kristen, one of his daughters, and Scott, his only son, spoke briefly at the service.

On the concourse of the Smith Center, they had set out guest books in which people could leave their memories.

"So many decisions I make on a daily basis are based on coach Smith's principles," wrote Steve Reynolds.

"Wish that I could have one more practice with coach Smith!" wrote former Tar Heels center Serge Zwikker. (Not one more game. One more practice.)

The day before, Williams paid tribute to Smith by putting his team into the four corners on the first possession of the Tar Heels' game against Georgia Tech. (Carolina got a backdoor layup. It still works.)

On Sunday, Williams echoed another of Smith's innovations. He pointed to the sky and asked the crowd to join him: "Let's raise our hand, point, and thank him for the assist."

Tommy Tomlinson is a contributing writer at ESPN. He wrote a piece last March about Dean Smith and his struggles with dementia. You can reach Tommy at tomlinsonwrites@gmail.com.