Dean Smith was one of the finest coaches in the history of American sport. His championship record, innovation, teaching and influence in the lives and careers of players and coaches are unsurpassed in college basketball. Yet the profound sadness we all feel at his passing Saturday at the age of 83 speaks to something far more substantial.
Dean Smith, the coach, was the embodiment of true coaching and competitive greatness. Dean Smith, the man, was far greater, and far more influential.
There has not been a finer tactician and teacher of the game than Smith. And no coach stood taller on issues of social justice. Smith was a giant in coaching, but he stood much taller as a man.
To his former players, many of whom I have the privilege to know and call friends, Smith was more than a coach. He was a teacher, mentor, father figure and person in whom they could trust, and trust for life. Smith was intensely loyal to his players and would do anything within his power to help them through his influence and wide network of friends.
I was fortunate to have competed against Smith's teams in the 1980s as a player and in the 1990s as a graduate assistant coach at Duke. To say that I had great respect for Smith would be an overwhelming understatement. His teams were always prepared and well-schooled, and they competed at the highest level. The Tar Heels were big and fast and played an up-tempo, pressing, trapping style on defense. On offense, his teams ran, played ahead of your defense and then hit you with a secondary break that was relentless. One of his books, "Multiple Offense and Defense," is still the best book on basketball I have ever read, and it was the first time I ever heard of "points per possession" long before the current age of analytics.
Smith was the gold standard in the ACC and in basketball when I was a player. He was the most respected coach in the game. Yet even though he coached the blood rival of my school, every time I had any interaction with Smith, he was very kind to me and always a gentleman. In a game full of characters, Smith was a man of great character.
He fought like crazy to win and never gave an inch. He had an amazing mind and memory. If you talk to any of his former players, assistants, managers or staff, they will speak of him with reverence and unconditional love.
When Smith and North Carolina were dominating the ACC, there were those who felt somewhat resentful of his success and the reputation of his program. After all, they were competing against him, and he was winning the overwhelming majority of the time. Smith was not an extrovert and did not always excel at what would now be called "personal branding." Yet if you got to know Smith personally, you got it. He was ahead of his time as a basketball coach, and he was a person of unquestioned integrity and character. He was a gentleman with great dignity and grace.
My last memory of personal interaction with Smith was at a meeting in Chicago at a basketball summit. In the hotel lobby, Smith and I were exchanging pleasantries and talking about golf, and I brought up a funny story that our mutual friend, Bill Raftery, had just told me about something Raftery had done on Smith's annual golf trip.
Smith began to laugh at the memory. He laughed so hard that he doubled over a bit. I had seen Smith smile and laugh before, but never anything like that.
For me, that's the memory I want to keep of Dean Smith: a basketball legend, a true gentleman of principle and character, laughing out loud thinking fondly of one of his friends.