CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The final season guard Hubert Davis played in the NBA was with the Detroit Pistons, who were in town to play against Michael Jordan during his final comeback with the Washington Wizards.
"I remember when he walked into the locker room. I was on the StairMaster and I jumped off and it was him and Coach Guthridge, and I just gave them a big hug," Davis said. "... And all the guys in the locker room were like, 'Dang, you're like a little kid, like, that's your dad.' And I was like, 'He is my dad. That's my coach.'"
Davis, who is now an assistant coach on Roy Williams' staff at North Carolina, was one of many former players who referred to Smith, who died Saturday night at age 83, as a second father for what he meant to them away from basketball.
In a statement on Twitter released through his business manager, Jordan said Smith was "more than a coach -- he was a mentor, my teacher, my second father.''
The former NBA superstar and Charlotte Hornets owner said, "In teaching me the game of basketball, he taught me about life.''
Smith would have monthly meetings with each player. They would have a personalized film session to discuss their play on the court. Smith also would take time to talk about what was happening off it, and that helped create a bond for subsequent life.
Smith cultivated a culture that became known as the "Carolina family" because of the way he treated anyone associated with the program. Walk-ons, scholarship players, managers, administrative assistants -- they were treated as equals during his tenure both in and out of their time in school. At one time, Phil Ford was arguably the most beloved Tar Heels player ever after he perfected Smith's Four Corners offense from 1974 to 1978. Smith hired Ford as an assistant coach in 1988, and he remained on staff until 2000.
Ford often sought Smith's guidance with personal decisions, and Smith was there for Ford when he battled substance abuse problems.
"He would always stay in contact with us, not only as student-athletes here at North Carolina, but once we graduated," Ford said. "He would always send us letters of encouragement when things were going bad or struggling with certain things and always let us know that he was here for us. Again, anything that he could possibly do of himself to make you better, he was willing to do."
It became an annual ritual for former players to return to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, every summer after they graduated to visit people in the basketball office and to play pickup games with current players. Current junior point guard Marcus Paige, a native of Marion, Iowa, said he knew about Smith's coaching records and such before he arrived on campus. But it took being around former players to get the gist of Smith's true impact.
"I never really realized how important he was to the players until I got here and got to hang out with Shammond Williams [1994-98] and Antawn Jamison [1995-98] and got to learn how important a father figure he was to them," Paige said. "You don't learn those things in textbooks or on ESPN, so it was kind of cool to be around people who were influenced by him and learn that way."
Being a part of the "family" meant being plugged in to a network. Where you see one Carolina player, you generally see another.
"Again, anything that he could possibly do of himself to make you better, he was willing to do." Phil Ford on Dean Smith
SMU coach Larry Brown, who played for Smith from 1961 to 1963, tapped George Lynch ('89-93) to be his director of player development. Monmouth coach King Rice (1987-91) has Brian Reese ('90-94) as an assistant on his staff. Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak ('72-76) filled a roster to include Ed Davis (2008-10) and Wayne Ellington (2006-09). And so on.
Williams laughed at how the notion is not only accepted now, but also many programs have tried to emulate the same atmosphere.
"It's so funny because all of our guys, when I was an assistant here, would come back and talk about how all the other guys in the NBA would make fun of that," Williams said. "We used to just say it was jealousy because they wanted to be part of that family."
It's just another way Smith affected the world of college basketball and another reason he will be missed by many.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.