The 1993 NCAA championship team is perhaps one of the best loved among all the team Dean Smith coached. You could also argue it was his best coaching job ever. The team was talented but not overly so yet they embodied the principles of Carolina basketball and executed Smith's system to perfection in beating Michigan for UNC's third NCAA title.
But sadly, as Smith mental faculties continue to slip, he no longer remembers that team or the players who personified Carolina team basketball at its best.
Via Sports on Earth.
On that North Carolina 1993 national championship team, Derrick Phelps learned the value of sacrifice from his coach. George Lynch picked up leadership skills. Eric Montross, a Paul Bunyonesque center, became an All-American. Those players, along with others on the squad, have all paid visits to their former mentor who still keeps an office on the Chapel Hill campus. They've reintroduced themselves, hoping for a sign, maybe an acknowledging nod from the man who changed their lives.
Instead, Dean Smith will give the same introductory smile he offers to strangers -- because in Smith's world, that's what most people have become. He has no recollection of coaching that 1993 team to a 34-4 record, or Chris Webber's timeout, or anything associated with his final and most unexpected NCAA championship, or any other Tar Heels season, for that matter.
Smith has Progressive Neurocognitive Disorder. That's what his family revealed with sadness three years ago when it was clear the coach was in a losing battle with a debilitating illness. It's a slow, torturous, evil, part about getting old. Much like Pat Summitt when she lost her grip on her ability to recall former players and championships, Smith finds it increasingly difficult to connect with his past. And that past, with 879 wins, two titles and hundreds of players who learned about basketball and life from his knee, is deeper and richer than most.
Among the players on that team, George Lynch appears to be one of the hardest hit by Smith's condition. Smith, who was known for grasping the smallest details about the people around him, no longer remembers his favorite players and what they accomplished together.
"What's really hard," said Lynch, "is that I was one of his favorite players, from what people told me, and the last time I saw him, I had to tell him my full name. 'George Lynch, coach.' That's what I said. He started studying my face. I could tell he was trying really hard to remember who I was. This is a man who knew my aunts and uncles by name when I was being recruited. When I started my own family, he learned all of my kids' names and knew my wife, just like that, the next time he saw them. It was one of the things coach was great at, the ability to never forget people. That's when his situation hit home with me. I felt sad for him, for myself, for everyone he ever knew or helped."
The Fayetteville Observer's Bret Strelow tweeted earlier this week that he had seen Dean Smith leaving the building that bore his name. According to Strelow, Smith flashed a smile as he went on his way. Roy Williams noted a couple of months ago that Smith has good days and bad. There are times, Williams said, you see the old Dean Smith again.
Unfortunately, it seems those times come less often and when they do, are accompanied by the trepidation for the day when they disappear forever.