John Feinstein has a new book out titled One on One which recounts various stories from his interaction with some of the great coaches and athletes over the course of his career. In this excerpt from the book, Feinstein writes about approaching Dean Smith in the early 1980s regarding the possibility of writing an article on the UNC head coach. Dean was not keen on the idea preferring that Feinstein write about his players instead plus he hated giving lengthy interviews. Feinstein was able to get time with Dean and wrote the piece which ran in the Washington Post. After UNC won the 1982 NCAA title, Feinstein approached Dean about a book chronicling the 1982-83 season. Dean turned him down. Sadly, Dean did acquiesce to Feinstein's request to do a book in 2009 but during the course of meeting with Dean to gather material for the book, it became clear his health would not permit the project to continue.
After the jump is the rather lengthy section from chapter one detailing Feinstein's interaction with Dean about the book idea and provides a nice glimpse into Dean Smith at roughly the same stage of his coaching career Roy Williams is at now.
That wasn’t the case with Dean Smith. In spite of my educational background (Duke), I’d always had a good relationship with him. In fact, in 1981 I had written a lengthy two?part series on Smith in the Post for which he had given me a lot of interview time and allowed a lot of his close friends to talk with me. For Dean, this was very rare. He hated publicity.
“Write about the players,” he would always say when someone asked him for extended interview time. He had even done that when approached by the great Frank Deford for a profile in Sports Illustrated. Deford was so good he could write around not having sit? down time with Dean and still be brilliant. I wasn’t that good. So in January of 1981, absolutely determined to get Dean to give me some serious time, I drove down to Charlottesville on a Friday afternoon to see him at his hotel —the Boar’s Head Inn. North Carolina was playing Virginia the next afternoon.
Rick Brewer —who had been the sports information director at North Carolina since 1975, but had worked in the athletic department since his days as a student in the mid?’60s —had convinced Dean to speak to me that evening and allow me to make my case. So I made the drive from D.C. even though I had to turn around and go right back to cover a game at Maryland the next day.
Dean was trying unsuccessfully to light a fire in the fireplace in his room when Rick and I walked in. Through the years, one thing he and I have shared is a complete inability to figure out anything mechanical or technical. Once, when I was trying to track him down by phone for a story I was working on one Sunday afternoon, I asked Keith Drum, who worked at the Durham Morning Herald at the time, if he would give Dean the 800 number at the Post and ask him to call me. When Keith handed Dean the number, Dean looked at it and said, “I’m not sure I know how to dial an eight?hundred number.” He was serious.
Now he had put out a call for someone on the hotel staff to come to the room to light a fire for him. I would have offered to help, only I probably couldn’t have done any better.
“So what do you need?” Dean asked, sitting down.
“You,” I answered as he started shaking his head.
I told him I had written stories about his players, including one earlier that season on Sam Perkins. I had even driven down to Wilmington to see one of his future players, a kid named Michael Jordan, play that winter. I told him if he didn’t talk to me, I was going to write the story anyway, but I also said I knew it would be a lot better if he did talk to me.
He sighed and looked at Rick. “What do you think, Rick?” he asked.
Rick shrugged. “I think if John’s going to write the story it will be better if you talk to him,” he said.
Dean looked at me and shook his head. “I still wish you’d just write about the players,” he said.
“I know you do, Dean,” I answered.
“Okay. Let me think about it overnight. I’ll let you know after the game tomorrow.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “Maybe you can call me, or Rick can call me, because I won’t be here. I have to drive back tonight since Maryland plays at noon tomorrow.”
He looked puzzled. “You mean you drove down here just to talk to me?” he said.
He smiled. “I wish I’d have known that. I’d have had Rick buy you dinner.”
To this day Rick and I still laugh about that line. Because I’d driven to Charlottesville to see Dean, Rick should get stuck taking me to dinner. I told him that, as much as I liked Rick and as much as I enjoyed the Aberdeen Barn (a great steakhouse in Charlottesville), my only mission that night was to get him to say yes.
The next day, shortly after Virginia and Ralph Sampson had beaten North Carolina, my phone rang. Hearing Rick’s voice, I expected bad news, since I had just seen the end of the game a few minutes earlier.
“Dean says if you can come down the Friday of the North?South doubleheader, you can drive with him to Charlotte and talk then. That’ll give you at least two and a half hours.”
“That’s a start,” I said.
Rick laughed. “It’s not a start,” he said. “It’s a miracle.”
I really didn’t care who was playing the two?day North?South since I wasn’t staying for the games. The plan was for me to drive to Charlotte with Dean—who almost never traveled with his team, in large part because he thought the players would be more relaxed without him around, but also because he didn’t like to smoke around them— and then drive Dean’s car back to Chapel Hill, where I had left my car.
It was a fascinating two and a half hours. Dean talked about how he had always wanted to play the positions where you were in charge as a kid: quarterback, point guard, catcher. He talked about his dad and how proud he had been when he realized years after the fact that he had coached the first integrated high school basketball team in the state of Kansas. He was as open and unguarded as I’d ever seen him. At one point when he was talking about archconservative North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, I asked Dean if he had ever considered running against him. He shook his head.
“I could never get elected in this state,” he said. “I’m too liberal.”
The highlight of the trip came when we stopped at a gas station. It was February and cold, so the windows were rolled up and Dean was smoking. When he asked if I wanted to stop to get a Coke, I practically screamed, “Yes, dear God, yes!” The smoke was killing me. We pulled into a gas station and walked inside. There was an elderly gentleman in red overalls behind the counter. Just as we walked in he spit a large wad of chewing tobacco into a pail next to him.
When he saw Dean, his eyes went wide. Dean noticed and was instantly embarrassed. “Please don’t write this —” he started to say just as we heard the man say, “Oh my God.” Dean was waving him off, trying to get him to stop, when the man added, “It’s Norman Sloan!”
I’m honestly not sure who laughed harder, Dean, the old guy, or me. As we walked back to the car, Dean said, “You see, I told you I’m not that big a deal around here.”
When we got to Charlotte, Dean showed me where the car’s registration was after explaining to me for a fourth time that the only reason he drove a BMW was because one of his ex?managers ran a BMW dealership. I laughed when he showed me the registration.
“Dean, if I get pulled over by a cop and I say that Dean Smith gave me his car, what do you think the chances are I’m not going to jail?”
“Yeah, and with your luck, it’ll be a State fan,” he said.
I was really proud of the story I wrote. I was able to talk to Dean’s sister, to lots of his ex?players, and to coaches and friends. The most telling anecdote came from his pastor at the Binkley Baptist Church, Reverend Robert Seymour, who Dean described as one of his closest friends.
Reverend Seymour told me that, shortly after Dean arrived in Chapel Hill as Frank McGuire’s assistant coach, he and Dean had gotten into a conversation about segregation. This was 1958 and restaurants in the South were still segregated. The two men agreed it was wrong and decided to try to do something about it. And so, one night that summer, North Carolina assistant basketball coach Dean Smith and an African?American member of the church walked into one of Chapel Hill’s best?known restaurants, the Pines, and sat down together at a table.
One can imagine the conversation that went on among the employees and the management that night. They all knew that the man sitting at the table was Frank McGuire’s assistant. On the other hand, he wasn’t Frank McGuire —he was an assistant. Someone made a decision: dinner was served without anyone saying a word. That night was the beginning of desegregation in Chapel Hill.
“You have to understand,” the pastor said to me, “Dean Smith wasn’t Dean Smith in 1958. He was an assistant coach. It wasn’t out of the question that management might have complained to the university and he might have gotten in serious trouble. But he never hesitated to do it.”
When I asked Dean to tell me what he remembered about that night, he looked at me with some anger in his face. “Who told you that story?” he said.
“Reverend Seymour,” I said.
“I wish he hadn’t.”
“Why? That’s something you should be proud of.”
Dean shook his head. “You should never be proud of doing the right thing,” he said. “You should just do it.”
I knew he meant it. I can’t tell you how much I admired him at that moment. When I interviewed John Thompson, who had been a close friend of Dean’s for years, I asked him if he knew the story. “No, I don’t,” he said. “And I’m not surprised. It’s not Dean’s way to take bows for anything.”
The first part of the story ran the day before the start of the ACC Tournament, which was played in Washington that year. When North Carolina came on the court for its practice session that afternoon, I was standing courtside. Dean walked over to say hello. “I haven’t read the paper today,” he said. “Am I speaking to you?”
A couple of weeks later, I got the answer, in the form of a note from Dean. Typically, he started by saying he still wished I hadn’t done the story. But since I’d done it, he thought I’d been very fair and thorough, although he wished his sister hadn’t told me quite so much about his boyhood. I wrote back and thanked him for the note and for the time and his patience. Then I added another sentence: “I think you know how much I admire and respect you. Someday there will come a time for a book to be done on your life. I would love it if you would consider me as the person to write that book.”
It was probably pretty audacious for me, at the age of twenty?five, to write that, but I did it anyway. Dean wrote back very graciously and said, “Of course, when the time comes, I would be happy to talk to you about a book. But I hope that I will be coaching for a long time to come.”
One year later, North Carolina won the national championship, beating Georgetown and John Thompson in a classic game. Michael Jordan hit the famous winning shot and Fred Brown threw the infamous losing pass. Now Dean had officially done it all: he had won an NCAA title (and been to seven Final Fours), he had won the NIT, and he had won at the Olympics.
Now, I thought, with Jordan and Sam Perkins both coming back, was the time to strike. My plan was to write the book during the ’82–83 season and make it a combination biography/story of a season. I had no idea how much access Dean might give me or how much access I would ask for; I just wanted to see if he would agree to a book.
I called him. I told him I knew he was a long way from retiring but, now that he had the national championship monkey off his back and his team had a legitimate chance to perhaps win again the next year, I thought this was the time. I promised I would come down during the summer and get all the long interviews out of the way before school even started. I already had a lot of the background work done because of the Post story.
“Let me think about it,” he said. “I want to talk to Linnea [his wife] and give it some thought.”
That was all I could ask for. He called back within a week. “I seriously thought about it,” he said. “I understand why you want to do it now, and I know you’d do a good job. But there are some things I know you’re going to want me to be frank about that I’m just not ready to talk about yet. [I’m sure he was talking about his opinions of other coaches.] It’s just too soon.”
I understood. I was also disappointed. “I really did seriously consider it,” he said. “I feel bad about it. Is there anything I can do for you? Maybe get you some tickets?”
I laughed. I didn’t need tickets. I told him I hoped someday his answer would be different. It would be twenty?seven years before we would discuss a book again.
“You should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do it.”