I never actually met Dean Smith.
A miscommunicated word likely kept me from being a basketball manager and thus part of the UNC basketball family. But I felt like I knew Dean Smith, as did Tar Heel fans everywhere. And I did have two memorable times of interacting with him that helped define his greatness beyond the basketball court. Here is the story of what Dean Smith meant to me.
Even though I did not fully pledge my allegiance to UNC until my senior year of high school, I was always a fan of Dean Smith as a coach. As a high school student, I would go to the public library and check out Smith’s book Multiple Offense and Defense and just read it over and over. I probably checked that book out a dozen times in high school. When I decided to attend UNC as a senior, my high school basketball coach, who had known Coach Smith for many years, called to ask about how students were selected to work with his team. The only problem was, my coach asked about me being a student "trainer" instead of "manager" and Coach Smith told him to tell me to work through the Sports Medicine department at UNC. By the time I figured out I was headed down a different path, it was too late to work my way up to being a Carolina basketball manager, which is unfortunate given that the Tar Heels made the Final Four my senior year.
After I graduated from UNC and began coaching high school basketball, I had the chance to coach a local team against the 1994 Carolina seniors on their barnstorming tour (and of course this was a time when there were enough guys who stayed four years to have a team of seniors). The game was a lot of fun and the group of seniors – Eric Montross, Derrick Phelps, Brian Reese, and Kevin Salvadori – stayed at the gym for over two hours after the game until every fan had an autograph and picture. They were a fabulous group of guys who had represented the university so well on an off the court and had made that night special for fans and players alike.
Around the same time, my high school coach had been named to a college coaching position and asked me to come as his assistant. To celebrate my jump to college coaching, a friend had given me my own copy of Dean Smith’s Multiple Offense and Defense. After the barnstorming exhibition game, I wrote Coach Smith a letter telling him how well those seniors had done that night and how happy that made me as an alumnus of UNC. I also told him that I had just been named to a college coaching job and that his book had always meant a lot to me, and would he please sign it for me. I enclosed the book and a return envelope. A few weeks later, an envelope appeared with the book inside. I opened the book and would have been thrilled if only the name "Dean Smith" appeared inside. Instead there was this inscription:
The thing is, I hadn’t told him what college I was going to coach. He had found that out himself before signing my book, because that’s the kind of person he was. And that book and its inscription remain one of my prized possessions.
In the spring of 1997, Dean Smith won his 877th game, passing Adolph Rupp for the most wins in college basketball history. That same season, our team at St. Augustine’s College won the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) tournament, the nation’s oldest historically black college tournament, for the first time in school history. My coach asked me to draft a letter to Coach Smith congratulating him on the milestone. A few weeks later, Coach Smith replied, apologizing that he had not congratulated my coach for winning the CIAA for the first time. So typical of Coach Smith, deflecting praise from himself and instead focusing on someone else’s triumphs.
Later that summer, my coach suffered a heart attack and died just eight weeks before the start of basketball season. About two weeks after his death, a letter arrived from the UNC basketball office addressed to me. Dean Smith had written to express his condolences and to encourage me to be strong for our players. We had never met and had no correspondence between his inscription in my book and my coach’s passing, but he had remembered who I was and addressed me personally (and our team of course) in his letter.
I went on to my own head coaching career at the high school level, and now work in administration. The lesson I learned from Dean Smith, and what Dean Smith meant to me, is that people will often forget what you did or even said. But people will never forget how you made them feel. I was no one of any importance, but at least twice the greatest basketball coach of all time took the time to make me feel like I was the most important person he knew. That’s my takeaway from Dean Smith and what I try to remember always in dealing with people. Well done, Coach.