I first met Dean Smith in of all places, the old gym at St. John’s. I was there as a student with my college coach, Rodger Bearde of Wilkes University. He was recruiting some of New York City’s best players. Sitting in the stands watching the New York Catholic League playoff games was quite the thrill for this wide-eyed kid.
The loudest person in our little section of the stands was this young Italian coach from Iona named Valvano. Wonder what ever happened to him? While we were watching the games, trying to figure out which kids might want to come play at our Division III program, I noticed a legend.
He was there to watch a guard named Jimmy Black who would go on to win a national title in Chapel Hill for Coach Smith. I went over and asked him to sign my program. I was a fan THAT day and remain one today!
I next ran into coach at an NCAA tournament game years later at Notre Dame. His Tar Heels, with some guy named Jordan on the roster were in South Bend to try and advance in the tournament. I had to take him to the media room with his longtime SID Rick Brewer. He was as elegant a person as you could imagine.
He treated me like I was SOMEBODY! I never forgot that.
Notre Dame played in ONLY the third game ever at the Dean Dome. We lost but it was another chance to watch the Maestro at work.
Then, in 1991, the Tar Heels come to Indy for the Final Four. I was assigned to be one of “his guys” by our local committee. It really helped me the night I met the Heels that ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan was in tow. Corrigan was my AD when I worked at Notre Dame.
Mr. Corrigan told Coach Smith, “You’ll be in good hands, Dean. Eddie will take care of you.” The pressure was on.
Getting him his cigarettes, running errands, I did whatever The Dean wanted.
Of course, no happy ending here in the Heartland with cutting down the nets. Not only did UNC get bounced from the Final Four, incredibly Dean Smith was given two technical fouls and was thrown out of the Hoosier Dome.
While he puffed away in the hallway, you probably think I tried to keep him in check. Nope. Just the opposite – he kept me IN check.
Just a few weeks after the team’s ouster and HIS personal ouster, I got a nice personal note from him thanking me for my help. Still have it.
When I learned of how he brought civil rights to the ACC and I learned more about the man, did my respect for Dean the MAN outgrow my respect for Dean the COACH.
Now, many years later with a son who plays many sports and has had many coaches, I marvel at what really made Dean Smith, well, Dean Smith. He never swore. Never had a bias. He was a coach. A teacher.
Experiencing my son at times having a coach directly the opposite of Coach Smith makes me sad. I wish all coaches, regardless of the level, could be fair in teaching the lessons of life and lessons of the beautiful game of basketball.
The game of basketball lost a great one. The country lost a great one. With his loss, of course I am saddened but at the same time uplifted by the fact you can be a good person and be successful. You can do what’s right even when doing what’s right is unpopular.
The state of Indiana rightfully so claims to be No. 1 in this country when it comes to the sport of basketball. And, if there is a runner up, it just might be the state of North Carolina. And, if that’s the case, it’s because of that guy I used to fetch cigarettes for.
RIP coach. And don’t worry. You are NOT getting two T’s and getting tossed out of heaven!