Those who love the sport of basketball spent Sunday mourning and/or celebrating the legacy of Dean Smith, the longtime UNC basketball coach and legend for whom an arena was named. It must have been surreal and awkward for a man, who by all accounts was deeply humble, to coach his final 11 years in a building the basketball world called “The Dean Dome.”
Most of Tar Heel Nation mourned the loss of Coach Smith twice before Sunday: the day he retired as a coach, and the day we discovered he had been diagnosed with, and battling for a while, Alzheimer's Disease. On Sunday, most of us felt far more grateful than sad, as we can hope Dean Smith has been reunited with that brilliant mind and wit and generous spirit, things he had slowly but surely been losing over the last years of his life.
Skip a few paragraphs if you’ve already heard my Brush With Greatness story… Lord knows I've told it plenty.
As a freshman who was only just beginning to learn why a town, a state, and a nationwide community so loved this nasal-voiced, white-haired man, I was camping out with friends at the Dean Dome for tickets. You see, in the good ol’ days, before fear of litigation steered every decision in academia, students would camp around the Dean Dome for bottom-level tickets to games. At 7 a.m. on Saturday, they’d hand out a number based on your place in the camp-out line. You’d go back later with that number to get your tickets. The better the number, the better the chance at sweet sweet tickets.
Late into the fall evening, probably 11 p.m. three friends and I are huddled around a chess table, drinking somewhat responsibly, when Dean E. Smith himself walks out of his office and up the narrow pathway towards his car. He says hello to everyone he passes, and he says “Thank you for supporting us” and things like that.
Coach Smith does the same for us and walks on, but then he stops, turns around and steps over to us.
“Playing chess, I see,” he says. And we nod, cowed, and say “Yes sir,” and my buddy Teflon says something about it passes the time and sharpens the mind.
And then Dean says, “I just love chess. Second-greatest game ever invented.” And he nods and stands there silently for a few seconds. Maybe he was hoping the two guys would go back to playing so he could watch. But we were too stunned, so we just stared back at him. And nobody wants to be stared at too long. So he again thanked us for supporting the team, wished us a good night and told us to stay warm, and then he turned and walked to his car, pleasantly greeting each camper he passed.
The list of innovations this one man brought to the game of basketball are staggering. Many consider him the single greatest innovative architect in the sport’s history. Most teams now measure their success by the metric he first made a cornerstone: offensive efficiency by way of Points Per Possession.
For Dean Smith, basketball was a game. A great game full of opportunities to think strategically. The greatest game, if his clever comment was to be drawn to its inferred conclusion. But, ultimately, still only a game.
The more you read about Coach Smith, the easier to believe that he always kept that fact in perspective: basketball -- the thing that provided his lifestyle, the thing for which he was loved, admired, worshipped, loathed -- was only a game. And if his gift for understanding that game did not allow him to make waves in the real world, in real life, in the lives of real people beyond the hardwood and the hoops, he would have given it up long before he did.
I admire Dean Smith because he taught me to truly love, and truly respect, a sport as a spectator. But far more importantly, I admire Dean Smith because he never allowed me or others to believe basketball trumped the other stuff. Winning a basketball game, or a national championship, was not his end game. Being a real father-figure, a real teacher, a real mentor to the players who chose UNC. Taking a vocal and active stand against injustice. Living a life he hoped would please the God in whom he believed.
Best I can tell, he believed prioritizing those other things would eventually lead to winning and titles. And he was right.