Smith's essence lives in all aspects of Tar Heel life, and will always
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- On the morning Dean Smith's death was announced, the sun rose and illuminated a rare, unseasonably warm mid-February day filled with cloudless blue skies. Some would call them Carolina blue skies.
But in the days since, it's been dark and dreary and rainy.
And still, Carolina fans and well-wishers flock to the makeshift memorial -- protected from the rain by a tent -- in front of the Smith Center. Some just want to spend time there, feeling as if they're in his presence, somehow. Some want to leave a tribute behind.
There are Carolina soda cans, balloons, poster board with messages written on them, flowers. Even some of the books he wrote lay off to the side. Some wrote messages in pastel sidewalk chalk, but those were washed away by the rain. And still, they come.
If we're honest with ourselves, whether you hated Dean Smith the coach or you adored him and revered him, the humanity in us all is relieved. Not that he's gone. But that the torture he was living in, trapped in a body where his memories were lost and he was a shell of his former self? That's over.
"I think several years -- six, seven, eight -- you knew it was coming. I tried to be prepared for it. Still at 11:19 last night, I was not prepared," current North Carolina head coach and Smith protege Roy Williams said Sunday afternoon.
"It's just so sad because for me personally, I've really missed him the last few years also. It's been an incredibly tough time period the last few years for his family. You were talking about the guy that had so much pride, probably more pride than any person I've ever known in my life. So it is a blessing in some ways, but it's also really, really hard."
There is a finality to it, in that the physical part of Smith is gone. Smith's family and closest friends no doubt lived for the moments when the person inside shined through, but those were becoming more and more rare, by all accounts.
His former point guard from 1975-78, Phil Ford -- a National Player of the Year in 1978 -- was also a longtime assistant coach for Smith, who nurtured him and cared for him as he struggled with some personal demons.
He couldn't recall the last real conversation he had with Smith. The final ones he had, he said, were "one-sided" because of Smith's illness. Hubert Davis, who played for Smith from 1988-92, is a current assistant under Williams. He couldn't remember, either. Smith's family announced back in 2010 that he was suffering from dementia, and it's only gotten progressively worse.
When Williams agreed to leave Kansas and come take over the North Carolina job back in 2003, Smith was still ever-present around the program after his retirement in 1997. He handed the team over then to longtime assistant Bill Guthridge, and Guthridge took two of his three teams to the Final Four before retiring himself in 2000. From 2001-03, the team was in a state of turmoil under former Tar Heel Matt Doherty before his dismissal after the 2003 season.
Smith still had an office in the building, and he'd answer mail there. But he was never in the spotlight, always just lurking behind the scenes. He was rarely, if ever, seen at the games. But Williams always felt him there.
"I still miss the first several years after every game having a message on the phone from him. I still miss the little notes that he'd leave on the desk after games. I loved having him around and loved having him that involved," Williams said.
"It would have been a blessing for me if he were still involved. The last year and a half or so haven't been the easiest in the world, and it would have been a blessing for me to have had him around during this time period, too."
Williams has lost a number of close friends during the last few years, and has had to deal with some health issues, not to mention the NCAA hovering over the program's shoulder for the last three or four years, whether it be the academic scandal or P.J. Hairston last season. No doubt he would have loved to have turned to his mentor for guidance.
Davis felt the same way, that there was an emptiness he couldn't quite replace when he returned to Chapel Hill in the summer of 2012 as an assistant coach after a four-year broadcasting career at ESPN as a college basketball analyst. And the finality of Smith's death made that emptiness seem more permanent.
"I would have loved to have just sat down in his office all day and just talked basketball and talked life," Davis said, eyes welling up.
"I know that he's in a better place. But I also know that I wish he was still here."
For the last 18 years or so since Smith's retirement, he's been nowhere and everywhere around the college game, all, seemingly, at the same time.
The wound is still fresh for Davis, but he feels like when he looks around college basketball today, he doesn't see Smith.
"There's nothing about college basketball that reminds me of what Coach Smith talked about and taught and lived every day. College basketball is much different now. Kids don't pick schools because they want to be a part of a program. They pick schools because they think it's the best place for them to get to the next level, and so it's different," Davis said.
"And that's sad, because this is a beautiful place. Having an opportunity to go to school here and put on this uniform and practice on this floor every day is a privilege. I wish that more kids understood that and believed in it."
Williams, though, still sees Smith everywhere: huddles at the free-throw line, switching defenses, teammates applauding the on-court effort while on the bench, etc. And thanking the passer who gave you an assist by acknowledging him with a point of the finger, something Williams' teams -- and even Williams and his staff -- continue to do.
When he and his team were on their way home from a win at Boston College on Saturday night, they watched the first half over again. He saw his junior forward Brice Johnson dunk a missed shot by his teammate, junior Marcus Paige. The camera zoomed in on Johnson, who pointed to Paige as if to thank him.
"Brice," Williams told him, "I've never had a player point at a guy for missing a shot so he could dunk it. That's a new one. Coach Smith always wanted you to point at the guy that passed you the ball, but you were thanking for Marcus for doing such a bad job of shooting the ball that you were able to get the follow-dunk."
A few hours later, Williams got the news about Smith's death.
"At that time, I did not know what was coming just a couple hours later," Williams said. "People will be doing things that they had no idea came from Dean Smith, but they'll be doing it because it's been passed down from coaches to coaches to players to players."
Smith has had former assistants go on to prominence -- Larry Brown is one of the best coaches in all of basketball, while George Karl is a great NBA coach, and that's just to name a few -- but Williams is different.
His legacy lives on through Williams. It's something that Williams will never admit, and he blanches at the mere notion of it. But he's more than a caretaker of the program that Smith built. He's won multiple national championships (two, to be exact) and restored the program to its former glory after a brief dip after Smith's retirement.
That doesn't mean Williams is a Smith clone. He isn't. And he is fiercely proud of the work he's put in to get to where is now. He remembers the exact distance he drove around the state of North Carolina on Sundays to sell calendars or deliver tape to television stations in his early days -- 504 miles. He needed that money to make ends meet.
The first in his family to go to college, he worked hard to get to North Carolina in the first place, earning an academic scholarship. He could've gone elsewhere, to a smaller school, to play basketball. He didn't want to. Williams had already decided he wanted to be a coach. And his high school coach, Buddy Baldwin, told him that he could learn from Dean Smith.
He played on the freshman team and watched Smith with fascination. Smith agreed to let Williams observe him and take notes the next few years, too, and Williams kept stats and worked in Smith's summer basketball camps, doing whatever he could to be around the program.
Williams started to learn about Smith's past off the court, too, as an activist supporting the causes he believed in. This was 1968, when the program was first taking off -- Smith went to three straight Final Fours in 1967, 1968 and 1969. But it was also a period of unrest.
"That really stood out to me because I didn't want to be just a coach that cared about points and rebounds. During that time period also, we had the cafeteria workers strike, there were some things going on, we had Kent State going on," Williams said.
"So it was a time period of demonstration and a time period of unrest around college campuses. So that also put what Coach Smith had done up a little more importantly in my mind."
When he decided to be an assistant back in 1978, he knew it wasn't going to be easy. And he was always relatively low on the totem pole with longtime assistants Guthridge and Eddie Fogler also on staff. He made $2,700 a year at first, and Smith constantly fretted over Williams, wishing that he could pay him more, worried that it wasn't enough to support his family.
"Don't you worry about me," Williams would tell Smith. "I'm going to be fine."
Williams was on staff with Smith from 1978-88, before the Kansas job came open and Smith -- who attended and played at Kansas -- advocated Williams for the position.
The night before Williams went to Kansas for the interview, he called his mentor, the man who'd taught him so much, and yet the man he felt he had no chance to be.
"Coach, are you sure you want to do this?" Williams said he asked him. "This is your school. You're screwing them up. You're trying to tell them I can do the job. Are you sure you want to do this to your school?"
He could hear the anger in Smith's voice right away.
"It's in the top five of I've ever heard him raise his voice to me. He was really mad," Williams said. "He said, 'You can do this job. You're going to be the best.' The things that he said to me in that phone call ..." Williams had to stop to collect himself, recalling the memory -- "... were pretty doggone important."
He knew what Williams needed in that moment, Smith had a way of knowing when his former players or those close to him needed him, even if they hadn't reached out. It was uncanny -- a death in the family, a job loss, a child or loved one falling ill -- they'd hear from Smith. How did he know? None of them knew.
Ford, who saw Smith give so much of himself to his former players, often wondered who was doing the same for Smith.
"I would always wonder sometimes, well, who's there for him? I used to always worry about him because he was there for us and coaching basketball. As we all know, coaching basketball at this school is no easy job. You have to have thick skin, man. A lot of ups, a lot of downs, a lot of roller coaster rides," Ford said.
"But even with all that, he was always there for anyone that played for him or anyone that was a manager for him, or anyone that he had come in contact with. He was just a good man that wanted to help other people. He was very unselfish."
In the last few days, it's been Smith's off-court legacy that's been the visible part -- his civil rights activism, helping to integrate Chapel Hill and, eventually, North Carolina athletics -- and his deep, meaningful relationship with his former players.
Maybe, in a sense, Smith wouldn't mind that the focus hasn't been as much on what a basketball genius he was, at the expense of his players. After all, the building that bears his name now -- the Dean E. Smith Center, which opened in 1986 -- very nearly didn't. Smith wanted to name it after his former players instead. That name, as many gently pointed out to him, would have been long and unwieldy.
Still, Smith -- who once got angry when finding out his longtime pastor at Binkley Baptist Church had told a young reporter about how he helped integrate a Chapel Hill restaurant -- would be uncomfortable with the attention, period.
"He would be in the tunnel behind the curtains," Davis said, smiling, of what Smith's reaction would be if he were here to see this. "He did not like attention. He did not like to be noticed. He wanted to do his job to the best of his ability, and then he wanted to go home. That's it."
After every loss, Smith would insist it was his fault. After every win, Smith credited his players. He was a process-oriented head coach in such a way that some would argue it cost him a national title or two, but Smith didn't care.
"I'm thankful that that's the way people are talking about him, because what he was doing was teaching life through basketball. He really was. He never used the word -- he used the word 'win' one time in my four years here."
The one time Davis remembers his coach using the word was after Smith picked up two technicals in the 1991 Final Four against Williams' Kansas team, getting ejected from the game. In the hotel afterwards, he gathered his team and apologized. "I just wanted to let you guys know I just felt like we were good enough to win the championship," Smith told them.
"All of us had our heads down and as soon as he said 'win', we all picked up our heads and we all started bawling -- me, Rick Fox, King Rice, Pete Chilcutt, George Lynch, Eric Montross -- because we'd never heard him talk about winning. He always talked about the preparation and the process."
Smith used to never let them look at the stat sheet, which is impossible to avoid now. He wanted his players to buy in to the concept of the team, and that statistics didn't matter. He even took the cumulative team statistics out of the Daily Tar Heel, Davis said.
"He said, 'It's not about your points per average. It's not about that. It's about are you committed every day to become to the best basketball player individually and as a team? If you do that, all the winning will take care of itself.' That's what we bought into. That's what we believed. And that's what we still believe right now," Davis said.
That's perhaps the part of Williams that is the most different from Smith, who readily admits he takes the losses harder than his mentor did.
"He used to say, 'If we would just play well, I can handle the losing if we play well.' I said, 'Come on, Coach. We need to win too.' I want to do that. I'd rather win and play poorly," Williams said.
"But he was a much greater man than me. His whole thing was to do the best you can do, the absolute best that you can do. Don't leave anything, any stone unturned. Do the absolute best you can do, and then live with it."
Smith was well known for his meticulous preparation, practices planned down to the minute. Williams tries to model his practices in the same way. You'll see Smith when a current Carolina team runs a sideline trap, or the point-zone defense (rarer now under Williams, who despises zone), or even the secondary break or the freelance passing offense.
Marcus Paige, an Iowa native, is wise beyond his 21 years, and enjoys studying the game, both past and present. But Paige was also a few months away from being born when Smith won his final championship in 1993, and was four years old when Smith retired in 1997.
So he knew of Smith's legacy before he came to North Carolina. But playing pickup in the summers with former Smith players like Antawn Jamison or Shammond Williams, he got a sense of how important he was to them.
"You don't learn those things in textbooks or on ESPN, so it was kind of cool to be around people that were influenced by him and learn that way," Paige said.
He never got to meet Smith, he said -- well, not really. Paige said he saw him coming out of his office once his freshman year, and even then, he wasn't himself. "I got to shake his hand and speak to him for a second. But I never really got to have a real conversation with him. I would have loved for that," Paige said.
"That would've been a great experience, just because I know how many memories and how much knowledge that man has. It would have been really cool. Just the fact that I got to shake his hand means a lot to me, especially being a Carolina fan."
Paige is the most well-known player on a top-12 North Carolina basketball team. And yet that longing to have interacted with Smith, however briefly, only to no longer have the chance is a lot of the same feeling that has led so many fans back to the Smith Center -- a hunger to be close to him, to his spirit and essence.
Paige is 21 years old, so even his unnatural maturity doesn't preclude him having perspective that comes with age. The sense of history and tradition in the Dean Dome, as it's more commonly known, is almost palpable as you enter. The jerseys of former players hang in the rafters, as do the banners indicating how the Tar Heels finished each season.
If he, or anyone else, had looked hard enough, he'd see banners indicating that Smith's teams finished in the top 3 of the ACC for 33 straight seasons, a streak that likely won't be passed, ever. Even 1,000-game winner Mike Krzyzewski hasn't done that. His 1994-95 team (during which his season was shortened by a back injury) finished ninth. But the 1995-96 team finished tied for fourth. He'd be working on his 16th straight top-three finish, but his 2006-07 team finished tied for sixth.
"You kind of lose sight of that when you're so caught up in your own season and everything. In a tragic happening like today, we get a chance to sit back and realize how much that man has accomplished," Paige said.
"We come in here every day, it's the Smith Center, and you take it for granted when you practice every day that you see so many ACC's, Final Fours, so many players that played under him. I'd say like three-quarters of the stuff hanging in this gym has a lot to do with Coach Smith, because even by extension, Coach Williams, basically his entire coaching style was developed from Coach Smith.
"Days like today are sad because we lost a great man, but it's also a chance to remember what he did and how important he is to this place."
Williams is 64, and probably doesn't have many years left in coaching. Ford, 59, still works with children learning the game and is the head of the Phil Ford Foundation that works in partnership with the NC Children's Hospital to fight obesity. Davis, 44, is still young in the coaching world and is relatively new at his craft, but is an eager learner. Paige, 21, will almost certainly play basketball professionally, but his keen basketball mind seems to indicate coaching is in his future.
The four of them span three generations, almost -- Davis is old enough to be Paige's father, and Williams is old enough to be Davis', with Ford just a few years in between. Smith's essence lives on through Williams, and he'll keep living on through Davis, and Paige, and Ford, and hundreds of former players and coaches who sprung directly from his tree and even those who are small twigs that sprung off from a larger branch.
The concept of "The Carolina Family" is something that alums of other schools have often rolled their eyes at, but it's one that's very real to his former players.
Davis recalls his last year in the NBA -- this one with the Detroit Pistons -- Williams came to see both he and Michael Jordan (then with the Wizards) play. He came into the locker room to visit Davis afterwards with his longtime assistant, Bill Guthridge.
"I just gave them a big hug and I was like 'Yes sir, yes sir'. All the guys in the locker room were like, 'Man, you're like a little kid, that's like your dad.' I was like 'He is my dad. That's my coach'," Davis said.
The importance of that feeling is one that permeates the tradition surrounding Carolina basketball. It could mean anything from a collection of former players coming to speak to the 2001-02 Tar Heels (which finished 8-20) midseason to encourage them to keep their heads up, to a former teammate helping another during a time of need.
Williams revitalized that family upon his arrival, and it's been strong ever since. But even in an off-court thing like that, Williams still refused to put himself in the same class as Smith.
"He cared more about people than wins and losses or records or anything. I've really tried, golly bum. I've really tried very hard to make sure it's not just about points and rebounds with me. And I know I don't even come close to the standard that Coach Smith set in caring about your players and coaches," Williams said.
"I told him one time, I thought he was loyal to a fault. He said that I shouldn't use those two words in the same sentence. That was truly the man. He did more things for people without them knowing about it. I try to do some things and man, I'm not even in the same -- you can't even say league. I'm not even in the same stratosphere."
Williams remembers Smith the most, though, for giving him a chance and believing in him when he didn't always believe in himself. Williams has been known to do the same, even if he won't admit it -- for instance, he allowed Wes Miller to walk on not long after he returned to Chapel Hill. Miller always knew he wanted to be a coach, and though he didn't play a real role on the court until his final two seasons in Chapel Hill, he learned under Williams' tutelage and is now the head coach at UNC-Greensboro.
There were plenty of players -- most of them, even -- that both Williams and Smith recruited aggressively and wanted to play at their school. But the ones that they took a chance on when it would have been easier not to are almost more devoted to them than any other former players or coaches. Williams is that way with Smith. And Davis is that way with him, too.
Davis' uncle Walter was an all-time great at North Carolina, and a fantastic player in the NBA, too. Davis grew up dreaming of following in his uncle's footsteps. But Smith told him he thought he wasn't good enough to play on this level and that he thought he should go to a smaller Division-I school and play more.
Davis insisted to Smith that he knew what he was up against. He wanted to do it anyway.
It was no doubt tough for Smith, because Davis was part of that extended Carolina family. And so he decided to go against his own instincts.
"I wanted to go to Carolina because I wanted to get an education, I wanted to graduate from there, but I wanted the opportunity to compete. He says, 'Well, I still don't know if you're going to get that opportunity. I just don't think you're good enough.' Two days later, he called me back and he said, 'Okay, I'm going to give you that opportunity'," Davis said.
"So for a kid that just wanted to be a part of the university and a part of the program and he gave me an opportunity to compete, the reason why I'm here is because of him saying 'yes'.
"That's one of many things that he taught me was always giving kids an opportunity. That's why when I'm coaching the JV team, it's so hard to cut because I always think about what Coach Smith said, just giving guys an opportunity. That's the first thing that I think about."
As great as the man was -- and he was -- his former players and those close to him want to do what he'd never have done on his own behalf: stand up for his place in history.
"Everybody's talking about how good a man he was and yeah, he was a good man, but he could coach basketball too, now. That kind of reminds me of (former Tar Heel) Michael (Jordan)," Ford said. "Everybody talks about how good of a pro Michael is, but Michael was a great, great, great college basketball player too. He's arguably the greatest college basketball player to ever play. So let's not get things twisted. He was a great man, but he was a great coach, too."
That will all take care of itself. Krzyzewski himself had a statement recently that it seemed silly to think about stacking up records and achievements of coaches against each other, who's better, who's the best ever -- and he's right. There are so many differences in circumstances, eras, and everything in between that it's almost never a fair exercise.
Coaches should probably just be appreciated for what they accomplished in their era, what they brought to the game and the way their legacies live on. And Smith's legacy lives on now, and will continue to live on for years and years to come, just as former UCLA head coach John Wooden's does, among others. And just like Krzyzewski's will when he's finished with coaching.
That kind of talk is irrelevant to those closest to him, though, right now. Because he's gone.
"As a Christian, you believe that he's in a better place right now. I was very blessed and fortunate to have had him in my life," Ford said. He smiled softly. "I'm able to sit down and tell my grandchildren that I played for Dean Smith, which is really cool."
Williams might reject the notion that he's an extension of Smith, because their names shouldn't even be in the same sentence -- he said as much after he won his second title, equaling Smith's total, in 2009 -- but Smith's influence is something that's embedded deep inside him.
It's something he's not always conscious of, probably -- much like Paige never really thought about the significance of Smith -- but it's always there, coursing through him. The lessons Smith taught him, and the desire he's had since he was a first-year head coach at a Kansas program on probation to the day he came back to campus in 2003 and up until now, and beyond.
"Everything I've done as a basketball coach," Williams said, his voice breaking, causing him to stop and steady himself, "that's the thought process, that I want to make Coach Smith proud.
"When I came back here 12 years ago, I told him one night, I said, 'I really do want to do this the right way. I want you to be proud of what I'm doing.' He said, 'I'm already proud'."