Sunday, February 8, 2015

Dean Smith and the Carolina Way

     Dean Smith was the reason I wanted to go to the University of North Carolina. Then Chapel Hill wait-listed me, Missouri accepted me, and I practiced journalism on coach Norm Stewart instead.
     Stormin' Norman probably got tired of my Carolina  perspective, but all I knew about basketball I learned from watching Dean Smith on the ACC game of the week. I admired the ways he innovated and integrated, how he used the four corners and the blue team, and how everything fit so neatly, from those V-neck jerseys to the almost-perfect graduation rate. I was naive, and it was the Carolina way!
    As far as I was concerned, Dean Smith invented basketball. In reality, he was only two generations removed from the creationhe learned the game from Phog Allen, who learned it from Dr. James Naismith.
     I am thankful that I had the opportunity to cover ACC basketball during Coach Smith's last five seasons, including the infamous feud with Clemson's Rick Barnes that climaxed with their courtside confrontation at the 1995 ACC tournament. 
     If you're looking at Coach Smith from the viewpoint of Clemson or ABC (Anybody But Carolina), I recommend this 2013 interview with Seth Davis, where Barnes goes into detail about their relationship and says that he wishes he had handled things differently.
     Two episodes from that interview reveal a lot:
     Reporters knew Coach Smith as the master of the backhanded compliment. When ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan summoned both coaches to his home in 1995 to work out a truce, Smith told Barnes, "You're the best coach I've ever coached against that can teach guys to foul without getting caught."
     "Really?" Rick said. "You think I'm that good? Tell you what, I'll write a book on what we do if you write the foreword."
     Two years later, in October 1997, the Barnes were at home in Clemson when the news broke that Smith was retiring. His 9-year-old daughter Carley asked, "Daddy, why did he quit?"
     "I told her I don't really know. I told her how great he was, and what he meant to me growing up in North Carolina. My wife told her, 'Why don't you write him a letter?' 
     "She wrote him a letter. And he wrote back a great letter and said wonderful things about me. He said great things."
     Barnes went on to say how much he respected Smith as a coach and as a competitor who did things the right way.
     You didn't have to be Rick Barnes' little girl to get a letter from Coach Smith. I found this out last March when I saw classic stories about Coach Smith by John Feinstein and Tommy Tomlinson and emailed them to a co-worker who graduated from North Carolina and is about the same age as Barnes' daughter. "You probably don't remember Coach Smith," I said.
     Oh, was I wrong! The next day, Hope surprised me by bringing in a package of Dean Smith treasures. As a little girl, she had written him letters, and Coach had responded to each one. In his last years of coaching, he didn't need to be cultivating little fans, but he did it anyway.
     It was the Dean Smith way. He would have called it the Carolina way. 
     If there was any mercy in his memory-clouding illness, at least Coach Smith was spared from seeing the Tar Heels tailspin from the Carolina way to the Carolina wayward. 
     None of that matters anymore. The Bible says heaven is a city built foursquare. Make yourself at home, Coach.

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