Every year on his birthday—today, February 28th—I write and talk about Dean Smith.
On the one hand, it’s redundant. On the other hand, I’d feel as if I wasn’t doing my job if I didn’t do it.
I haven’t had many heroes in my life: my parents, certainly. Tom Seaver, Joe Namath, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed and Brad Park when I was a kid. Heck, all the ’69 Mets—I can still name them, including 26th man Bobby Pfeil, who didn’t play in the World Series but was voted a full share—and the ’69 Jets and ’70 and ’73 Knicks. Who would have thought those three teams would combine for ONE championship—the ’86 Mets– during my adulthood.
But all those athletes were people I didn’t know. I MET them—at one point or another I had all their autographs—but certainly didn’t know them. If I hadn’t lost my autograph collection I wouldn’t be writing this right now; I’d be retired.
C’est la vie.
The list of people in sports I have actually had the chance to know as an adult is a long one. I’ve liked many; respected many; been friends with some. When I was a young reporter I was told by older colleagues at The Washington Post that you couldn’t be friends—shouldn’t be friends—with people you covered. What I’ve learned through the years is that it’s impossible NOT to be friends with some. It just happens.
When Rick Barnes, then at Texas; now at Tennessee, learned that my son Danny was not into sports but very into music, he called him frequently—to talk music and to invite him to Austin for the music festivals down there. Am I an unabashed fan and friend of Rick Barnes? You bet.
At my mother’s funeral, almost 24 years ago now (she died very suddenly on Mother’s Day in 1993) I stood up to give the eulogy and saw Gary Williams sitting in the back row of the synagogue. Think I ever forgot that?
There are more examples, but I think you get the point. I’ve often said there’s not a journalist alive—or a person for that matter—who is objective. We all have biases. The key is to be aware of them and always try to be fair. I’m sure I’ve failed at times—but it isn’t for lack of trying.
When it comes to Dean Smith though, I don’t try. To me, he’s a hero.
That doesn’t mean we didn’t disagree—we did—often. I had no problem seeing him for what he was: a great coach and a better man. I think—know—it was tough for him to NOT see me as “a Duke guy.” People in sports tend to be that way and coaches tend to be that way in the extreme.
Here’s another one if I had a dollar for I’d be able to retire: every time someone said to me something like, “I like your work…even though you’re a Duke guy.” Or, “you’re a pretty good guy…for a Duke guy.”
True story: in 2009, I needed open heart surgery. The seven (yes, seven) blockages were discovered during an angiogram on a Friday afternoon. I wanted to get the surgery over with right away—as in that moment. I knew I was going to be scared out of my mind until I woke up alive post-surgery, so, I figured, get it over with. I was already fasting and drugged, so let’s do it.
The doctor who had done the angiogram understood. “I just saw one of our best guys (surgeons) in the hallway,” he said. “Let me have him come in here and talk to you.”
His name was Steve Boyce. He told me right away, “you’re going to be fine. You’re the perfect candidate for this because you’re healthy and your heart is strong. Your arteries are a mess and we’re going to fix them.”
“Great,” I said. “Do it right now.”
Boyce smiled and shook his head. “Look, I’ve done two today already. You don’t want me working on you tired. I don’t usually do surgery Monday morning, but I’ll come in early Monday and we’ll get this done.”
He paused, then added, “Even though you’re a f—– Duke guy.”
Remember, I was lying on a gurney, having just been told I had seven blockages in my arteries. I looked at him for a second, then got it. “Let me guess,” I said. “You’re a Maryland guy.”
He nodded. “I don’t want you f—- touching me,” I said.
He did the surgery Monday. I’m still here. No doubt many Maryland fans will never forgive him.
Dean had some of that in him. He knew how much I respected him and liked him and yet, there were moments.
In 1995, when I reported (accurately) that Rasheed Wallace was a lock to leave Carolina at the end of his sophomore season, Dean’s first reaction when the panting local media asked him about the story was, “Well, we all know where John went to school.”
Several days later, unsolicited, he apologized to me—first in private, then in public—after a loss at Maryland. He knew I had the story right. More important, he knew my reporting had NOTHING to do with where I went to school.
When the subject wasn’t basketball or where I went to school, not only did I agree with him 99 percent of the time, I learned from him. I still remember him teasing me about the student newspaper at Duke endorsing Ronald Reagan in 1984—‘what’s going on at your school?’ he said to me over lunch on election day. When I was at Duke, about 99 percent of the campus liberals worked at ‘The Chronicle.’ Dean knew that. He brought ‘The Chronicle’s,’ editorial endorsing Reagan to lunch AND, ‘The Daily Tar Heel’s,’ editorial endorsing Walter Mondale.
That was the day I urged him to run for the Senate against Jesse Helms, one of the last segregationists in the senate. Dean shook his head: “I’m too liberal to get elected in this state,” he said. He was, of course, right.
Twelve years later, when I was researching my book on ACC basketball—“A March to Madness,”—I again had lunch with Dean on election day. This was a much happier day because we were both pretty certain that Bill Clinton would be re-elected that night. After lunch, I drove over to Duke to watch practice. When I walked in, Mike Krzyzewski asked if I’d just gotten to town. I told him I’d had lunch with Dean and—unable to resist—mentioned that we had talked about how pleased we were about Clinton’s impending re-election.
I’d call Krzyzewski a moderate politically. He leans right, but did vote for fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama for President. He shook his head at that moment and said, “Oh yeah, I forgot, you two f—- bleeding heart liberals deserve one another.”
I was quite proud to be cast in the same sentence with Dean Smith—especially by a Duke guy. Both of us—Kryzewski and I—cried the day Dean died. For all their battles and even political disagreements, Mike understood how special a man Dean had been.
He helped de-segregate restaurants in Chapel Hill as an assistant coach in the 50s; marched against the Vietnam War in the 60s and in favor of a nuclear freeze. He went to speak to the North Carolina legislature in opposition to the death penalty.
Long before some of today’s athletes began speaking out on political issues, Dean was doing it—in a state where he knew most people were opposed to his views. And, remember, he started doing it long before he became COACH SMITH—the guy with 879 wins, 11 Final Four trips and two national titles.
For 23 years, very few people knew the story about his involvement in de-segregation. Much to Dean’s chagrin, I was writing a two-part series on him for The Washington Post in 1981 (I had to almost beg him to cooperate on the story; he never wanted publicity) and I went to talk to Reverend Robert Seymour at the Binkley Baptist Church. Dean had talked about him as, not just his minister, but a friend and mentor.
It was Reverend Seymour who told me about how shocked Dean had been when he moved to Chapel Hill in 1958 to become Frank McGuire’s assistant coach to learn that the local restaurants were segregated. He and Reverend Seymour came up with a plan for Dean to walk into “The Pines,” the restaurant where the basketball team ate pre-game meals, with a black member of the church.
Most people know the rest: the restaurant served the two men and that was the beginning of de-segregating the local restaurants.
Most people know the rest of the story because I’ve told it a million times but, on Dean’s birthday, it bears repeating. That day, after he had told me the story, I went straight from Reverend Seymour’s office to see Dean in his office at Carmichael Auditorium. I asked him to tell me what he remembered about that night in 1958.
“Who told you that story?” he said, un-smiling.
He leaned back in his chair and said, “I wish he hadn’t told you that.”
“Why?” I said, surprised. “You should be proud that you did something like that.”
He looked at me and then shook his head. “You should never be PROUD of doing the right thing,” he said. “You should just DO the right thing.”
I remember the chill that ran through me at the moment. I remember thinking I was in the presence of a truly special person. And I remember the Saturday after Dean died, when North Carolina played at Pittsburgh and the Pitt students unfurled a banner with those 17 words on it.
The thought is simple, but brilliant. It also sums up exactly how Dean Smith lived his life.
He was an extraordinary man. I can’t begin to explain—no matter how long I blather on—how much I miss him.
John Feinstein’s latest book, “The Legends Club—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry,”—it out in paperback this week. He conceived the idea for the “Dean Smith Award,” presented each year to a basketball coach who exemplifies the principles Coach Smith stood for during his life. This year’s winner was Tom Izzo.