Every UNC alumnus or fan has his or her special memories of Dean Smith as the accolades and adoration for the greatest (OK, arguably) college basketball coach in history sweeps over us since his death Saturday.
Let me share three of my memories. I had become a Tar Heel fan and Dean Smith worshiper as a teenager. By the time I arrived at UNC as a student, I knew a lot about Smith and his coaching techniques, but my awe at his abilities to shape great teams from individuals players grew over the years.
When I was in school, I went to dinner at the Zoom-Zoom with two or three friends. Seated nearby was Dean Smith with his wife and daughters, enjoying a quiet, anonymous dinner out. We were all tempted to walk over and say, "Hey, Coach, great year," and so on. But we wisely respected his privacy and allowed him to be just a husband and dad out with his family.
In 1974, I was living in northern Virginia and watching Carolina play Duke on our new 15-inch color TV. The game was not going well. I yelled and stomped to no avail, and when a timeout was called with 17 seconds left and UNC down by 8 points, I gave up and went to the basketball court across the street in our apartment complex to work out my frustrations in a pickup game. I just couldn't bear to see the Heels lose to Duke.
A half hour later, my wife walked over with our daughter. With a big smile on her face, she said to me during a lull in our pickup game, "We won!" I thought she was kidding. "That's not funny," I said, or something like that. I couldn't believe her until I read it in the newspaper the next day (there was no ESPN in those days).
I actually met Dean Smith much later with an assist from former Gov. Jim Hunt. I had received an invitation to an event in Chapel Hill recognizing the first class or two of teachers who had earned National Board certification, a recognition that Hunt led. Smith, who said he had always thought of himself as a teacher, just as his parents were, was there as a special guest. Hunt, seeing my wife and me by ourselves, graciously came over and asked if we had talked to Coach Smith. We hadn't, I said. "Just too shy," I should have added. Hunt walked us over to Smith and his wife and introduced us. I said something about being a 1971 alumnus and never missing a game, ever — the sort of thing he probably heard a dozen times a week. Smith was gracious and pleasant, and our moment together lasted perhaps 60 seconds. I cherish that memory as much as I do the memory of those final 17 seconds when I lacked the faith in Smith's coaching miracles.