A year before his 1997 retirement, Dean Smith returned a phone message I’d left him. Smith’s prompt response both delighted and surprised me. The North Carolina basketball coach was a living legend, and I was a sportswriter he didn’t know, employed by a newspaper on the other side of the U.S.
And yet there was a connection. Smith, who rarely forgot a name, once had interest in recruiting Jeff Dawson, an all-Chicago area guard who’d attended my high school. In 1969, Dawson was invited to Pittsburgh for the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, the nation’s original high school all-star basketball game.
Smith showed up to assemble an eyewitness scouting report on Dawson and left the arena impressed — only not by the potential recruit he came to see, but by the burly kid from suburban Pittsburgh who denied the sharpshooter any chance at an open look: George Karl.
Karl’s scrappy attitude — he appeared to take more satisfaction in preventing shots than launching them — earned him an offer to play for Smith, whose emphasis on smothering defense and selfless offense would become the bedrock principles of Karl’s own career as a coach.
Smith, who died Saturday at 83, won 879 games and two national championships at North Carolina. But Smith’s most fulfilling achievement was how his players thought of him long after college. To a man, they didn’t merely admire Smith. They revered him.
When I was working in Denver 30 years ago, I spent more than a few hours with fellow reporters interviewing former Nuggets coach Doug Moe. Well, sort of interviewing. Moe would lean back in his office chair and tell a story, and we’d chuckle, which was Doug’s cue to tell another story.
Moe’s college coach, Dean Smith, was prominently mentioned. “Uncle Deano,” Moe called him, always with a smile.
Moe was involved in a scandal at Carolina. Long story short: A sports gambler offered him money to shave points, and he declined. But he admitted to meeting with the game-fixer, which got him blackballed from the NBA.
The coach overseeing a squeaky-clean program — 97 percent of Smith’s players graduated — could have distanced himself from the controversy. Not Uncle Deano. He remained loyal to Moe, a good man whose life didn’t need to be tarnished by one mistake.
Smith’s commitment toward assuring justice for all was authentic. The son of school teachers in segregated Kansas, he used his high-profile platform as a coach to help desegregate North Carolina during the 1960s.
“Racial justice wasn’t preached around the house,” Smith recalled in his 1999 autobiography. “But there was a fundamental understanding that you treat each person with dignity.”
Smith’s passion for equality was realized on the basketball court, where the recipients of pinpoint passes converted into easy buckets were encouraged to point to the passer. When substitutions were made, the player walking off the floor was embraced by teammates taught to stand up in acknowledgment.
Smith was nothing if not progressive, but I wonder how he would have tolerated the notion — widely accepted these days — that gifted players are due perks and considerations unavailable to role players. Transcendent talents are special, the thinking goes, and must be regarded as such.
Not inclined to suit up for practice? What the heck, don’t suit up practice. Running a little late for a team meeting? It’s cool. We’ll wait.
Smith never grasped the concept that He is more important than We. At North Carolina, the student manager in charge of distributing a towel to Michael Jordan was as essential to the program as, well, Michael Jordan.
Smith played at Kansas for Phog Allen, an acolyte of James Naismith, the first person to envision team-sport competition about a bounced ball aimed at a basket.
But the best advice Smith ever heard was from his father, who told him to “value each human being.”
I never met Dean Smith, but I can assure you he took those words to heart.
The beloved coach didn’t know me from a thousand other obscure sports writers, and he returned my phone call.
“Do you have a minute to talk about George Karl?” I began.
“I have all the time you want to talk about George,” Smith said. “And it will take a lot longer than a minute to describe how proud I am of him.”