When it came to practice and his basketball teams, Dean Smith was as fastidious and punctual as they come.
Which is why I’ve had to grin every time I’ve seen a photo that I took 38 years ago.
A photo of Dean Smith ... waiting.
The setting was a few days before the Montreal Olympics, and the U.S. men’s basketball team had been formally assembled on some steps in the athletes’ village for a photo.
Except the photographer was late. Thus, there were the dozen best amateur players in America, lounging and looking very teenage-bored on the steps, as Smith, charged with the knotty task of regaining the gold medal after the Munich debacle, paced and stared at his wristwatch.
As the tributes flowed Sunday in the wake of Smith’s death at age 83, much was made over the lives he touched, from Michael Jordan to the humblest young sportswriter.
“He was more than a coach,” Jordan said. “He was my mentor, my teacher, my second father.”
Smith made a difference both on and off the basketball floor. He was outspoken in his opposition to segregation, the death penalty and the Vietnam War, and he recruited Charlie Scott, North Carolina’s first African-American player.
When he was still an assistant coach at Carolina in the late 1950s, Smith accompanied a clergyman and a student, both black, into an all-white Chapel Hill restaurant.
“Who told you that story?” Smith asked author John Feinstein years later.
Feinstein told him that it was Rev. Robert Seymour, minister at the Baptist church that the coach attended for more than 50 years.
“I wish he hadn’t done that,” Smith said, as quoted in Feinstein’s elegant tribute in Monday’s Washington Post.
Feinstein was surprised at Smith’s reaction, saying, “Dean, you should be proud of doing something like that.”
Smith’s response, as Feinstein remembers, was, “John, you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.”
He was a fierce competitor, but didn’t feel the need to throw a chair across the basketball floor to prove it. He had a couple of memorable 1995 confrontations with Rick Barnes, when the Texas coach was at Clemson, but Smith had a way of making people see things his way.
His infamous, time-draining Four Corners offense, for example, prompted college basketball to institute a shot clock — a change that only benefited a talent-rich program such as North Carolina’s.
His players loved him, telling stories about phone calls and birthday cards they received from Smith well beyond their playing years.
Smith’s cumulative statistics — two NCAA titles, 11 Final Four appearances and 879 career victories — are impressive enough. But just as staggering is that when Smith retired in 1997, 224 of the 232 lettermen he had coached went on to graduate.
Until his memory began to tragically fade in recent years, Smith could be counted upon to remember the names of his former players’ children and parents. He could also recall newspaper stories and the faces that went with the bylines above them.
I was just a kid, blessed with a dream assignment, when I got to cover Smith at the Montreal Olympics. Smith had been handed the U.S. delegation’s most thankless task, that of restoring America’s basketball reputation after the controversial finish of four years earlier.
Smith made sure that even eager, patriotic young reporters tapped the red, white and blue brakes.
After beating Yugoslavia 95-74 for the gold medal — the Yugoslavs had upset the Soviets in the semifinals — Smith shrugged away all questions about Olympic revenge.
“I’d prefer to say simply that the U.S. is the Olympic champion of 1976 and leave it at that,” he said. “We returned the Americans to their gold medal standing of 1968.”
Quietly, with a team of U.S. collegians, he had made his point.
We crossed paths a year later, when Smith brought his North Carolina Tar Heels to the Louisiana Superdome to play Tulane. It was a stopover for Carolina on its way to Hawaii for the Rainbow Classic, and the No. 3-ranked Tar Heels had played like it, barely winning 108-103.
After the game, I reintroduced myself to Smith, whose mind had to still be swirling over how poorly his team had played. I told him about that snapshot I had taken that day on the Montreal steps.
“I remember,” said Dean Smith, ever the fastidious one. “The photographer was late.”
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697
by the numbers
879 Wins, fourth-most all-time among men’s NCAA Division I coaches. The total was first at the time of his retirement in 1997.
96.6 Percent of his players who graduated
13 ACC tournament titles
11 Final Four appearances
2 National titles, in 1982 and 1993
1 Losing season in 36 years as North Carolina’s head coach: his first, in 1961-62