It was late December, 1978.
Dean Smith was bringing his North Carolina Tar Heels to the Rochester (NY) Basketball Classic. That team featured Jimmy Black and Mike O’Koren.
Niagara, Dartmouth and Seton Hall were the other three teams in the tournament. Bill Raftery, the popular basketball analyst, was the Seton Hall coach. Nick Gallis and Dan Callandrillo were his top players.
I was a young radio sports talk show host in Rochester at the time, also doing TV sports on the weekend.
The key throughout my years in local radio was getting top notch guests. Listeners might not care all that much what I had to say, but if I could deliver big-name guests, the show would do well. Of course, back then, there weren’t many sports talk shows, so it was easier to get one-on-one interviews if you worked at it.
With Dean Smith headed to town, I made sure to get my radio interview request in early. I didn’t want to risk losing out to a booked schedule.
The UNC Sports Information Director probably had few local requests for interviews on this trip —- most likely the three local TV stations, the two major newspapers and me.
The interview request was granted and I got a break. I would be able to interview Coach Smith in his hotel room.
Distractions hurt interviews. Getting to talk with the coach away from the court setting was a plus.
I long had admired Coach Smith’s style and demeanor. I liked his coaching emphasis on working hard and playing unselfishly. And, his efforts to integrate basketball had earned my respect.
I had studied his 4-corners offense. It was a tactic that forced trailing teams to come out and play or watch the Tar Heels hold the ball out on the perimeter. This was before the shot clock in college basketball.
Three years later, North Carolina played Virginia in the ACC Championship game. The game saw UNC take a 44-43 lead with 7:34 to play. That Carolina team had Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Matt Doherty and Jimmy Black. Terry Holland’s Virginia team had 7-foot-4 inch center Ralph Sampson. The Tar Heels went into their stall tactic and it became a battle of wills. Virginia refused to come out of its zone defense. North Carolina held the ball for more than 7-minutes without taking a shot. Dean Smith was determined to make Sampson move out of the lane. Finally, the Cavaliers came out and committed a 7th team foul sending UNC to the foul line.
It was boring. The fans hated it, but it was effective.
North Carolina won that game 47-45 and went on to win the NCAA title using that same strategy. The tactic led the NCAA to adopt a 45-second shot clock for the 1985-86 season. It changed to a 35-second shot clock for the 1993-94 season.
When I arrived at the hotel, Coach Smith welcomed me to his room. He was friendly and down to earth. I immediately was put at ease. As we conversed, Coach Smith was engaged and attentive. He seemed to enjoy my curiosity as I probed his thinking about his coaching style and thoughts on getting the most out of his players. We talked at length about the 4-corners offense and the various options his teams could run off of it once the opposing teams came out to defend.
Dean Smith talked with me for 45-minutes —- a long interview for a local radio reporter by anyone’s standards. He was thoughtful and insightful throughout. When we were finished, he generously complemented me on the interview and my knowledge of the game. He could not have been more gracious.
I have conducted thousands of interviews over the years, but I never have forgotten the kindness that Dean Smith showed me that day. He could easily have given me a perfunctory 5-to-7 minute, cliché-filled interview. After all, he was a National Coach of the Year winner who had taken five of his teams to the NCAA Final Four. I was just a local radio reporter in Rochester, New York interviewing him during a Christmas holiday tournament far from ACC country.
But that is not Dean Smith.
Instead, Coach Smith was invested in the conversation and generous with his time. He made a 24-year-old radio host with much to learn as an interviewer, feel special.
Coach Smith has endured ill health in recent years and his once brilliant memory has deteriorated. It doesn’t seem fair that he can no longer remember people so meaningful in his life. But, that is the reality and he is said to have handled his situation with dignity and grace.
In thinking about Coach Smith, it is important to know this.
Dean Smith’s impact shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of his Hall-of-Fame coaching career. It isn’t about the wins, the titles or the innovations he brought to the game.
Coach Smith’s legacy is the impact he’s had on people.
It is his work ethic, his team-first coaching style and belief in family, education, ethics, and fair play that have left an indelible mark. And, that positive effect on the lives of others, extends far beyond the basketball community, the hundreds of players and coaches he’s mentored, and the fans who have watched his team’s play.
It lives on in all the lives he’s touched.
Malcolm Forbes once said, “You can easily judge the character of others by how they treat those who can do nothing for them or to them”.
Dean Smith is a man of great character and he has been one of the many individuals who have inspired me to start a nonprofit promoting respect, responsibility, fairness and integrity in sports and life.
And now, a man who has made such a difference in the lives of others is being recognized for his contributions to basketball and American life.
Today, Dean Smith is being honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom —- the highest civilian award in the United States.
I couldn’t be happier for him.
Photo Credit: Eric Mills via Flickr