Sunday, February 8, 2015

Five Quick Memories of Covering Dean Smith

Dean Smith, so, so happy to be in Reynolds Coliseum.

I was fortunate enough to cover UNC for the Durham Herald-Sun during Dean Smith's final four years as head coach. Saw the best and the worst in him, went head-to-head with him at times and had the final sit-down interview with him 10 days before he retired, specifically, he said, because he didn't want to talk to the N&O.

Among his top 5 greatest skills? The backhanded compliment. "I thought [fill-in-blank from opposing team] played well," Smith said, "until he got tired."

He always treated me with respect, even after he discovered my alma mater. For that I will be thankful. Rest in peace, coach, explore all four corners of heaven.

Here are a few quick memories that come to mind from those last days of his career.

1. In his latter years as a coach, Dean used to have weekly pressers, but we always knew he wasn’t particularly fond of them. Once, after I asked him a question and began to scribble down his answer: “Tim, do you have to write down everything I say?” Again, this was at a press conference.

2. In one of those pressers, he sang the opening words to the title song from the Broadway play “Camelot.” I have it on tape, along with all those other press conferences.

3. At the 1995 Final Four in Seattle, the press area was in a tent attached to the Kingdome, with a multiple parallel railroad tracks right outside, kind of like the ones near Reynolds Coliseum. Dean’s press conference was interrupted when a train blew through behind him. He paused, waited for the train to go by and said “Reminds me of NC State…”

4. The night before he announced his retirement, he had a team meeting to tell the players about his decision. I waited outside the Smith Center for him or one of the players to confirm that he was indeed retiring, typing my story on a laptop on the back of my car. I was out there for hours when they finally came out the basketball office. He was the last one out, and I asked if the reports were true. “Well, there is a press conference tomorrow, and it’s about basketball, so I guess I’ll be there.” And then he walked out the door of the building with his name on it for the last time as UNC’s head coach.

5. I had an interview request for him when I was working on a book about NC State. The home phone rang about the time he was supposed to call and I saw the number had a 962 exchange and when he said “Hello” I answered back “Hi, Coach Smith.” In his distinctive nasally Kansas twang, the one every sportswriter could imitate from the first day they were on the beat, he said: “Oh…I’m surprised you recognized my voice.”

Finally, here's how good a coach Dean Smith was: Sure, he could get Phil Ford, James Worthy, Michael Jordan, et. al. into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But what about a pudgy, balding, no-jump, no-talent, 5-8 power forward from western North Carolina who never suited up after his 8th-grade Optimist Club season?

After Smith broke Rupp's record for most Division I collegiate wins, the Hall of Fame did a year-long display about Smith's career, and used my front page story from the Durham Herald-Sun as part of the exhibit.

It's the only hall of fame I have ever, or will ever, make it into without buying an admission ticket.