H.G. Wells once said, “success is to be measured not by wealth, power, or fame, but by the ratio of what a man is, and what he can be.”
Well, I know this to be true. The late Dean Smith was a giant of a man, a giant of a coach and lived a life that can be called unparalleled because he meant so much to so many. He built and sustained a legacy and a fraternity of players and coaches that was, is now and forever will be unmatched.
I can remember like it was yesterday sitting in my childhood home at 88 Robinson Street in Binghamton N.Y., with my long since deceased dad as an eight-year-old kid and we were watching what would turn out, for me, to be the first big time college basketball game I would ever see.
In those days there weren’t many teams are games on national TV like there are today, so this was unforgettable. It was Dean Smith with his machine-like UNC Tar Heels in there powder blue uniforms against Al McGuire’s Marquette team and my father said watch these two coaches, they are both geniuses.
That was it, I was hooked. I was unknowingly getting bit by a basketball bug that would stay with me for a lifetime. From that moment forward, this would forge my great passion to want to become a big time coach. I was especially drawn to McGuire because he was a New Yorker and he would be one of my original coaching idols, and I would basically grow up a North Carolina Tar Heel fan and a fan of Smith, who Dick Vitale would appropriately call “The Michaelangelo of Coaching.”
As a junior point guard in high school, I did my first interview with a sportswriter named Jerry Sullivan because I got to run the four-corner offense in a game wanting to emulate the great Phil Ford after watching him do it at UNC. I would teach my teammates how to point a finger to a player once an assist happened. These were just a few of the things Smith brought to the game of basketball. When I became a head coach for the first time, I would make my bench stand when there was a substitute and I would start every practice with a thought for the day because I heard that Smith did that before his practices.
The secondary break that is still being used in the game today is pretty much affectionately called by coaches everywhere as the Carolina Break. Smith’s innovations of defenses pressing and trapping where and when on the floor fascinated me. And that point zone defense. Dean Smith arguably did more to revolutionize the game than any coach in history.
By my junior year in college when reality set in that a 5′ 10″, 165 pound player would probably not make the NBA, I wanted to get an early leg up on becoming a coach. I became the beneficiary of one of my luckiest breaks. I was able to go to Chapel Hill and work for coach Smith as a college counselor at his UNC Tar Heel basketball camp for three straight summers. I would get to meet and hang out with New York point guard Kenny “The Jet” Smith and a gangly wing who would go on that next season to hit the shot that would bring Smith his first national title. You might know him as Michael Jordan. At that camp, we called him “Mike.”
I would tell coach Smith and his assistant coach at the time, Roy Williams, about an up-and-coming young man back at my high school in my hometown. That kid was like a younger brother to me and they needed to go and recruit him. Ironically, I was in attendance when Smith came in for the home visit with King Rice, and when King chose the Tar Heels there no one was happier than me. Rice would go on to help lead coach Smith and UNC to one of his remarkable 11 Final Fours.
I would be there for Rice’s senior banquet and his graduation. I had the chance to be in Rice’s wedding party with fellow UNC players Rick Fox, Hubert Davis, Phil Ford, Jimmy Black and J.R. Reid. And as coach Smith did for all his players, of course he was there. Through it all, I would watch the unwavering loyalty coach Smith gave Rice through all his ups and downs and for all his players.
Next up, coach Smith would come to St. Nicholas of Tolentine high school, where I was coaching, to recruit Brian Reese, a 6’6″ small forward and one of three McDonald’s All-Americans we had along with Malik Sealy (who went on to play at St. Johns) and Adrian Autry (who eventually played for Syracuse), as we were a national power. I still laugh to this day when I think of coach Dean Smith and his trusted assistant coach Bill Guthridge pulling up in front of our school in the South Bronx with a white Lincoln Town Car, and Guthridge was so afraid the car would not be there when they came out that he carried all of his and Smith’s luggage inside for the visit.
Rice would often tell me story’s of Smith’s witty side, how he could use a dry sense of humor in practice and go off on him where he felt like he got cursed out. But coach Smith would never use a curse word once in Rice’s four years there. As we were in our little office, the phone rang and it was a rival school from the ACC who also wanted to come in to see Reese, and the assistant coach left his name. He was, at the time, a well known New York recruiter called the “egg man” and coach Smith would turn to me and wryly say “is that the egg man or the bag man?” It’s the little things you don’t forget.
Later that night, we would help take coach Smith to his favorite New York restaurant on the outskirts of Little Italy Called Patrizzy’s. Coach Smith would tell us that this was the place that legendary coach Frank McGuire would bring him every time they came to New York to recruit and they would often have dinner there with Joe DiMaggio. Four years later, Reese would send me a signed autograph picture of him on the cover of Sports Illustrated helping Smith secure his second and final national title.
When I became an assistant coach to Pete Gillen at the University of Virginia in the ACC, he was so worried about me being a fan of UNC that he would not let me scout them when we had to play them twice a year.
A few short years ago when I let Rice know that I wanted to pursue my dream of someday coaching in the NBA, it would be Rice who would make the connection for me with another former Tar Heel great, and my own personal favorite coach of all time, Larry Brown. As I would go on to spend time with the only coach to ever win both an NCAA and NBA title —and in my humble opinion, coach Brown is without question the best teaching coach I have ever seen or been around— Brown has become both a friend and mentor of mine in the game. No one speaks of coach Smith with more reverence and respect than Brown.
The last time I would see and speak to coach Smith, it would be at Brown’s Charlotte Bobcats practice and despite his unfortunate health issues he would remember me and relate me, of course, with his two former players Rice, currently the head coach of Monmouth University, and Reese who is an assistant coach on his staff.
Since coach Smith passed away over a week ago, there have been rightfully countless articles written, tributes paid and both private and public, and services held. The accomplishments and numbers are staggering and too many to list. He won the ACC 18 times, still a record, had 25 first- round NBA draft picks and has the building where the Tar Heels play named after him. He won numerous humanitarian awards for his help through the years with race relations. He is simply put a person and a basketball coach who cannot be replaced.
Bobby Gonzalez, a former Division I head coach at Manhattan and Seton Hall, is a regular contributing columnist for SheridanHoops.
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