I love the sport of basketball, and I owe that love to Dean Smith.
I never really realized it until this weekend, when the legendary, all-time great coach and person passed away at the age of 83.
You see, growing up, I drifted toward basketball — despite the fact that I was a short, mostly unathletic white boy, despite the fact that my father gravitated toward football and baseball, despite the fact that soccer was my best sport and the one I played the most.
I never could quite pinpoint why, exactly, basketball became my passion. For the most part, my sports love came from my father, and while he likes basketball, he’d hardly be considered a basketball fanatic.
Then on Sunday, watching the tributes to Dean Smith following his death, it hit me. It was Dean Smith who taught me to love basketball.
As a youth, the most memorable basketball moments for me involved Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels. I was too young to remember and appreciate the Moses Malone and Dr. J-led Philadelphia 76ers, and the Sixers were for the most part absolutely dreadful. As such, I was also a bit too young to appreciate Magic and Bird, even Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boys.
But I was drawn to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls as so many my age were, and as a result, I was drawn to the college Jordan attended. It helped that UNC just so happened to be one of the best programs in the country with some of the most exciting teams around, meaning the Tar Heels were on television with regularity. And well, it took all of 30 seconds for me to fall in love with Carolina blue.
The teams were so stacked, so exciting, so dominant … and yet they played the epitome of team basketball. Dean Smith wouldn’t have it any other way. The Jordans, Stackhouses, Sheeds, Carters, Jamisons, none of them ever stepped out of line, brought the spotlight on themselves as the Heels ran through opponents. And they never strayed from the way the game was supposed to be played, going into “hero ball” mode as so many basketball players do today. That was because Dean Smith didn’t tolerate selfishness — it wasn’t in his nature, and he wouldn’t allow it on his teams.
I remember George Lynch and the Tar Heels toppling the spotlight-craving Fab Five. I remember Stack and Sheed electrifying the nation, Antawn’s lightning-quick release, Carter’s game-changing athleticism and thunderous dunks, Ed Cota’s oops, Shammond Williams’ shots. I remember Serge Zwikker and Dante Calabria, Eric Montross and Makhtar N’Diaye, Ademola Okulaja and Jeff McInnis. But most of all, I remember Dean Smith, always calm, always composed, always coaching his teams deep into the NCAA Tournament, never a single person uttering an unkind word about the man.
His teams played the way I wanted to play. His players comported themselves the way I wanted to act. There was an almost grace and serenity to Smith, an unassuming man with a mountain of accomplishments.
He was a pioneer and an innovator, an activist and academic. He graduated his players to the tune of a 96 percent graduation rate, proving you can win and compete for national championships while demanding academic excellence. He was, by all accounts, a great human being, a great teacher and a great coach.
He also was the man who taught a generation of children to love the game of basketball just like me, whether directly or indirectly.
Without Dean Smith, I’m not sure I’d be the basketball fan I am today. He had as much of an influence on my passion for the game as anyone. The basketball world will thank Dean for all he’s done, for all the accomplishments he had, and you should read every word you can about him.
For me, I’m just thankful he was the person he was, thankful that I was introduced to Dean Smith and the UNC Tar Heels, thankful that Dean Smith taught me to love basketball.
Rest in peace, Dean. Enjoy your courtside seats in the sky next to your mentors John Wooden and Phog Allen.