That is what I remember first when I think about Dean Smith – not the championships, not the Four Corners, not the innovations, not the restaurant integration and not the 879 wins as North Carolina’s basketball coach, although all of those were important.
But the kiss was a little more recent, and it symbolized to me how Smith – who died Saturday at the age of 83 – was revered by the UNC community as well as by the world at large.
This was in 2007, in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels were honoring their 1957 and 1982 national title teams at halftime of a home game. Just before Smith was introduced, Michael Jordan pulled his old coach close, leaned down and briefly kissed Smith on the side of his head as Smith smiled.
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It was sweet and perfect, the sort of thing a parent will do to a well-loved child just before something big is about to happen. In this case it was the younger Jordan, towering over his beloved coach.
Then Woody Durham thundered: “Dean Smith!!”
In the building named for him, Smith took a little step forward, lifted both of his hands and then moved them downward, physically trying to tamp down the noise he knew was coming.
No dice. It was one of the loudest ovations I have ever heard.
Anyone of a certain age who graduated from Chapel Hill had some firsthand dealings with Smith. He was omnipresent, a larger-than-life figure, but he tried to deflect attention as much as he could.
One of Smith’s many on-court innovations was having a player who scored acknowledge the player who made the pass by pointing at him, and that was what Smith did throughout much of his life. If you turned the attention on him, he would immediately point at somebody else who had helped him get there.
Until a disease robbed him of his memory, Smith’s mind was a wonder – a smartphone in the age of typewriters.
“During recruiting, after one visit, he knew the names not only of your parents, but of your siblings, your teammates, your grandparents, your coaches –everybody,” former Tar Heel Buzz Peterson said Sunday. “I asked him once how he did it. He said he just concentrated hard during those few seconds of introductions, when most people are worried about saying their own name instead of listening.”
All his former players loved Smith, of course. But he treated all people well – not just people who could help him win games.
While she was a student, my future wife served the coach and his family while she was working as a waitress. She still remembers how kind he was to her. As a UNC student myself in the 1980s and then later as a journalist, I saw Smith many times get asked to sign an autograph. He would comply. But he would also sometimes ask the star-struck person on the other end of the pen for their autograph, too.
In our last lengthy interview, which came in 2006 while his mind was still sharp, Smith and I spoke for about an hour in his small office at the Dean Dome before he got tired. We talked about many things, but mostly about that 1982 championship (his first national title as a head coach) because I was working on a book about that season at the time.
Smith recalled the 1982 national title game against Georgetown and Patrick Ewing, still widely considered one of the best ever played. UNC had the ball and was down by a point with 32 seconds left when Smith called timeout. The first option was to look down low for James Worthy, but Georgetown coach John Thompson knew that and had made sure Worthy was well guarded.
Jordan, a freshman who at the time had such an iffy jump shot he was taking 82 extra jumpers after each practice (82 because it was 1982), would line up on the left wing.
“When we came out of the huddle,” Smith said, “I just told Michael: ‘If it comes to you, knock it in.’ ”
Jordan did, swishing a jumper over Georgetown’s zone. Jordan still calls that the moment that “Mike Jordan” (as he was known in the 1981-82 UNC media guide) became “Michael Jordan.”
It was 25 years later, in 2007, when MJ kissed Smith on the head and gently pushed him in front of the adoring crowd, which was cheering and screaming for the man who had made Carolina basketball synonymous with excellence.
Smith didn’t need the cheers, but the fans needed to do it. They really wanted to kiss or hug the coach themselves. So Jordan – who called Smith his “second father” in a statement Sunday – served as the fans’ famous stand-in that afternoon eight years ago.
Like so many millions of people over the years, those fans wanted to tell Dean Smith “Thank you” – not just for winning a lot of basketball games, but for making the world a kinder place.