On the day before Dean Smith’s funeral, Bill Guthridge, Smith’s longtime assistant and friend, tried to put into words the relationship they shared, but he couldn’t say exactly what he wanted to say, or how he wanted to say it.
Guthridge sat in his room in the medical wing of an assisted living facility not far from the UNC campus. He had a UNC logo name tag on his walker in front of him - “Coach Bill Guthridge,” it read – and a newspaper clipping on a table next to him, a story about him and Smith.
There was a picture of them sitting together on the bench, looking intense and stern.
“It might be that we were losing,” Guthridge said, and then smiled. “Dean was serious, and I was usually just like Dean.”
He tried to go on.
“He passed away four days (ago),” Guthridge said. “That’s Dean ...”
And then his mind took him back to his childhood, and to growing up in Kansas, where he and Smith were born, and went to college – Smith at Kansas, Guthridge at Kansas State – before they came to North Carolina, Smith first, and worked alongside each other for 30 years.
That’s how Guthridge’s mind works these days. There are good moments and others not so clear, when the words don’t come so easily or when the memories are trapped somewhere Guthridge can’t grasp them.
“I’m not up with it,” Guthridge said at one point, when he tried to remember taking over as UNC’s head coach in 1997 after Smith retired. “You get old.”
Bill and Dean, friends for life
Smith died on Feb. 7 after suffering for years from a neurological disorder that robbed him of his memories. Now Guthridge, 77, is enduring a similarly cruel fate though the cause of his memory loss is far different from what afflicted Smith in his later years.
Guthridge’s wife of 42 years, Leesie, said he has been stricken by an assortment of ailments. He was diagnosed about five or six years ago, she said, with amyloids on his heart – a condition for which there is no cure. Doctors then gave him about this long to live, she said, but he took a trial drug that helped.
“But he’s been off of it now for a year,” she said, “and it seems like he has gone down quite a bit.”
He has a bad hip and needs surgery but his heart isn’t strong enough for that, his wife said. And then there’s perhaps the most difficult part of all – the memory loss and diminished cognitive ability.
Those are sad side effects of the amyloids. Guthridge, his wife said, suffers from vascular dementia – a condition that’s a result of reduced blood supply to the brain. He knows where he is and who he is, but it’s often difficult for him to come up with memories, or how to describe them.
“Bill’s not real verbal anymore,” Leesie said. “I have a hard time, and he has a hard time. He sometimes knows exactly what he wants to say but he can’t come up with the words.”
When Smith died, word began to spread among the UNC basketball community. Former UNC athletic director Dick Baddour informed Guthridge. Baddour often takes Guthridge to lunch in the grill room at Finley Golf Course. They remain close.
“For the next couple of days when people mentioned Dean, (Guthridge) would get real teary,” Leesie said. “So I think he was really sad about it. He didn’t really talk about it. But I think he was really sad. He had watched him go downhill.”
They had been friends, Guthridge and Smith, for nearly a lifetime. They grew up about 90 miles apart in Kansas and Smith briefly dated Guthridge’s sister in the early 1950s. In 1967, Smith called Guthridge with an offer to become an assistant coach at UNC.
Guthridge took the job and loyally remained for the next three decades – turning down head coaching opportunities at Arkansas and Penn State – until Smith retired before the 1997-98 season. Guthridge took over andwas the head coach for three seasons, two of them ending their coaching careers in the Final Four.
“That’s right,” Guthridge said on the eve of Smith’s funeral. “I did remember that.”
‘My friends are now dead’
For years after his retirement Guthridge continued to come into his office at the Smith Center. The men had offices next to each other – and still do – and their longtime secretary, Linda Woods, would come in a few times a week, too.
Even after Smith’s condition worsened his caretakers would take him into the office. It was difficult on Guthridge, watching his friend gradually deteriorate. Guthridge wanted to be there and wished he could help, but felt helpless.
“Linda and I talked about that, and he didn’t like to see Dean in this state,” Leesie said. “He didn’t really want to see him in that state.”
Guthridge had difficulty remembering when he had seen Smith for the last time. It had been a far longer time since they could have shared their last real conversation.
“The biggest problem,” Guthridge said softly, “is the last few years, he was pretty much out of it. And I was, too. Not quite as much as he was.”
On this particular afternoon Guthridge’s mind jumped from growing up in Kansas to his friendship to Smith to his time coaching in a Puerto Rican summer league in the late 1960s. He kept coming back to Pachin Vicens, a Puerto Rican basketball player whom Guthridge admired.
They’d become friends. Vicens died in 2007.
“My friends now are dead,” Guthridge said at one point. “I think they’re all dead.”
Crowd noise stirs the spirit
That’s not entirely true, his wife said. Baddour visits him often. Roy Williams comes by. Eric Montross and Phil Ford and other former players, if they’re in town, visit. A.J. Carr, who for decades was a sports reporter for The News & Observer, is a frequent visitor, and Guthridge is a celebrity where he lives.
Everyone there calls him Coach Guthridge, in much the same way people always refer to Smith as Coach Smith.
“He gets paid a lot of attention,” Leesie said. “But it still feels (lonely) to him, probably, because he’s stuck there where he is. He doesn’t drive, he can’t do the normal things.
“He can’t even remember a lot of this. He’ll forget when I’m there.”
She comes by every day, always in the afternoons, and sometimes, she said, Guthridge will thank her for coming.
“And I say, ‘I’m here every day,’” Leesie said.
After three years as head coach, Guthridge retired in 2000. He was exhausted, his wife said. For decades he had been Smith’s right hand. When Smith retired, Guthridge took on all of Smith’s responsibilities and never really relinquished the ones he had when he as an assistant.
When he retired, he and Leesie traveled the world. There were trips to China, Russia, Australia. The Galapagos Islands.
“I wouldn’t give anything for it,” Leesie said. “I’m glad we did it when we did.”
Leesie was out of town last week when Smith’s closest friends and colleagues and former players gathered for his private funeral service. Baddour took Guthridge. Leesie said she and Guthridge are planning to attend Smith’s public memorial Sunday.
She planned to bring him to UNC’s game against Georgia Tech. It would be the third game Guthridge has attended this season, she said. They were on their way to another one when a health issue landed Guthridge in the hospital overnight.
He tried to keep up with the team but, he said, the “bad part is that I hardly get to see any” games.
But watching the games and, better yet, being at them is therapeutic. It brings back something Guthridge has lost in recent times – not memories, necessarily, but a certain feeling that’s familiar and comfortable.
“If you ask him, he can’t remember what the score was,” Leesie said. “And he might not remember who we played. But you know what he likes? He’s so used to the noise.
“The crowd and atmosphere of a ballgame. He’s very comfortable when he hears the band, hears people cheering. He’s always lived that.”