By coincidence, I happened to be in Chapel Hill today when I heard the sad news that former UNC basketball coach Dean Smith had died. I drove over to the Dean Dome because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. There were 150 yards of news trucks parked end to end out in front of the building and a fair amount of people milling about. Many flowers were placed around a plaque honoring Coach Smith, but this solitary bouquet at the doors made for a better pic.
I saw something written by Charlotte Observer writer Scott Fowler just before I drove over there. He said, “Anyone of a certain age who graduated from Chapel Hill had some firsthand dealings with Smith.” Though I didn’t graduate, I was certainly no exception. He was such a kind man. I first met Coach Smith when I was a photographer for the Daily Tar Heel. I hope I am not too indiscreet by revealing Coach Smith’s only bad habit (in the early 70s) was that he smoked. I guess it was his way of dealing with tension and pre-game jitters. I encountered him below the stands in Carmichael Auditorium just before the start of a game, out of view of the fans who were filling the arena. He was vigorously sucking on a cigarette, extracting every last bit of nicotine. He was visibly concerned to see me there with my camera, like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He did not speak to me but had a troubled look on his face. I did not take his picture and I told him not to worry, I would never take a photo to embarrass him. He smiled, gave me a nod and walked off. After that, he always remembered me and addressed me by name, even though I hadn’t introduced myself. I frequently shot games, so we ran into each other from time to time during basketball season. Coach Smith always went out of his way to be exceptionally nice, and not just to me. He was like that with everyone.
Several years later I was back on campus during the summer. I walked over to the basketball court outside one of the dorms where the basketball players were known to play pickup games with campers at Coach Smith’s summer basketball camp. In the intervening years since I had last spoken with him, I had grown a lot of long hair and a mustache. I did not remotely look like I used to look when I was in school. Of course Coach Smith was there, and as soon as he saw me, he walked over, said “Hi John” and asked how I was doing. It was not a rhetorical question. He was genuinely interested, and was not about to let me off the hook until I filled him in on my recent activities. Rarely has anyone made me feel so good simply by saying hi. He was not just a great man. He was a great guy.