Column: Dean Smith ensures all will have seat at table

The arc of a life rises, then slopes, then falls, because time is the curvature that ensures nothing is forever. And then there is the exception: the flat line that extends beyond sight, in perpetuity, faithful to its path and resolute in its straight purpose. Dean Smith is the line that flattens the arc.

J.R. Reid was a 12-year-old sixth grader from Virginia Beach when he and his family first met Smith. For Reid, this is where the line starts: a middle schooler meeting a man from the school of higher love.

It was 35 years before Smith bequeathed $200 to Reid and the 179 other lettermen who played for North Carolina during Smith’s 36-year reign. Mailed on March 23 — almost two months after Smith’s death at 83 — to all players who amassed enough time on the varsity roster, the gift included a Smithian directive: “Enjoy a dinner out compliments of Dean Smith.” The $36,000 bequest wasn’t so much a bill as it was a gratuity. When it came to those closest to his heart, Smith could never tip enough.

“It’s very rarely,” Reid said, “that you meet someone that is truly as good as advertised.”

In the fall of 1986, Reid made his official visit to Chapel Hill. Smith had plenty on his mind, or at least he should have. He asked Reid about his favorite food. “New York strip steak,” Reid said. Smith said he’d make sure Reid would get it. And when Reid dined with Smith at Slugs At The Pines, his plate hosted a slab of New York strip. The future forward would have more steak that weekend — along with salad and sweet potatoes — at Smith’s home, where Smith and his wife, Linnea, hosted Reid and his parents, Herman and Cora Jean. Little else provides as much sustenance for the soul, Smith knew, as a meal among friends.

“When I think about the deeper meaning from Coach Smith’s perspective, I would surmise that he lived with the recognition that relationships needed to be more than surface,” said Eric Montross, a center on UNC’s 1993 national championship team and a UNC basketball analyst for Tar Heel Sports Network.

It started with team meals — at the training table, before games, on the road, where Smith always managed to find a steakhouse in whatever city his team visited. Buzz Peterson, a guard on UNC’s 1982 championship team and now a scout and consultant for the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, would return to Chapel Hill for summertime coaching summits that Smith would hold for his disciples. The dinners sometimes lasted three-and-a-half hours, with Smith keeping a rapt audience the whole time.

Reid would also decamp to Chapel Hill during the summer to train with former players and meet with Smith. Their old coach would insist on taking the players out for lunch, whereupon he managed, without fail, to snag the bill before any player could so much as breathe on their wallet.

“Sometimes you could sneak and maybe get one in on him,” Reid said, “but most of the time I think his record was pretty good at snatching meals.”

And now he has snatched another 180, because the line has no ruts, and a generous hand is best unseen. Smith attended Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill up until the Sunday before he died. That’s why Richard Vinroot, the former Charlotte mayor who played for Smith in the ‘60s, told the Charlotte Observer he’d donate his $200 to Binkley. Peterson says he’ll do the same if he doesn’t take his wife or family out to eat.

“He wasn’t just only a member: He was a very significant part of the ethos of this place,” said Rev. Marcus McFaul, Binkley’s interim pastor. “And their recognition of that is very sweet, and very tender, and very nice.”

Yet Smith wouldn’t have cared for the attention devoted to his gift. A photo of the letter zipped around social media with the name and Wilmington address of Dante Calabria, a sharpshooter on UNC’s ‘93 title team. But whether Calabria posted the photo remains uncertain.

The letter doesn’t appear on his Twitter timeline, and he no longer lives in Wilmington: Calabria, who declined to comment, coaches a basketball prep team in Montverde, Fla., about 20 miles west of Orlando. The letter arrived in North Carolina. “My family loves UNC and Coach and opened the letter. They were very deeply moved and shared it,” he tweeted March 26. “Just another reminder of how special of a person Coach Smith remains.” The letter’s photo originates from a Twitter user named Jim Dempsey, whose March 26 tweet at 11:55 a.m. has garnered almost 6,000 retweets. Sources close to Calabria said he still hasn’t seen the letter in person and therefore wouldn’t have had the chance to upload a photo.

Nor would have Smith cared for the widespread praise. Tim Breedlove, the trustee of Smith’s estate, says the coach’s generosity isn’t rare — that while uncommon, there are other Deans out there with hearts as big as their rolodexes. Maybe that’s the greatest lesson of all: Kindness shouldn’t be extraordinary. It should be the norm. Draw a line, not an arc.

“When your playing career is over, you’re not done with him,” Peterson said. “It’s kind of like it almost started with him at that time. It’s time for him to help you out.”

“He walked it and he talked it,” Reid said, “and what you saw is what you got.”

“He’s still finding ways to teach and demonstrate by example,” said Montross, who plans to take either his wife or family to dinner. “Who knows what’s next, what someone will unearth that is an additional lasting legacy?”

For J.R. Reid, this will do for now. He celebrated his 47th birthday Tuesday by returning to the beginning of the line: Reid took his $200 check and gathered his family and friends at Aberdeen Barn, a Virginia Beach steakhouse. Smith, Reid said, loved more than any steakhouse fare a plate of Osso Buco. Yet for Tuesday’s purposes, something far less extravagant would do. Because there is nothing simpler than a fond memory, and nothing more precious than thinking of another human being.

Reid ordered a New York strip steak. He thought of his coach.

It is clear the line’s end is nowhere near.

sports@dailytarheel.com

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