Dean Smith's influence off the court

Three of Smith’s four players of the year comment on legendary coach

Three legends of North Carolina basketball are all in accord when it comes to one thing — they wouldn’t be where they are today without Dean Smith.

The Hall of Fame basketball coach has “progressive neurocognitive disorder” according to a letter from his family that was released Saturday. Smith, famously known for his ability to remember names and events for decades, has short-term memory loss.

Former UNC standouts Phil Ford, James Worthy and Antawn Jamison all recall Smith as one of their biggest influences in life. All three men were recruited by Smith to play at UNC and each received national player of the year honors.

“That’s the toughest thing, to know that he’s having memory losses,” Jamison said. “Coach Smith can remember things 20 years ago like it was yesterday.”

Jamison, who is currently in his hometown of Charlotte hosting his annual basketball camp, was part of one of Smith’s last recruiting classes. Jamison was a sophomore when Smith retired in 1997 after coaching the Tar Heels for 36 years. One season later, Jamison was named the unanimous national player of the year.

“To be humble, respectful, to give back to community and to put family before anything, he tried to instill all those qualities in his players,” said Jamison, who is in his 13th year in the NBA and second with the Cleveland Cavaliers. “The one thing that people remember most of Coach Smith, not that he was one of the greatest coaches of all time, but he was a great man.

“Other than my parents, I look up to nobody more than I look up to Coach Smith.”

Smith coached Ford for four years, including three that won Ford All-America honors and a national player of the year award. With Ford running point guard, Smith popularized the Four Corners offense — a stall tactic employed late in a game to seal a win.

After a seven-year pro career, Ford returned to UNC to be Smith’s assistant and helped capture the coach’s second national championship in 1993.

“He and I and Coach Guthridge had lunch a little earlier this summer a little over a month ago,” Ford said. “My fondest memory … there are so many great things. I’m just so happy that he came into my life. He’s meant so much to me in my life. I don’t know how things would have been had he not come into my life.”

Ford said that he’s known about Smith’s struggles with memory for a while, but that he has no problem identifying one of his greatest players.

Neither does he have a problem with Worthy, who also has his jersey retired in the Smith Center. Worthy led UNC to the 1982 national championship alongside Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins. The title was Smith’s first after several trips to the Final Four.

“My fondest memory is probably the way he treated everybody,” Worthy said. “It didn’t matter if you were James Worthy,
Michael Jordan or just the janitor who swept the floor after practice — everyone was equal. That was the first thing we were taught by Coach Smith. The key word is humility.”

The life lessons Smith taught to his players reverberate in both Ford and Worthy’s lives years after retirement, as well as for Jamison in the twilight of his career (he said he has a minimum of two, maximum of four, years remaining in the NBA).

Jamison referred to Smith as his “second father,” and both Ford and Worthy couldn’t have agreed more.

“When you’re a blue chipper coming out of high school, you’re expecting to hear how you’re going to start and how wonderful you are,” Worthy said. “But with Coach Smith, he talked to your parents for about an hour and he let them know what he was going to require from their child. You’re going to go to class and church, and then he promises that you’ll graduate.”

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