Dean Smith didn’t want anyone to treat him differently or let him order first. So he often called his order in to Four Corners Grille and picked it up through the back door in the kitchen.
This was Smith — the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame coach — off the court. The Chapel Hill resident. The food connoisseur.
“We would always know to leave it in the kitchen for him,” said Art Chansky, founder and former owner of Four Corners.
“He always would check out the food as he walked by to see what we were serving that day, and sometimes he would give us his opinion. I remember one time he told us the corned beef looked a little ‘lean.’”
Chansky opened the restaurant in 1979 with business partner Eddie Fogler, Smith’s assistant coach at the time.
The pair named the restaurant after the famous delay-offense invented by Smith.
But corned beef wasn’t the only type of sandwich Smith, who died Saturday at his Chapel Hill home at the age of 83, enjoyed.
“He loved the BLT, especially the double,” said Merritt’s Store and Grill manager Chris Elkins, who was also a UNC cheerleader while Smith was head coach.
As he did with Four Corners, Smith frequently called in his orders ahead of time and picked them up at the store, Elkins said.
“He started coming to the store in about the 1990s,” she said. “And he would come in three to four times per month — he was a frequent visitor.”
Elkins said Smith ordered either a double BLT or his other favorite — the chicken salad sandwich — even after he began experiencing symptoms of dementia.
“We’re just grateful for all the positive memories that he left behind,” she said.
‘Halos for the archangels’
One particularly memorable night for Four Corners was the night North Carolina won the 1982 NCAA men’s basketball championship.
Its name hung in brass letters on the facade of the building. And it was those brass letters that Chansky’s staff meticulously protected from the excitement following the 1982 NCAA championship.
“We bought rolls and rolls of that very thick plastic and we fastened over the top of the restaurant and then dropped it down in front of the windows,” Chansky said.
“They’re the original letters that have been there since 1979, and we didn’t want any paint on that.”
That 1993 NCAA championship game was the first national title for a newly argyle-clad team.
Smith himself called designer and Franklin Street shop-owner Alexander Julian two years before to ask for help in a redesign of the team’s uniforms.
“To have Dean Smith call you on the phone and ask you personally to design new uniforms for my beloved Tar Heels was akin to having God call and ask for new halos for the archangels,” Julian said.
Julian, along with many of Smith’s family and close friends, watched in pain as a man known for his remarkable memory ended the last few years of his life unable to use it.
“He remembered every play, he remembered every student athlete, the family, their brothers and sisters, their parents,” Julian said. “He was a genius. The guy was a saint.”
Loving the little guy
A reverence for Smith was felt by many who knew him, including David Hart, a manager of the men’s basketball team during the 1981-82 national championship winning season.
“I grew up in North Carolina idolizing Dean Smith, and so I went down there and had a chance to do something that I never dreamed was possible,” Hart said.
Hart said he remembers when the team had just won the NCAA championship. The NCAA awarded the team — players, trainers, coaches and managers — with commemorative watches.
“They had 22 watches, and there were 23 of us when you counted everybody,” Hart said. “I was the youngest manager, and — so when it came time — it was natural for me to not get a watch.”
Hart was called into Smith’s office a few days later. He and Smith talked about the championship for a few minutes.
“Then he said, ‘I appreciate everything you did; you were as much a part of this team as anyone, and I want you to have this,’” Hart said. “And he gives me a box with his national championship watch.”
Hart said this was the side of Smith many people never got the chance to see.
“Here is a vertically-challenged, athletically-challenged kid that would have paid to do what I got to do — never scored a point to help the team,” Hart said. “And yet he cared so much about my feelings and my contribution that he was willing to part with the one piece of tangible evidence that he gets.”
Smith touched everyone he met — from restaurant managers to basketball managers.
“Whenever he walked into any place, everybody wanted to talk to him,” Elkins said. “They wanted to tell him how much he was loved.”
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated the year when the North Carolina men's basketball team started wearing argyle uniforms designed by Alexander Julian. The team first wore those uniforms in the 1991-92 season. The story has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.