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The Daily Tar Heel

Coach Dean Smith proved even legends have time for everyone

Surrounded by decades of former University of North Carolina players, UNC coach Dean Smith acknowledges a standing ovation from the crowd after being honored during the Celebration of a Century at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Friday, February 12, 2010. This is the 100th year of Carolina basketball. (Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)

It was a beautiful paradox: Dean Smith, an uncommon man, dispensing gestures so kind and so voluminous to the common men who adored him, who were lucky enough to feel the lasting warmth of an uncommon heart.

His heart would not go cold with its final beat Saturday night, weeks before it would have marked 84 years within the chest of its beloved conductor. It has left embers everywhere, far beyond a hard gym floor. And its symphony — too heartfelt to capture with a simple melody — plays on in the minds of the common men.

Jeff Bardel lost his right arm in 1993 while working at a glass plant in Laurinberg, N.C. He was 18 and crestfallen. He was to begin, in a few months, his baseball career at Appalachian State.

Bardel was a Tar Heel fan by birth. When his recovery sent him to Duke, he wore UNC apparel each of the 16 days he spent there. A few of Bardel’s friends reached out to UNC’s basketball program to share his story. Smith soon heard it, for he was blessed with an altruist’s ears. He sent a letter dated July 30, 1993.

“I probably can’t imagine the feelings you are having right now,” Smith wrote, “but I do know that, as hard as it may be, if you can try to focus on the things you do have, you will be able to go to school and move into other things that will be rewarding.”

“It took the pain away for a while for a broken 18 year old,” Bardel wrote Sunday on Facebook.

Daniel Johnson joined the Navy after he graduated from UNC in 1998. An accident at sea little more than a year after he graduated claimed both of his legs. His younger brother, Will, was a freshman forward on Bill Guthridge’s 1999-2000 Tar Heels. Smith soon heard of Johnson’s tale, and he sent him a letter while Johnson recovered at Walter Reed Army Hospital. It was handwritten and heartfelt, a splash of Smith’s patented compassion.

“That note hangs in my office to this day and serves as a reminder that, no matter how busy my day may be, it is important to make time to care about and to support those in need,” said Johnson, now a partner at the Raleigh law firm Willis Johnson & Nelson.

Generosity emanated from Smith with the reach and glow of a lighthouse. There was Emily Schaffer, a 2009 UNC graduate, whose aunt was dying from lung cancer in 1998. Schaffer’s aunt was a recovering alcoholic, and, through a chance encounter, had grown friendly with Smith’s wife, Linnea Smith, a psychiatrist. Dean Smith heard her story. He sent her an autographed poster, writing that he had heard of her friendship with Linnea Smith and wished her the best.

“Something very simple,” Schaffer said, “but genuine and heartfelt.”

More than mortality and lost limbs compelled Dean Smith to connect with those who felt just as compelled to connect with him. Keith Poston was a high school junior and self-described “rec league hack” at Fayetteville’s Douglas Byrd High School when he wrote to Dean Smith in 1984 about making his team as a walk-on or team manager. Poston, who would graduate from UNC in 1989, mailed the letter on Feb. 24. Dean Smith replied in a letter dated March 8. He encouraged Poston to visit the basketball office upon his Chapel Hill arrival. He should speak, Dean Smith said, with then-varsity assistant coach and JV head coach Roy Williams.

“You certainly had some nice comments to make about our basketball program,” Dean Smith said. “I feel very fortunate to be involved with the type of young men who represent our team.”

Always personal. Always authentic. Bailey Pennington, now a UNC junior and journalism major, was a high school sophomore in 2009. She was as rabid a Tar Heels supporter as her boyfriend, Stewart Johnson. Christmas was coming. Another UNC T-shirt wouldn’t do for Stewart. Pennington was stumped.

“Why don’t you write a letter to Dean Smith?” her mother, Marie, asked. What would he give the biggest Tar Heel fan he knows?

Pennington sat down with a pencil and notebook. She mailed her letter. Weeks passed. You know, it’s Dean Smith, she thought. He’s got more important things to do.

Then an envelope appeared in the mail. Pennington screamed. It was a letter from Linda Woods, Dean Smith’s secretary since 1977. “Coach Smith read your letter and really enjoyed it,” Woods wrote. “He wanted you to have this.”

It was a black-and-white, eight-by-10-inch photo of Dean Smith, made out to Stewart and signed in swirling silver sharpie. Then there was a second photo, the same as the first, made out to Bailey Pennington.

Pennington still keeps the photo in her Mebane bedroom. It has its own shelf. She cried when she first received the photo, and cried again Sunday morning when she learned the man with the silver Sharpie would never ink another black and white.

“I guess it’s just the little things,” Pennington said. “Of course everyone knows how great of a coach he was, but then everybody seems to have all of these testimonies of how great of a person he was.”

Angelica Lieth didn’t know Dean Smith as basketball royalty. She was young, and Dean Smith was old, and they were next-door neighbors in Chapel Hill. She didn’t see Four Corners or national championships or pretense of one of his sport’s most accomplished men.

She saw Dean and Linnea Smith welcome Lieth and her two brothers and two sisters into their yard, romping in their pool or in the woods behind their home. She saw the Smiths walking their dogs, Kona and Mayzie, beckoning Lieth and her siblings to join them on a jaunt around their cul-de-sac. “Always so warm and welcoming and sweet,” Lieth said.

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Her brother Alex wanted to be basketball player. Dean Smith’s ears wouldn’t betray him. They never did. He heard about Alex’s aspirations and encouraged him, pushed him, mentored him. There they were, a dreamer and a Hall of Fame coach, dribbling together in the Lieths’ driveway, his normal humanity quashing anything abnormal about this unlikely union.

One year, Dean Smith sent a card to Alex on his birthday, April 30. Alex decided to respond. He waited 10 months before sending Smith a card on his birthday, Feb. 28. Dean Smith was touched. So he sent Alex an autographed basketball poster: “Alex, thanks for your nice birthday card. Best always to my neighbor. Dean Smith.”

“My brother was just a kid, and Dean took time out of his day to do that,” said Angelica Lieth, now a UNC junior. “I think that really shows how much Dean truly did care about the people in his life, no matter how big or how small of a portion they made up in his life. It didn’t matter if it was one of his players or his next-door neighbor.”

It never mattered. No soul was ever too high or too low for Dean Smith to touch. He cared for them

CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story misattributed to Bailey Pennington a quote from Angelica Lieth, who told a story about Dean Smith and her brother. The story has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.