CHESTNUT HILL, MASS. — Dean Smith was at once everywhere and nowhere.
We see him when we watch the North Carolina men’s basketball team play home games — his name, Dean Edwards Smith, is the arena.
We see him when we wander past Four Corners restaurant, named for one of his many on-court innovations, on Franklin Street on a cloudless and sunny day like Sunday, alone, the temperature perfect and possibilities endless, thinking it can’t be a mere coincidence that the cold is gone, at least for this day.
We see him every day, when we wait the extra three seconds to hold the door open for the person behind us, say thank you to the “You’re welcome!” crossing guard, strike up conversation with Ms. Paige at the dining hall — embodying The Carolina Way, that intangible but essential philosophy coined by Smith, the three-word mission statement of the University of the People.
But we never saw Smith. We saw him at the end of the “This is Carolina basketball” montage at UNC home games, sure, but the neurological disorder that robbed him of arguably his greatest asset, his memory, robbed us of seeing him in the flesh. He is, because of this, almost divine.
So it was in snowy Chestnut Hill, Mass., on Saturday, when No. 12 UNC beat Boston College, 79-68, that Smith was both there and not there, just as he is at every Tar Heel basketball game. He was there because Dean Smith and UNC basketball are nearly interchangeable, because every game since Smith retired in 1997 has been touched by the legendary coach in some way: huddling at the free-throw line, changing defenses mid-game, pointing to the passer.
“It was mandated,” Dave Chadwick, who played for Smith from 1967 to 1971, says of pointing to the teammate that assisted your basket. If you didn’t, he says, you’d soon be sitting next to Smith on the bench.
And Smith cared, deeply, for every one of his players. “When I left the campus, he said to me, ‘Thank you for four years. If you ever need me, call me. I’ll always be here for you,’” Chadwick says.
Years later, Chadwick needed him, and Dean Smith was there. Chadwick’s 13-year-old son, David, dislocated his kneecap and needed surgery. Chadwick called Smith and asked if he would call David Jr. to offer encouragement.
Smith called the next day. He and David Jr. talked for 15 minutes, about life and basketball, and Smith told the 13-year-old that plenty of people have come back from knee injuries and to not give up hope. David Chadwick Jr. is now 25, with a bachelor’s in business management, playing Division I basketball at Valparaiso.
Surely, then, Smith, in Boston in spirit but not person, loved watching Isaiah Hicks, an unrenowned sophomore in his first ACC start, muscle his way to a career-high 21 points against the Eagles on Saturday. Two of those points came early in the second half, with UNC leading, 40-38, when Hicks received a pass from Nate Britt near the left block, took a dribble, lowered his shoulder, and dropped in a soft hook.
Starting back down the court on defense, Hicks pointed to the passer, and somewhere the old coach smiled.
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