“You can do this job,” Smith told Williams, reassuring him about the Kansas head coaching job. “And you’re going to be the best.”
Roy Williams remembers that 1988 phone call 27 years later. It made all the difference for the then 37-year-old, who was interviewing for his first head coaching job after serving as Smith’s assistant at UNC for 10 years. He felt doubtful and needed hope. He felt uneasy and needed Dean.
That was the man Dean Smith was, a man made up of more than just statistics. Yes, he accrued 879 wins in 36 seasons for the most in college basketball at the time of his retirement, 13 ACC Tournament titles, 11 Final Fours, two national championships and an Olympic gold medal.
But he was also a man who loved people; a coach who yelled at you if you forgot to point to the passer on the court, but remembered the names of your family members, hometown and kids off of it.
Meet him once, and he’d never forget. Enter his circle, and he’d never let go.
“I told him one time I thought he was loyal to a fault,” Williams said. “And he said that I shouldn’t use those two words in the same sentence.”
She wasn’t ready.
She had finally narrowed down her choices to Gandhi and Dean Smith, and Dean had won.
Allison Hawkins was in the seventh grade at her Brevard, N.C. middle school, and the assignment was to write a one-page essay on the historical figure of her choice. Both of her parents were Tar Heels, and Dean just made sense.
But she didn’t know her father would send Dean a copy of her essay — which was written with Comic Sans font and clip art — and so she wasn’t ready when North Carolina’s basketball office sent her a package a few weeks later.
“I opened it up, and it was a letter from Coach Smith and an autographed picture that said, ‘Happy 12th Birthday,’” she said. “It was just the coolest thing and just completely blew me away that he would respond to that at all.”
In the letter, Smith told Allison he was impressed with her writing skills and figured she was a strong student in the classroom.
“I will quickly add that I would question my part in history with thousands of others who certainly have done more to help others. However I wanted you to know that I appreciated your doing this,” the coach humbly wrote. “I surely hope to see you at North Carolina one day.”
Allison is now a graduate student in the UNC School of Government. She completed her UNC undergraduate degree in 2012.
They weren’t ready.
This man in their locker room, whom Hubert Davis had jumped off the stairmaster to envelop in a hug, wasn’t who Davis’ teammates were expecting.
The game between the Detroit Pistons and the Washington Wizards hadn’t even started, yet two college coaches were in their NBA locker room. Davis, in his last year in the NBA, was competing for the Pistons, Michael Jordan for the Wizards. Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge had come to watch.
“I just gave him a big hug, and I was like, ‘Yes sir, yes sir,’” Davis said. “And all the guys were like, ‘Man, it was like you were a little kid — like that’s your dad.’”
That’s because Dean was.
“I was like, ‘He is my dad,’” Hubert replied. “‘That’s my coach.’’’
There isn’t a single player out there who played for Smith who wouldn’t echo that sentiment. He was indeed a father, many of them would say. And when he wasn’t fighting for civil rights or calling Four Corners from the sideline, he was spending most of his time with them. After all, nobody meant more to him than his players.
“I mean you talk to his players and coaches that worked with him: Roy Williams and Phil Ford, they just rave and rave. To me his legacy will be all of the lives he will affect generation after generation because they’ll pass that down to their kids as well,” ESPN commentator Dick Vitale said.
“I’d call him on the air ‘Michelangelo coaching,’ an artist at work ... (But) he was all about North Carolina.”
Nobody was ready.
They knew the day was coming — perhaps for years — as Smith’s health continued to dwindle. Time was precious, and one day soon they’d have to accept that he was gone.
But that doesn’t mean they were prepared. Roy Williams simply wasn’t ready at 11:19 p.m. Saturday night when he got the call that his mentor had passed. Hubert Davis struggled to grapple with a reality that said this time it wasn’t OK. This time Smith wasn’t invincible.
And Phil Ford, perhaps Dean’s most cherished player of them all, immediately went into a state of shock, looking for comfort during a time when it seemed like there wasn’t any to be had.
“You wake up the next day and open your eyes and say your prayers,” he said. “You think to yourself, ‘Man this is for real. Today is the toughest day.’”
There will never be anyone like Dean — a father and coach on the court, an innovator and Presidential Medal of Freedom award winner off of it.
In one sense, Davis knows that college basketball today will never again be what it once was in Smith’s era.
There are players who will often have themselves in mind when they make a college decision, and what once was a choice about people and legacy — as it was when Smith was at UNC — will continue to morph into one about going to the NBA.
“And that’s sad,” Davis says. “Because this is a beautiful place.”
But there’s a part of Williams that hopes some of the magic will prosper — that at least for a little while longer, some of Smith’s ideals will live on.
And as long as he has any say in the matter, it will. Right up until the very last time Williams takes the court as a coach, he’ll do everything with one goal in mind.
“I want to make Coach Smith proud,” he said. “When I came back here 12 years ago, there were some problems and I told him one night, I said, ‘I really do want to do this the right way. I want to be proud of what I’m doing.’ He said, ‘I’m already proud.’”
Years from now, Williams will still remember the call the night before his Kansas interview. Hawkins will remember the best birthday present she’s ever received and Davis will fondly remember the stairmaster incident.
Gone? Yes. Forgotten? Never.
“Until I die,” Williams said, “A lot of the things that I do will be from him.
“And that’s a pretty good legacy. It really is.”