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Dean Smith, R.I.P.

09 Feb 2015

Dean Smith, the legendary University of North Carolina basketball coach, died Saturday at 83 years of age. Smith was a coaching oddity, much more than a sweat-suit clad whistle-blower. A fierce intellect, Smith was well-read and poised. He possessed balance, a trait that seemed to flow into his players and teams.

I promise I am not the sort of person who makes everything about himself. Dean Smith’s death is not about me at all–it is about the loss of a great man. But, you need to know something about me to understand the magnitude of Dean Smith’s influence on the game of basketball.

I grew up in Indiana, territory that was hostile to Smith’s Tar Heels. I was a lifelong fan of Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers. Knight and Smith were rivals for coaching supremacy in the era between John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski. The men were seemingly opposites, though there was tremendous respect between them. Knight was fiery and Smith was irenic. Knight read military history and Smith favored theology and philosophy. The two met in the 1981 NCAA national championship game, with Knight’s Hoosiers pulling out a hard-fought victory. As a very young man, I admired Knight’s forthrightness and bravado, but as an adult, I think Smith seems to have lived the more admirable life. Smith was a gentle spirit, a man who shunned the spotlight. He understood that he had the privilege of coaching a game. Win, which he did plenty of, or lose, which he did remarkably little of, he seemed at peace with himself and his team. Though Knight is prodigiously gifted, and a towering figure and a basketball genius, he never seemed at peace.

After playing basketball in college, attending seminary, and heading to graduate school, I found myself with an opportunity to coach varsity girls. The girls were a delight, but I think it is safe to say I inherited willing young ladies who knew little about basketball. They were so raw that we had to practice how to check-in to a game without getting a technical foul. While this is a challenge for any coach, it was especially complicated for me.

I grew up in a particular way of playing basketball. I was schooled in disciplined offense that focused on ball movement, cutting, and high percentage shots. Defensively, we always preferred man-to-man–hard-nosed, aggressive, and active. This style depended heavily on thoughtful players who were instinctive, skilled with the ball, and pugnacious. Basically, I was looking at a group of girls who were not perfectly suited to playing my style. What to do?

Bobby Knight and Dean Smith rode to the rescue. I ordered tapes of Knight teaching man-to-man defense and the motion offense and I went to the University of Georgia’s library and checked out Dean Smith’s book Basketball: Multiple Offense and Defense. Smith’s work was a seminar in how to think like a coach. I knew basketball. I was weaned on it. But I did not know how to take what I knew and quickly translate it into a coaching approach with a group of girls that varied in skill and knowledge.

Smith’s essential philosophy was that teams and players should be taught a wide variety of offensive and defensive approaches to maximize flexibility. This allows the coach to make immediate adjustments as the team confronts various foes. Using Smith’s thinking, the coach can tailor practices, game plans, and styles to the players’ strengths as opposed to fitting players into a coaching system that does not suit them. Smith did not teach a system. He taught basketball. With Smith’s book in hand, I was able to teach the girls how to play and attack on both ends of the floor, as well as how to transition from one to the other. Granted, we frequently did it poorly, but the girls learned and they improved dramatically. Though no one watching from the stands would have known it, Dean Smith played an integral part in how the Prince Avenue Christian Lady Wolverines played and in how I coached.

And, to put it all in perspective, I am a nobody, especially in the world of basketball. I am not Larry Brown or George Karl or Roy Williams or Phil Ford or Michael Jordan or Brad Dougherty or James Worthy or any of the other dozens of men who coached with Dean Smith or the hundreds who played for him. Smith’s reach was so far and sweeping that it touched a corn-fed Indiana boy who was plunked down in Georgia to coach a team full of eager girls. And I am not alone.