The Day My Coach Died

When I was a junior in high school, I was chosen to attend an overnight student drug prevention education retreat (kinda like D.A.R.E). We left from school and spent 24 hours in a local recreation center (which was just an old elementary school) talking about peer pressure, influence and leading among other students. To be honest, I only remember one thing about the retreat….I fell in love with basketball during a break in the sessions.

While most of the other students spent time hanging out and having fun during our breaks, I found my way over to a basketball and a hoop in the old schools gym. I shot a few baskets and something in me found something I could really begin to get involved in. In case you missed the first sentence of this post – I was JUNIOR in high school. By this time, most kids my age had played in leagues, been working on their skill and knew the rules of the game. I only knew you put the ball in the basket. At least I think that’s how this game worked. I left a drug prevention education retreat addicted a new drug – The game of basketball.

When I got home from the retreat, I told my mom that I thought I wanted to start playing basketball. We had a hoop on the garage but it was NEVER used. The best advice she could offer proved to be the prescription for the new addiction I had. She simply said “Well, just watch TV and learn the game.” This was a different time. We didn’t have cable. ESPN wasn’t what it is today. The only time to watch basketball on TV was a Saturday game most likely on CBS. The NCAA tournament was where a basketball junkie could get their fix. That was when the most games were televised. The NBA would be on Sundays and the Cleveland Cavaliers games were on the local AM radio. I took her advice and “just watched TV to learn the game.”

At the very time I began to watch whatever games I could watch, a team with baby blue uniforms and a short coach named Dean Smith were regularly broadcast. Knowing what I know now, it had much to do with a skinny freshman that made the game winner in the NCAA tournament years before (aka Michael Jordan). This team was regularly featured because they were the gold standard in college basketball. Their coach was THE coach every one wanted to play for. To give you some insight into my lack of knowledge of the sport, the team and the man, I thought they called him “Dean” because he was someone important at the University. I was somewhat right, but that really was his name and not his position in the University.

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The more I watched Dean Smith orchastrate a game, the more I felt like he was my coach. I didn’t play in any leagues. I wasn’t on any teams. The driveway was my practice gym. I didn’t run sprints or do suicides on the hardwood. I set up chairs and bricks in our narrow driveway to learn to dribble. When a dominant freshman named JR Reid came on the scene at UNC, I studied his moves and learned to play in the post. There was no watchful eye over my learning of the game. Dean was my coach. I never met him. I never spoke with him. He had no idea who I was. But a kid from Cleveland, Ohio that was learning how to play the game of basketball took every word he said and the way he coached as if it was gospel.

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By the time my senior year rolled around, I had learned enough about basketball to be dangerous. Not good, dangerous. I thought I would try out for the high school basketball team. I still didn’t know many rules. Every other kid in that gym was light years ahead of me. I wish I could tell some great story about how I made the team but I can’t. I think I was one of the first people cut. I will say it was a good team that went to the sweet 16 in states that year, but the truth is I was way behind everyone else. I had no jump shot. I could barely dribble and didn’t know a thing about playing defense. My coach was a short white-haired man I watched on TV. I got over being cut from the team and it actually made me work that much harder. I studied the lessons of Dean Smith even closer. I watched how his teams played and what they did under his teaching. Things like –

Acknowledging the passer after a made basket:

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The quick huddle before a free throw:

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Acknowledging a player coming out of the game:

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and of course, the end of game management of “The Four Corners.”

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You may or may not have noticed but most of the things above were not about skills or techniques. Many of the things that Dean Smith brought to the game of basketball (and my knowledge of it) were about team. It was about treating your teammate and your opponent with respect. He had no time for arrogance. One of my favorite Dean Smith quotes simply says:

Dean-Lion-quote

When that prized freshman I mentioned earlier was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, I read somewhere that Dean Smith was not happy. He believed that freshman did not deserve that kind of recognition. Seniors deserved that kind of honor and glory. He coached his teams to treat people on the court the way you would treat them off of it. Competitive? Yes. He didn’t win as many games as he did by being a push over. He did, however, treat the game with respect and the game of basketball is better for it. Much better.

I read the news yesterday morning that he had passed away and audibly said “no, no, NO!” I didn’t cry or get upset. The Carolina family knew this day was coming. I don’t think any of us knew it would be here this soon. I read that news as I was getting dressed to go help coach my daughters 6th grade basketball team in a season ending tournament. As I put on the team colors and thought about our game plan, I couldn’t help but think that none of this would probably be happening if not for Dean Smith.

That might sound sappy.

That might be overstated.

I don’t believe it is. When a kid from Cleveland found a coach from North Carolina through televised basketball games, that coach fanned a flame. He made me want to learn more about this new game I had fallen in love with. His teams made me want to be part of a team. It speaks to influence and how we may be influencing someone we never know about. Dean Smith influenced me and we never even met. I got to learn from the greatest coach of all-time by watching his games and never running a sprint. Pretty cool actually.

Our girls team won their first game in the tournament. We had to run a bit of a four corners at the end to protect the lead and bring home the win. When it was over I couldn’t help but smile and think that this one was for Dean. The girls didn’t know. No one else in the gym needed to know.

I knew.

I learned from the best.

2 thoughts on “The Day My Coach Died

  1. Love it! That quote “A lion never roars after a kill” has always stuck with me. Being in ACC country for the past 18 years, I can attest that this man transcended the game. His ability to teach a student/athlete to be a better person far outweighed his ability to coach a 2nd option fast break (which by the way, he was really good at). Love you sharing these memories and I appreciate your passion for being a better man.

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