Divorce is never easy. In addition to the pain that is focused on the immediate family at the center of a split, there is often collateral damage. Anyone seen as an instigator or taking sides will often be the target of long-term bad feelings even after the direct participants have moved on.
That somewhat tortured example sums up how a lot of Kansans felt about Dean Smith, the former North Carolina coach who died late Saturday night. Sure, he was a Topeka native, a KU alum who won a National Championship in 1952 and played for another title in 1953, a friend of the program who sent two of his proteges – Larry Brown and Roy Williams – back to coach the Jayhawks. But when it came time for Roy to go home, Dean was seen by many as a manipulative, meddling old man who forgot where he came from and was more concerned with his legacy at Carolina than the health of his alma mater.
It didn’t matter that KU did just fine after Roy left. Even if we, eventually, forgave Roy, there was still a lot of venom for Dean.
That anger faded as word spread in recent years that Smith’s health was rapidly failing. Alzheimer’s is a terrible thing and I think most people in Kansas who were originally pissed at Dean for pulling Roy back to Chapel Hill finally let go of their animus for him.
Which is a good thing. You can’t go through your life hating. And Dean Smith, despite any of his perceived failings, was a man who should be admired.
He is one of the most influential basketball coaches in the history of the game, between both his innovative coaching techniques and the massive coaching tree that he leaves behind. He was also a man who was willing to risk his job to bring about social change. Whether it was integrating the ACC and Chapel Hill area businesses, marching for peace and against nuclear weapons, or finding ways to give former players with personal issues second chances at success, his focus was always on making the world a better place. Compare him to coaches today, who are generally for things that aren’t terribly controversial – God, America, the troops – but won’t take truly bold stances, lest they risk endorsement opportunities, scare off recruits, or give their AD an excuse to fire them if they miss the tournament.
I did not like Dean Smith when I was a kid. Part of that was not knowing that he was a Kansan and a Jayhawk. But I also picked up on what people around me said. “Oh that Dean Smith. He has all that talent every year and he always finds a way to not win it all.” “Dean Smith can suck the life out of a perfectly good basketball game.” “You know who the only person who can hold Michael Jordan under 20 points a game? Dean Smith!”
In 1982, when Carolina played Georgetown for the national title, I was pulling hard for Patrick Ewing and the rest of the Hoyas. Part of it was my affinity for everything that the much cooler Hoyas represented over the sterile, corporate-ness of the Tar Heels. But a decent chunk of it was rooting against Dean Smith, who nobody around me seemed to like much.
Looking back, I would not change my rooting interests that night. Didn’t matter than Jordan became my favorite player once he got to the NBA, or that I learned to appreciate the many Carolina-Kansas connections when I got to college.
But if I could go back, I would change the way I looked at Dean Smith. He was a truly great basketball coach, one who changed the game for the (mostly) better. He expected his players to do more than just stay eligible on the academic side of their lives. And he took bold stances for what he believed in, even when those views were not shared by the majority of people around him.
The ugliness of the divorce of 2003 is long gone. Rest in peace, Dean.
- Somehow I did not know this until 1988. Still can’t figure out how I missed that. ↩