Growing up I loved my grandfather. He could do no wrong in my eyes my mom once said. I remember on more than one occasion him asking me, in front of others, “Who is your favorite basketball team?”, to which I always replied, “Carolina”. The follow up question was always, “NC State or UNC?” and I would always replied with “The TarHeels!”. Then that January morning came when my mom came to get me out of school. She was picking me up about 20 minutes early, something she never did. My mom very rarely took me to school or picked me up, so when the teacher received a call in the room saying my mom would be there in just a second, I should have known something was wrong. We drove home, quiet I remember. I couldn’t tell she had been crying but when we got home and my grandmother was there, then I knew something was wrong. I remember sitting on the couch and her hugging me and my grandmother hugging me and both crying, saying “your grandfather died”. The gravity of those words did not hit me. Mostly because at that point I did not ever remember my grandfather, at least not my moms dad. So I was sad for them, but wasn’t sad for his loss, I didn’t know him. It wasn’t until another minute or two passed, my mother possibly realized I hadn’t reacted the way she thought I would, that she said, “do you want to go to your Memow’s and be with her?” Then it hit me. She meant my Pawpaw!, the man who referred to me as his “Red Headed Woodpecker” and his “Jackrabbit”. The grandfather who just two days before I had said bye to after staying for the weekend like I often did. An unexpected and sudden loss. My world was crushed.
From that point forward, I was essentially grand-fatherless. No adult male, senior my father, in my life. No grandfather to teach me lessons or spoil me. No one to try and emulate.
Shortly after that January, I started actually paying attention to college basketball. My aunt was a diehard TarHeel, as was my new step mother. March Madness become something I knew about.. and Dean Smith the hero. In 1993, my step mom actually let me stay home from school to watch the first days of the ACC Tournament. She loved Dean Smith like he was her father, and I began to love him as a grandfather. We would watch anything on tv about him, we read magazines, newspaper articles… if it were about Coach Smith, we knew it.
It was then I started learning about the man, Dean Smith, not the coach. I learned that Smith was a social activist, someone who was very much against the death penalty, someone who staged his own sit-in of sorts in Chapel Hill, but bring two black diners into a segregated place to dine, knowing they would not ask the Coach to leave. He was a diehard Democrat, because he believed in social equality and the higher road, and felt the Democratic Party best represented those values. He was someone who put everyone before himself, someone who would sit a player for not respecting the team and trying to steal the glory. He taught his team to point the passer when scoring, a tradition he called “Thank The Passer”. A tradition he had started in the 60s, John Wooden had picked up and something that is commonly scene on the court today. The punishment for not thanking the passer was not pointed at the scorer, but the entire team, and Vince Carter was once quoted as saying anytime someone forgot to “thank the passer”, the entire team would be forced to run sprints in the next practice.
I remember when Coach Smith won his 877th game, and how he basically ran out of the area after the game in order to avoid having to talk to the media about it. He hated “being the star”. He hated it some much that when UNC decided to name their new arena, The Dean Smith Center, he begged them not to name the arena after him, suggested naming it after Michael Jordan or someone else, just not him.
In his later years, once he retired, we found out Smith had dementia and eventually Alzheimers. Even then, he was still surrounded by old friends and fans. For years, and until fairly recently, Smith was still driven to his office on campus, on Mondays, Tuesdays, & Wednesdays, where he would sit and read or look at pictures, most of the time not knowing who was in those pictures. His closes assistant, Bill Guthridge, also would come in on those days. Guthridge and Smith had been friends for years, Guthridge took over after Smith retired and once Guthridge was replaced, he choose to stay on as an administrator, and kept and office next to Smith.
My memow was diagnosed with dementia, then Alzheimers, and five years and a weeks ago my grandmother left us. Seeing first hand the toll Alzheimers takes on a family, on a person, I have been able to relate to the Smith families fight the last few years, and though I may not live in NC anymore, when I say “Carolina”, I am still referring to UNC, unlike my friends and neighbors here in South Carolina.
Looking back now, I realize that Dean Smith was sort of a fill in grandfather for me. Someone I looked up too, someone I wanted and want to emulate, someone who worried more about the people around him than himself.
Thursday, for some unknown reason, I decided to hang my TarHeel flag outside where my American Flag normally flies. Last night I finished up a project, string art, outlining the state of North Carolina in Carolina Blue and white string. At one point I had grown tired and stressed and decided to finish it this morning, but about midnight I couldn’t sleep and decided to finish it so I could hang it first thing this morning. When I awoke this morning the first thing I did was look at my phone, and see the alert that Smith had died late last night. I jumped up and hung my TarHeel colored project. Dean Smith will always live on… but know every time I see my TarHeel blue art in the living room, I’ll remember the day I finished it, the day we lost our father and grandfather, the day we lost Coach Smith.