Coach Dean Smith's Last Fight
March 6, 2014 5:49 PM   Subscribe

Coach Dean Smith once led the Carolina Tarheels to a record number of victories. Now, at age 83, dementia has robbed him of the memories of the victories his teams won and the players and families who he so greatly impacted. Tommy Tomlinson pens a thoughtful and elegiac article that's as much about dementia as it is about the Tarheels and the winningest coach in men's basketball* *at time of retirement.
posted by librarylis (14 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
My grandmother, who shared with me her love of Carolina basketball, suffered from significant dementia before she passed away, and I couldn't help but think of her when I was reading this and tearing up on the bus yesterday. She was a hard person to love, demanding, often angry, but when I would sit the floor watching the game with her, it wasn't hard, even if she was still pretty angry when they lost. I'm positive that I learned at least one swear from hearing her direct it at Coach Smith.

Personal connection aside, Coach Smith was someone you could be proud of, as a Carolina fan. He is the right kind of person to hold up to the world, and say "this is us." I'm glad I got to watch him coach, and I'm glad I got to cheer him on; he deserved it.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:03 PM on March 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I read this a yesterday and am still digesting it. All of my family are Tarheels, and it had been so long since Dean had made an appearance anywhere I just assumed he had passed and I missed the news up here in Canada. I don't know if this is somehow worse.
posted by thecjm at 6:04 PM on March 6, 2014

Thank you for this.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 6:21 PM on March 6, 2014

Tommy Tomlinson is a fine, fine writer. The Charlotte Observer has never been quite the same since he left the paper. He doesn't post everything he writes on his blog, but what's there is consistently really good.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 6:26 PM on March 6, 2014

Sad thing indeed. I fear this is the same thing Pat Summit will go through. A similar situation in a lot of ways.
posted by Twain Device at 6:31 PM on March 6, 2014

Man the Tarheels were kind of like the Yankees, hard to root for if you're not from there, but I always had the sense, even from a great distance, that Smith was not just a great coach but a good man
posted by Mister_A at 7:00 PM on March 6, 2014

Thank you, this is really lovely. I lived down the road from the Dean Dome for a couple of years (and enjoyed my share of Merritt's BLTs) and I never knew any of this, I'm glad I do now.
posted by jameaterblues at 8:11 PM on March 6, 2014

I am a Wahoo, a UVa man through and through, but I made two exceptions over the years. One was Phil Ford. I used to dribble around my backyard court for hours, literally, pretending I was Phil running the four corners. I will never forget the ACC tournament game against Ralph Sampson that finally convinced the NCAA to adopt the shot clock.

The second exception was, of course, Dean Smith. My brothers and I could all do that nasal imitation of his voice. Maybe it was the winning, maybe it was the fact that one of my parents moved to Chapel Hill right after I got out of college, but wow, I really thought the world of Dean Smith. It could have even been that I was looking for a replacement for my real life long hero, John Wooden. I remember thinking, wow, we have Terry Holland and they have Dean Smith. We will never win.

This story really hits me in the gut. I knew Coach Smith was suffering from dementia, but did not know the day to day extent of it.

Fare thee well Coach Smith.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:17 PM on March 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Geez, it's starting to feel like the polar opposite of Warf Days; I guess Metafilter is sponsoring "Constant Reminders that Your Parents are Aging Rapidly and There is Nothing You Can Do to Slow the Hands of Time Week."

All these posts and their accompanying articles are really well written, but whew! Heavy stuff.
posted by redsparkler at 8:21 PM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Bittersweet. My father had Alzheimer's. I'm not sure how this sounds to others, but I'm glad that his physical problems carried him off before he completely descended into dementia. I loved that son-of-a-gun and I'm happy he knew who he was at the very end. That last day was difficult but I don't think it could be nearly as difficult as the situation that those who love Dean Smith experience. That Linnea stood in for Smith for the Presidential award is apropos because she deserves a medal of her own.
posted by CincyBlues at 8:41 PM on March 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

The bit about running drills... the thing for the caregiver is that it is so hard to connect with dementia patients. This was one time where he knew for sure that he was on the same page with the person he was taking care of.
posted by azpenguin at 9:01 PM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

he's the second-greatest college basketball coach who ever lived, after john wooden. you've heard "necessity is the mother of invention"? he is the mother of the shot clock in modern basketball.
posted by bruce at 3:29 AM on March 7, 2014

He's probably the greatest, really. He got his NCs after the field expanded, and he did things the right way.

I grew up on a farm, and we were not a sports family. I was a baseball fan because we lived in Missouri, and I loved Whiteyball...but I really didn't live in a world of sports like so many guys. My first encounter with college sports was in college, where I saw first-hand the corruption of the basketball players and program--and this was at a small, third-tier college with no basketball program to speak of. So I naturally became disdainful of what I saw as the inherently corrupting nature of college athletics.

I hit a home run and ended up at Carolina for grad school. Fairly early on, hearing a discussion of hoops, I expressed surprise that my fellow grad students would have any positive interest in something so tawdry and plebeian as college sports. I got impassioned, yet rational responses, some even from the most cynical member of the department, to the effect that Dean was different, and his program was different, and that college sports could not only be done in a way that was non-corrupting, but actually ennobling. I got dragged to some games, and then out onto the court (not THE court, but the courts...) and taught to play hoops for the first time in my life. When I found out that it was all true about Dean Smith's program, and discovered the joys of hoops, I was hooked, and remain a Tar Heel and a basketball fan to this day.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 6:02 AM on March 7, 2014

My family is composed of NC State fans - Dad and Bro graduated from there, so of course we always rooted against the Tarheels...but we seriously had great respect for Dean Smith and his program. So sad to read this...
posted by PlantGoddess at 7:48 AM on March 7, 2014

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