U.S. Basketball Writers Association 2015 BEST WRITING CONTEST

A birthday call from Coach Dean Smith (A Personal Tribute)
Ken Davis, KenDavisFiles.com

The telephone rang in my home office. It was late morning on June 9, 1988. I remember the date because it was my birthday. For the record, my 30th birthday. One of those milestones you dread but now wish you could get back.

Again, it's 1988. No cell phone. This was the ring of the land line, in the house, no caller ID, just an ordinary push button phone from the dark ages of communication. "Hello," I answered, with no clue to the identity of the caller on the other end of the line.

"May I speak to Ken Davis please?" came the response.

Oh God, I thought. I'm pretty sure I recognize that voice. One of a kind voice. Very nasal. Somewhat whiny.

Not now God. Not today. Not on my day off. Not with my wife gone to work, and my two sons -one 4-year-old and the other just three months old - in the other room by themselves.

"This is Ken," I replied.

"Ken, it's Coach Dean Smith," the voice said.

I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. This was not a joke.

I had been trying to reach the legendary North Carolina coach for several weeks. I was working on an assignment, a big blow-out feature on Georgetown coach John Thompson, who would coach the U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1988. I was supposed to talk to people who knew Thompson well, get the real story of that mysterious, enigmatic man who had become the dominant figure in college hoops with his Evil Empire approach and marquee players like Patrick Ewing.

Itwas a natural to reach out to Smith. The two men had been close friends since 1970, when Smith recruited a player at St. Anthony's High, where Thompson coached in Washington, D.C. Thompson would move on to Georgetown and then serve as an assistant coach, under Smith, on the U.S. Olympic team in 1976.

The difficulty in telling Thompson's life story was well known. Thompson tried to be the most private person on earth. He worked hard to keep it that way and his closest friends knew not to tell stories out of school. Smith was a loyal person, especially to his closest friends. Smith was humble and guarded about his own accomplishments, so interviewing him about Thompson was going to be a challenge.

Request after request had not produced the desired interview opportunity. To the best of my memory, I'm pretty sure I had given up.

"How can I help you?" Smith asked. "I don't have a lot of time, but I wanted to return your call."

You don't ask Dean Smith to call back when it is more convenient. You can't tell him that the baby is on a blanket in the living room. So you move on and hope for the best. Until the baby starts crying. And then the 4-year-old starts screaming, "Dad, the baby 's crying. DAD, the baby 's crying! DAD, THE BABY IS CRYING!!!!"

There is proof that this all happened. It's on a micro cassette tape somewhere among my other spmis writing treasures stored in the basement. You can hear the ruckus in the background as I try to ask Dean Smith my ultra-important, dark­ secret questions about the life of John Thompson, our country 's Olympic basketball coach at a very critical point in the history of global basketball.

The tape used to be played back from time to time. The story is still told at various family gatherings. I have moved beyond the stress and embarrassment of that June moment that left me sweating from my forehead to the tip of my toes. I continued on as a professional. Coach Smith never stopped to say, "Are people being murdered where you are at this moment?" We got through it. It was not one of my best interviews. But, in terms of a scoop, I had low expectations before the moment turned chaotic.

The entire memory brought a smile to my face Sunday morning after I heard the news that Coach Smith had passed away Saturday night.

When someone passes - especially someone you had met and respected -your mind does funny things. I slept late Sunday morning and was just about to head downstairs for breakfast when the ESPN alert came across the screen of my iPhone. Coach Smith was gone. It wasn't a shock. Coach Smith has been in very poor health since 2010. Itwas just sad. Given his religious beliefs, I know he has moved on to a better place. My first thought was sadness for North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who loved his mentor and literally would have done anything for Coach Smith.

In fact, that's why r·m referring to him as Coach Smith in every reference. Any time Williams shares a story, a memory, a lesson he learned or any other experience, he always refers to Coach Smith -not Dean. I know Williams well enough to understand the devastation of his loss today. But I also know that Williams, Michael Jordan, and all the other Tar Heels - from Hall of Famers to walk-ons - are content because Coach Smith's suffering is over.

Coach Smith and I were not friends. He wasn't a source. He was someone I observed over a long period of time as a college basketball fan and then as a college basketball writer. Coach Smith was from Kansas. I'm from Kansas. He played basketball at the University of Kansas and was on the roster of the 1952 national championship team coached by Phog Allen. Coach Smith was one of our last true links back to Allen and James Naismith, the inventor of the game who coached Allen at KU.

I admired Smith even before I graduated from Kansas. Thanks to a strong professional relationship with Williams, and thanks to all the people I interviewed working on two books about the history of KU basketball, I got an education in everything Coach Smith stood for - and that was a lot more than winning basketball. Coach Smith was a teacher, an educator, a coach and a social activist who made a the by holding strong beliefs and following through on them with his actions.

I am proud to say that I covered Coach Smith in Carmichael Auditorium and at the Dean Smith Center - the arena in Chapel Hill that he didn't want named for him but is now known as The Dean Dome. I covered him in the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament. I was in New Orleans when he won the national championship in 1993, a game remembered for Michigan's Chris Webber calling a timeout he didn't have. I saw Coach Smith coach Michael Jordan as a Tar Heel. I was there in 1997 when he posted victory No. 877 to become the winningest coach in college history. The man was so humble he had often talked of retiring before passing Kentucky's Adolph Rupp, who won 876 games in 41 seasons. Rupp was another of Allen's pupils at Kansas.

"I've been fortunate to have some great players, some good players who became better, and some that helped the team and didn't play a lot," Smith said on his historic day in Winston-Salem, N.C., a win over Colorado in the NCAA Tournament. "But all of them share in this moment."

I'll never forget the scene that March day in 1997. There were 20 former North Carolina letter winners standing in the hallway outside the locker room. George Karl, Sam Perkins, Mitch Kupchak, Bobby Jones and Phil Ford were among the Tar Heel Hall of Famers there to share the moment with their coach, their mentor, their father figure.

"I didn't dream they were all coming back," said Smith, who was serenaded by a "Dean, Dean, Dean" chant from the crowd as he returned to the court for a postgame TV interview. "I don't know how they all got tickets. But it was so fun seeing them all in the hallway. That is a special time, as any teacher knows, when a former pupil comes back, or for a coach, a former player comes back."

Sunday, the hallway of Coach Smith's life was filled with smiles, tears, and memories of a man who did it the right way and taught so many the lessons of basketball - and, more importantly, life. For me, other than the games, that memory was Coach Smith's bhihday call back in 1988. He had no idea he had given me such a wonderful present.

I'm going to wrap this up with five quick thoughts, some things that didn't get mentioned much in the many tributes to Smith on Sunday.

DON'T LOOK UP HIS KANSAS STATS: There aren't many videos or photos of Smith playing at Kansas. That's because he didn't play much. He was on the 1952 team that won the NCAA championship and the 1953 Kansas squad that lost in the national championship. There is one famous video of Smith charging out of the locker room after a motivational speech by Phog Allen but that's about it. Smith was already showing signs of his coaching skills, however. He would help Allen and assistant coach Dick Harp scout opponents and his teammates remember Smith being actively involved in game plans. During an exhibition game in 1952, Allen told the Jayhawks he wanted to run the four-man weave against a zone defense. Smith walked over to Harp and said, "Dick, we can't weave against the zone." Harp replied "Shut up and do what Doc said!" He wasn't the main man quite yet.

DIFFERENT SHADES OF BLUE: Smith was greeted by a chorus of boos, primarily by the student section, when he returned to KU' s Allen Fieldhouse in February 2007. The occasion was the 55-year anniversary of the 1952 championship and Smith showed up wearing a Carolina Blue sport coat a much different shade from KU's Crimson and Blue. Of course, the wounds from Roy Williams' 2003 departure from Kansas and return to UNC were still fresh then.

Smith had introduced Kansas to Williams in 1988 when Larry Brown left. But KU fans felt Smith was always casting his line and trying to reel Williams back to Chapel Hill. When Williams finally went back home, Smith became a polarizing figure at KU. Read the whole story in Chapter 19 of my latest KU book, 100 Things Kansas Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die.

FOUR CORNERS: At a time when college basketball desperately needs to be sped up, remember it was Smith's Four Corners offense that forced implementation of the 35-second shot clock in 1985. Smith's Four Corners offense was the classic stall tactic at the end of games. Ifyou are too young to remember, there's probably a video somewhere. When I made my first trip to Chapel Hill, the first place I went to eat was the Four Corners Grille. What a great thing to have a restaurant named after a basketball strategy - and a menu full of sandwiches and dishes named after great Tar Heels. Now, how can we get that clock down to 30 seconds?

DEAN'S WAY: Smith was one of a kind. Here's just a couple of examples. He was the only coach I can remember who listed team statistics alphabetically, rather than by high scorers. For example, the 1984-85 Carolina stats listed Matthew Brust first -even though he scored only 2 points all season. Brad Daugherty, who averaged 17.3 points, was second. Kenny Smith, at 12.3, was third from last. "We weren't about to preach 'team' to our players, only to issue statistics suggesting that our hlgh scorer was our most important player," Smith wrote in his book, A Coach's Life. Seniors were the most important people in the program. Smith instituted "senior benefits" before AARP. As a result, Smith almost always brought seniors to postgame press conferences and off-day NCAA tournament pressers. He hated the NCAA requirement to meet with the media the day before a regional so much that he staged protests in his own unique way. Before a 1985 regional in Birmingham, he appeared on the podium with Warren Martin and another player (not sure who) - instead of Daugherty, Smith, Buzz Peterson or Steve Hale. When there were no questions for the players, he dismissed them, then whined at the media. "We could have gotten in another day of classes instead of this," Smith said. He had a point.

LETTERS: During the tributes Sunday, you may have noticed typed letters from Smith to players, including Michael Jordan, and their family members - including new born children. That was another chapter borrowed from Phog Allen, who wrote individual letters to his players and summer newsletters - especially during war time. These are treasures that can be handed down and kept in libraries.

Maybe there are coaches today who type letters and hand sign them. I doubt it. It's hard to keep text messages and pass them down through the generations. I do have a personal, signed letter from Roy Williams during his early years at Kansas. I'll hold on to that one.

RIP Coach Smith.


• Second place: Kirk Wessler, Peoria Journal Star: Will Greed, As Old As Mankind, Be The End Game?
• Third place: Mike Sielski, Philadelphia Inquirer: The Best Of Times – And Then It's Gone
• Fourth Place: Greg Barnes, Inside Carolina.com: 'He Coached You To Be A Man For A Lifetime'
• Fifth Place: Luke DeCock, Raleigh News & Observer: The Day Dean Smith Chose Loyalty