Dean Smith won 879 games in his coaching career. He tallied 30 20-win seasons, 23 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, 11 Final Fours and two national championships. He even won Olympic gold and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
But in his final years, Smith – who died Saturday at the age of 83 after a long battle with dementia – cared less about basketball and more about his family, even if he couldn’t recognize them.
And not just his wife and kids, either. There were also his former players and coaches and former players who became coaches.
Tommy Tomlinson chronicled Smith’s illness less than a year ago for ESPN The Magazine in a piece entitled, “Precious Memories.” A noted author and former Pulitzer finalist, Tomlinson spent more than two decades as a reporter and columnist for the Charlotte Observer.
“Precious Memories” was one of the hardest stories he’s ever written.
“Well, whenever you write about something tragic like that and you try to get close and intimate with the people you’re writing about, it certainly was hard to write,” Tomlinson said on The DA Show. “The things that were happening to him and his family were not happening to me, so I was removed from it. But certainly talking to them about it and hearing them talk about what that was like to have a family member who had dementia – especially somebody who had such a prodigious memory and was the center of this whole big Carolina family – it just meant so much. It caused so much pain to hundreds of thousands of people, but especially the ones who were really in close. And those were the people I was trying to talk to.”
Sadly, those people had grown accustomed to having a relationship with Smith that they could no longer have.
“That’s right,” Tomlinson said. “His dementia and the fact that he was losing his faculties and not remembering people anymore, it affected the former players and coaches very differently, depending on who it was. Some folks would see him, talk to him, and he wouldn’t remember them and that would just hurt them so much that they couldn’t go back to see him. Dean was such a different person. For other players, coaches, people around him – it sort of deepened the relationship.”
That was the case for Phil Ford, one of the most beloved Tar Heels of all time.
“Even as Dean really went into decline, Phil Ford would come see him all the time,” Tomlinson said. “And Phil told me that sometimes they would just sit there and not say anything. They would just take pleasure in each other’s company. And other times they would talk and Dean would sort of emerge from his dementia fog or whatever you want to call it, and they would reminisce a little bit. But you never knew what it was going to be when you saw him, and I think that uncertainty was hard for a lot of people to take.”