I remember the exact moment that I realized I wanted to study statistics. I was probably 11 or so, and I was looking over UNC’s season statistics when I figured out how to calculate per-game/half/quarter averages on my own. Thanks, Coach Smith.
By now, Dean Smith’s passing is old news to you. This is also what is sure to be a rare post about anything having to do with basketball, but I suppose I just want to say something about him from my perspective as a total outsider: I am not from North Carolina, and I did not attend the University of North Carolina.
(Here’s the part where I include the disclaimer that I never interacted with Coach Smith, so if you’re expecting a story about how he personally did something special for some random person he never met, I’m sorry to disappoint, although there are plenty of those stories around, such as this one.)
Anyway, I grew up cheering for UNC. And to be honest, I have no idea why. I like to say it was because of Michael Jordan, but that’s not entirely true.1 Regardless, Michael Jordan is my hero (because I grew up in the 90s). And through my obsession with Michael Jordan, I discovered how important Coach Smith was to him. So naturally, Coach Smith became important to me. And as I learned about his impact even beyond basketball on the university, his players, and his community, UNC became important to me.
Once upon a time, I liked basketball. Actually, let me rephrase that—I loved basketball. And I loved UNC basketball even more because of Coach Smith. To this day, I can still recite the words to UNC’s alma mater (“Hark the Sound”) and fight songs. This is not the kind of allegiance you should have to a university to which you have literally zero ties.
Then a funny thing happened: I moved to North Carolina for grad school and stopped watching basketball. I mean, I can’t even watch Ohio State basketball, my actual alma mater, without falling asleep. That is not hyperbole, by the way; the struggle is real for me, y’all. (Leave your comments about Big Ten basketball at the door, please.)
So, let’s recap: I liked basketball and UNC. I moved to Raleigh, which is in the heart of basketball country AND just around 25 miles away from my favorite school as a kid. And I stopped watching basketball and stopped caring about Carolina.2 Why? Because basketball is boring, I guess. Yo no sé, amigos.3 Je ne sais pas.4
So anyway, fast forward to 2015. Wait, rewind to 2014. Tommy Tomlinson published a longform story on ESPN about Dean Smith’s [then-]ongoing battle with dementia. This made me sad, because I still admired Coach Smith. I didn’t cry or anything, but I got that lump in my throat, you know?
Okay, now fast forward to 2015. Sunday morning. February 8. I wake up to a text message from my brother that just says “Dean,” and my heart sinks. I respond back with a question mark, but somehow I already know what he means without him having to reply. A couple minutes later, I read that Coach Smith passed away Saturday evening. I wonder—no, hope—that he got to watch the Tar Heels beat Boston College that day. It’s a gorgeous day in Raleigh, around 70°F with a clear, Carolina blue sky.5 I think it’s fitting. For the first time, I actually chuckle when I remember that corny joke about how the sky’s color means that God is a UNC fan. I go to my office to work, but after staring out of my window for a few minutes, I decide to drive to Chapel Hill instead. I feel like it’s necessary. I don’t know anyone at UNC. I don’t even know if anything is going on. But I still know how to get to the Smith Center.
When I get there, more than ten newstrucks line Skipper Bowles Drive outside of the Smith Center’s entrance. I park in a lot across the street. I recognize it as the same lot that my parents parked in maybe 15 years ago after I begged them to drive me to Chapel Hill so that I could take pictures of the arena.6 I walk up to join the small crowd standing around. Cameras are everywhere. A reporter interviews a young woman, presumably a student. A woman wearing an ESPN fleece takes a picture of a UNC basketball with a message written on it. A student adds flowers to the pile that’s already there. An elderly man finishes writing on the ground in chalk:
Dean, congrats, your’re [sic] home
We love you! #4corners
-Your family here on Tobbacco [sic] Rd
Then-26-year old me begins to walk in a circle around the arena. Somewhere along the way, the man who jokingly referred to the sport as “bouncyball” at the time becomes the nine year-old boy heartbroken while watching Antawn Jamison kiss the Alamodome floor in his final collegiate game after North Carolina lost to Utah in the 1998 Final Four.7 If you knew me growing up, you knew this kid. The kid who only ever talked about UNC. If you didn’t know me growing up, find somebody who did, and they’ll tell you about this kid.
Upon returning to the Smith Center entrance, I ask the guy next to me how to get to Carmichael Auditorium, as if I don’t already know. I suppress laughter and an eye roll when he corrects me by preceding his directions with “Carmichael Arena.”8 While walking to Carmichael, I remember that time when I computed UNC’s season averages. I realize that moment played a role, however small or large, in how I even ended up living close enough to Chapel Hill to pay my respects to Coach Smith in the first place. Going full butterfly effect here for a second, if I wasn’t so obsessed with UNC because of him, I might not have ever become interested in statistics. This site probably doesn’t exist (and that would be a tragedy, right? Right?!).
So I suppose I wrote all of that just to say: R.I.P. Coach Smith. Thank you for being an influence to a kid who did not know you, grow up anywhere near the state of North Carolina, nor attend the University of North Carolina. You are truly missed.
This doesn’t explain why I liked UNC football first. I started rooting for the basketball team shortly thereafter when I just decided to root for all of the university’s athletic teams. But seriously, if everyone made a list of their all-time favorite sports teams, I’m pretty sure I’d be the only person on the planet with the 2001 Tar Heel football team on that list.↩
I still want UNC to do well, but I no longer consider myself a Carolina fan. I still hate Duke, though; that never went away. I mean, how can you not?↩
No hablo español.↩
Or French—yet. Holler at me, Duolingo.↩
But really though, why was it 70° in February?↩
If I recall correctly, this incident was when I discovered my superpower: somehow finding my way inside of sports venues that aren’t actually open to the public at the time.↩
I still hate Keith Van Horn.↩