July 07, 2010
Only a month after John Wooden's death comes another depressing report about one of college basketball's coaching icons.
Dean Smith, who won 879 games and two national championships at North Carolina, is suffering from memory loss severe enough that he often doesn't recognize longtime friends and former players, according to the Fayetteville Observer.
Those near the UNC program say Smith has good days and bad days. On the good days, he is his cheerful, unassuming self, friendly and engaging and surprising people with his memory of little details about their lives.
But on the bad days, they say, Smith has great difficulty even remembering people he has worked with and around for years.
Smith, 79, remained the face of the North Carolina program even after his retirement in 1997, but in recent years he has become far less visible. The 300 ex-players and managers who showed up to February's Celebration of a Century of North Carolina basketball wondered whether that might be Smith's final appearance at a public event of that nature.
"I think he was aware of what was going on and understood that there were a lot of his former players," North Carolina radio play-by-play voice Woody Durham told the Observer. "That's not to say he remembered everybody. Which in the past he would have; he would have known everybody by name. But I think it was a great tribute to him. And it was an emotional tribute not only because of the occasion but also because so many guys, I think, realized that might be the last time they see him."
Even the former players who were closest to Smith admit they've heard from him less and less in recent years. All-American Jerry Stackhouse has caught Smith on good days recently, but he has not been able to speak with his former coach as often as he'd like.
"Before, ... there wasn't one time before a season that I didn't get a handwritten note or a call from him," said Stackhouse, who is on the tail end of a long NBA career. "He always wanted to let me know that he was watching me and keeping up. I miss that. It was almost like on certain nights you'd get out on the floor and say to yourself, 'Coach Smith might be watching tonight. I have to be at my sharpest.' That was with me for a long time."
Now Stackhouse has a small void as he watches his former coach's struggles.
"Father Time humbles all of us at some point," Stackhouse said. "You just hate to see somebody like him who was so sharp mentally and so in tune with everything around him go through this."
Stackhouse says it best at the end. Health problems are something many of us have to go through at some point in our lives, but it's sad to see it happen to a man of Dean Smith's dignity and class.