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David Chadwick played basketball for Dean Smith at North Carolina from 1967-71. That was a long time ago, and he was not a star player. But when Chadwick asked the great coach for a favor three decades after his playing days were over, Smith granted it immediately.
Chadwick's son, David Jr., a promising young basketball player, had suffered a major knee injury. He was discouraged. David Sr. left a message for Smith, asking if he could call and offer a word of encouragement to his son.
The next day on the answering machine, there was the unmistakable, nasally voice of the legend.
David Jr. called Smith back, and they talked for 15 minutes. After the conversation, David Sr. asked his son what the conversation was like. He said Smith's first words were, "How are your grades?"
"That," David Sr. told me last summer, "is a Dean Smith classic. He was more concerned with him as a student than as an athlete. He was more concerned with all of us as people than as players.
"He was the Godfather of 300 lettermen. So many of us would call him and ask him for advice in career and personal issues, and if possible he would immediately take your call. He had an unyielding loyalty to us. That's why we had that fierce commitment to him, because he had that commitment to us."
That conversation I had with Chadwick came immediately to mind on this sad Sunday, when the world learned of Dean Smith's death at the age of 83. It is a great loss to college basketball, a game that made Smith famous and he made nobler.
The sport has had more than its share of rogues and charlatans, then and now. Dean Smith was not one of them – he wasn't a perfect man or coach, but his combination of class and competitiveness was extremely rare. He not only won 879 games, for a time the all-time Division men's record, he did it while earning more widespread respect and admiration than almost anyone in his hyper-competitive, oft-jealous profession.
The Carolina Way became the name for the Dean Smith Way. There was some arrogance attached to that, and some irony given the recent revelations of decades-long academic fraud that involved thousands of athletes. But for the most part, the Carolina Way was very much worth emulating.
The sprawling Smith coaching tree is filled with smart men who carried on his punctilious system – the same offensive and defensive schemes, yes, but also copying the smallest details. How to set a screen. How to signal the bench that you need a breather. The next time you see Roy Williams spring a sideline trap coming out of a timeout, smile and know that's a Dean hand-me-down. Same thing when you see Williams with a pocket full of timeouts late in the game – rarely wasted in the early going.
When you make a record 23 straight NCAA tournament appearances, a record 13 straight Sweet 16s, 11 Final Fours and win two national titles, it works.
Yet for all his impact on basketball, Smith's passing is a greater loss for those who knew him outside the arena. He was a smart, worldly man with unapologetic political beliefs. He urged his players to know the world around them, and the world beyond the gym.
Bill Chamberlain was the second African-American scholarship basketball player at North Carolina, following Charlie Scott. Chamberlain was the Most Valuable Player of the 1971 NIT, and he was offered a chance to turn pro in the locker room after the title game. He returned to school for his senior year in part because of the imperative Smith put on education – and disappointing Smith was something no Tar Heel wanted to do.
Chamberlain earned a degree in General Studies and was drafted by both the NBA and ABA, and chose the ABA. He suffered an injury after his rookie year and it curtailed his career.
"I was done playing at age 26 or 27," Chamberlain told me last summer. "But I had my education. At Chapel Hill we went to class, played hard and won."
Among my greatest privileges as a sports writer was having two extended interviews with Smith in his office in the mid-'90s. He showed me daily practice plans – detailed to the minute, with a Thought for the Day at the top long before Thoughts for the Day were more commonplace than the pick-and-roll. His memory was incredible – he recalled during our second meeting what I'd said in our first, that I was an admirer of former North Carolina defensive specialist Bobby Jones. (The irony of Smith's steel-trap memory being robbed in his later years by Alzheimer's disease is particularly cruel.) He was uncomfortable when my questions veered too much toward his personal success.
There have been countless attempts to capture the essence of the Smith Era at North Carolina, to chronicle an exalted time in an athletic program's history. David Chadwick did his part, writing a book called "The 12 Leadership Principles of Dean Smith." In the foreword, he notes that after Smith gave him his blessing to write the book, he added, "Please, please don't deify me!"
Chadwick did not deify Dean. But he did capture the larger man who existed beyond the iconic basketball coach.
"Ask any former player," Chadwick wrote. "Ask any of his assistants. We would all extend super-human effort for him. Why? We believed in him."