Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Announcing My 28th Book, a Long Sought-After and Respected Subject --- Dean Smith

Some time today, Little-Brown and Company, my non-fiction publisher (Random house publishes my kids mysteries) will put out a press release announcing my next book. It will be my 28th book and I can honestly say that I’m as fired up about this project as I’ve been since my first book—which did not merit a press release back in 1985.

That book, as most people know, was responsible for a lot of things in my life, including the name of this blog. But Bob Knight wasn’t the first coach about whom I wanted to write a book.

Dean Smith was.

Yes, I went to Duke and if you believe all the silly hype built up in recent years around that rivalry, people from Duke and people from North Carolina have to be physically restrained whenever they’re in the same room. I’ve never seen it that way. In fact, when I was a junior in college and Bill Foster was trying to rebuild the Duke program, I wrote a column in The Chronicle, the Duke student newspaper, saying if he was looking for a model, he need look no farther than 10 miles (it is TEN miles not eight as legend has it) down the road to Chapel Hill.

Soon after that, Duke played at Carolina. The Tar Heels won—they were 10-1 against Duke in my undergraduate days—and after the game I approached The Great Man (I remember the day vividly, it was his 45th birthday and everyone in Carmichael Auditorium sang ‘Happy Birthday,’ while he cowered in embarrassment) to ask him a question about Tate Armstrong’s chances to make The Olympic team he would coach that summer.

When I introduced myself, without batting an eye, he said, “I know you. I read your column the other day. I thought you were very fair to us—especially for a Duke student.”

I was, needless to say, stunned. Dean Smith had read something that I wrote? Later I learned that the Carolina basketball office had subscriptions to every ACC student newspaper, every paper that covered the ACC and every major newspaper in the country. One of the assistants was assigned to go through them and clip anything that he thought Smith should read or know about. Roy Williams had the job for several years. My column had made it into Smith’s briefcase at some point.

“I usually do the reading on airplanes,” he told me years later. “It kills the time and I might pick up something interesting."

By then I knew there was no attention to detail too small for him. When I went to The Washington Post after graduation we developed a good relationship although the running joke was that I was, “fair for a Duke graduate.” I would argue that I was fair—period.

Dean constantly chided me about my casual dress. “Why blue jeans all the time,” he said once. “You represent one of the great papers in the country. If you can’t afford a jacket and tie, I’ll buy you one. I can do it for you since you aren’t a player.”

I told him I could afford a jacket and tie, but appreciated the offer. I just liked to look non-threatening when interviewing athletes who were about my age. “Well,” he said, “I suppose I should be grateful, given where you went to college, that you don’t show up in sandals.”

THAT, he didn’t have to worry about.

In 1981, I wrote a lengthy two-part series in The Post about Smith. It took me several sessions just to get him to agree to be interviewed. “Write about the players,” he kept saying. No, I kept answering, I want to write about YOU. He finally gave in, agreeing to let me drive with him from Chapel Hill to Charlotte en route to the old North-South doubleheader. There were only two problems: he still smoked in those days and, in a closed car in February I almost choked to death. Then there was the trip back: I had to cover a Duke-Maryland game in Durham the next day so I was going to drive his car back to Chapel Hill and pick up my car there.

When we got to the hotel in Charlotte, Dean told me where the registration was in case I got stopped. “Dean, if I get stopped in this state driving your car, I’m going to jail,” I said.

He laughed. “Yeah, and with your luck it’ll be a State fan.”

I never went one mile over the speed limit on the way back. The interview went surprisingly well—when he was engaged and willing, no one was a better interview. It was while researching that piece that I became convinced that I HAD to do a book on Dean. He set me up to interview his pastor, Dr. Robert Seymour, at The Binkley Baptist Church. Dr. Seymour told me the story about Dean, still an assistant coach, walking into a segregated Chapel Hill restaurant in 1958 with a black member of the church and, for all intents and purposes, daring management not to serve them. They did. De-segregation began to take hold soon after that.

When I went back to Dean to ask him his memories of that night he shook his head. “I wish he hadn’t told you that story,” he said.

“Why?” I asked, very surprised. “You should be very proud of what you did.”

He looked me right in the eye and said: “You should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do it.”

I still remember the shiver that ran through me when he said it. A year later, Carolina finally won Dean’s first national title. I called him. “You’ve done it all now,” I said. “I’d really like to do that book we’ve talked about. (I had brought it up to him after The Post piece). He said he’d think about it, talk to his wife, Linnea. A week later he called back.

“I can’t do it,” he said. “I’m still an active coach and I’m just not ready to be as frank about some things as I know you’ll want me to be.”

I was disappointed, but thought that was a fair answer. I thanked him for thinking about it. “I feel badly,” he said. “Can I do anything—maybe get you some tickets?”

I didn’t need tickets.

For years, the idea that I should write the book stayed with me, even after I began writing books. Rick Brewer, who has worked with Dean since the mid-60s, and I would periodically talk about it. This year at The Final Four, Rick said to me, “You should take one more shot at it.”

So, in May I drove to Chapel Hill to see Dean. He’s 78 now and gets frustrated because his memory, once encyclopedic to put it mildly, isn’t what it used to be. “Sometimes it just makes me angry,” he said. But he still remembers a LOT. “I’m glad to see you still talk with your hands,” he said about five minutes after I sat down.

I brought up the book, reminding him we had first talked about it twenty-seven years ago. Again, he wanted to think about it. Almost as soon as I left the office I was tracking Roy Williams down on vacation, trying to enlist his support. When Roy called back he said, “this is a book that needs to be done. People just don’t know all this man did. I’ll talk to him.”

Fortunately, I didn’t need Roy to have that talk. Dean agreed to the book a couple days after I’d been in Chapel Hill. We had our first lengthy session last week. There’s a lot of work to do to get it out by March of 2011, but I’m truly excited.

While I was in Dean’s office last week, Lefty Driesell, Dean’s old rival and now friend, called. “You gonna let a Duke guy write a book on you?” Lefty (a Duke guy) said to Dean.

“I don’t think of him as a Duke guy,” Dean said to Lefty. “I just think of him as a pretty good guy.”

That may be the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about me.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Congrats on the book....Coach Smith, regardless of who you rooted for, always seemed to be a class act. This book should bring you back to your ACC, and basketball, roots. Looking forward to it.

Leann said...

I teared up just reading this post. If that's any indication of how the book will be, it may be your biggest seller!

Anonymous said...

My family grew fairly close to Coach Smith over the years and I can honestly say that he is one of the better people I have ever known. Basketball, coaching etc., his accomplishments are well-documented and generally respected. His ability to genuinely care about his fellow man is unparalleled.

goheels80 said...

I am shedding a few tears. I had the privelage of meeting coach smith on his first cruise. what made the meeting so amazing was that it was a month after XMAS and All I had asked for xmas was a coach SMith autograph for xmas.My family went to Unc and my dad was bestfriends with the AD. I was amazed at how great of a memory he had, everytime he saw me he asked me how I was doing and said my name. Not only did I get to meet him but I also play cards with him for the next 10 nights. He gave me his address and I mailed off 3 magazines , one of which was his soprts Ill. man of the year issue in 1997. He signed all 3.

goheels71 said...

I recall my four years in CH as some of the most enjoyable in my life. Coach Smith's influence on the University was not limited to the basketball program but to life in general. A book about his life would befit this man whose legacy is immense.

Anonymous said...

After this book, how about one on the Ol' Lefthander?

Anonymous said...

I very much look forward to the book coming from a non-biased (non UNC grad) perspective, but from someone in the know.

I graduated from UNC in '78. My theory is that the culture of the University of North Carolina has been guided by the basketball team since the time Dean started making his runs in the late 60's early 70's.

The basketball fans are as knowledgable as any. You do the right thing. You don't break the rules. You are innovative within those rules. You play the game the right way. You practice just as hard as you play. You play defense, rebound and dive for loose balls. You recognize the person who gave you the assist as really being more important than scoring. You walk with the self confidence that you are part of something very special, but you never wear it on your sleeve. It is something that stays within the family that you had to "be there" to understand. You uplift your teammates and never denegrate your opponent (hardest Deanism to follow). And everything you do you do with class and excellence.

To me that is the culture of UNC and it all is driven by the basketball team as led and exampled by Dean Smith and now carried on by his disciple Roy Williams.

hnnnsox said...

Mr. Feinstein...get someone to tell you the story about Coach Smith loaning a man a chainsaw after an ice storm. He happened to be in a harware store when the man was trying to rent a chain saw, but the store had rented theirs out. Coach Smith loaned the man the saw without having any idea who he was. Very few people would have done that.

pbernish said...

I will be genuinely pleased to read a book about Dean Smith, and pleased that you will be writing it.

I have an anecdote about DES from the late 70s (involving politics) and would be pleased to pass it along to you . . .

jerry said...

Mr. Feinstein:

While I can't expect you to remember me, I wrote brief (and highly un-entertaining) articles about the Duke men's golf team for The Chronicle in the late 1970s. Obviously, not on your radar screen, but I sensed then that you had the promise to be a major sports writer. I have been proven correct.

While many of your other books have rightly receive national praise, my favorite (of course) is "Forever's Team", which recounts the glories of the 1978NCAA runner-up team and their lives' vagaries through the date of printing. I wonder whether an update might be of interest, at least to the Duke fans of that era. Can I interest you in the task?

Was also wondering if you might be willing to autograph my copy of "Forever's Team". Foolishly, I let my original copy slip away, and I recently found a copy through a rare book dealer. If you would be willing to sign it for me, I would be most appreciative.

I will look forward to reading with interest your latest regarding The Deano. He was not only a great coach, but a deeply moral man, and no doubt you have captured those features dead on. Unfortunately, we see so little of those traits in today's world of big-time collegiate athletics.

With my best regards,

Jerry Owens A.B. '80, J.D. '83

jdub said...

I had the good fortune to sit near Coach Smith and his wife in the first class section of a flight from Honolulu to Atlanta about 10 years ago. Being a Duke grad, I felt compelled to chat with him about basketball and the Duke-Carolina rivalry. Not only was he extremely nice and generous with his time (although he had nowhere to go!), his memory of the details from Carolina games I had watched in Cameron (79-82) was truly amazing

Vince Spence said...

John, I cannot wait. If this book is only one-half as good as your other books, it will still be one of the best books of the year.

Wow, jdub, I bet Coach Smith was incredibly pleased to be sitting next to a Duke fan for 13-14 hours or so...

Anonymous said...

John, as a Tar Heel partisan I think you're the best writer in the sports field--I always enjoy your books no matter the topic.

THANK YOU for writing this book. I expect it to go much deeper than anything else ever written about this complex and wonderful coach, leader, and man. In fact I have no doubt it will be "THE" book about the life of Dean Smith. THANKS AGAIN you lucky Duke guy, you.

Brian said...

I am life long NC resident and a graduate of Duke. For the better part of the last 20 years I have worked in church circles that include Binkley, where I have family who are members. There are so many wonderful stories about Coach Smith. Congratulations on the book and I look forward to reading it, even as a Duke guy. Coach Smith personifies the rivalry while also transcending it. Can't wait!

Molly Weston said...

I'm sending in my request for an early order TODAY. Tell Little-Brown to have a HUGE print run!

Glen said...

This book is great not only because Coach Smith is such a great figure to profile, but because it couldn't come out at a better time. College basketball is a MESS right now, and we could all use a reminder of how it should be, and the kind of ethic that is required but too seldom seen.

Anonymous said...

Coach Smith was a class act. He had occasional outbursts and his gamesmanship was well known. Most of the criticism toward him was driven by jealousy. I'm not a UNC fan, but admire and respect Coach Smith.

"You do the right thing. You don't break the rules. You are innovative within those rules. "

I don't think this culture has permeated the program as much as you think. From the arrests and run-ins with the law (Bucknall, Reid, Cota, Ndiaye....the list goes on and on), it is clear that playing within the rules isn't a universally accepted truth within UNC basketball.

"You walk with the self confidence that you are part of something very special, but you never wear it on your sleeve."

You obviously never watched McCants, Stackhouse, Wallace, Reid, King Rice, Cota, Felton, et al play while at UNC.

I'm not saying UNC is worse than other programs. Just saying that you shoudl be careful about putting them on a podium they do not deserve.

ED said...

I would pre-order the book today if I could. Should be great.

Anonymous said...

As I'm sure you know, and your readers will discover, Dean Smith's contributions to innumerable lives/families can't be measured in basketball data...his impact is so much greater than people can imagine.

Can't wait to read it.