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.