I knew the day would come when I would have to write about Dean Smith’s health. I made the decision last fall that I would not be the first one to write about it or talk about it because I felt my understanding of the situation had come about because of Dean’s willingness to cooperate with me on a biography. We had started working on the book last August.
I had known before then that Dean wasn’t Dean anymore. By that, I mean he no longer had the most remarkable memory of anyone I had ever met. As far back as 2005 he had commented to me when I was researching ‘Last Dance,’ that he knew his memory wasn’t what it had been. Back then though it was still better than most.
There were plenty of stories that he was struggling after he had knee surgery three years ago, that the surgery had not gone that well and there had been neurological issues. A number of people I knew at North Carolina had said to me at times, ‘it’s not good.’ It really hit me that he must not be well when he didn’t come to The Final Four in Detroit to watch the Tar Heels win the national title in 2009.
That was when I sat down with Rick Brewer, who has been one of Dean’s confidants at Carolina for almost 40 years and told him I thought the time was now or never if I was going to do the book on Dean I had always wanted to do. Rick agreed and that led to the meeting I had with Dean in May of 2009. Was it apparent he wasn’t the Dean Smith I had covered dating to my days in college, someone who remembered everything, had an answer for anything and who was always the smartest guy in the room but never felt the need to prove it?
Yes. But he was still Dean; still smart and still funny even with the memory lapses. I was absolutely convinced there was still time for me to do the interviewing I needed to do to write the book, especially since I had spent so much time with him in the past and knew so many of the people who had played important roles in his life. When Dean said yes to the book, I was thrilled.
The sessions I had with him in August were difficult—more difficult, to be honest, than I anticipated. There were still moments when he was classic Dean. His description of the night he met his first wife, Ann, was hysterical: “It was the graduation dance. She came with a football player I didn’t like. The guy was really cocky. I decided to ask her to dance and we hit it off right away.”
Typical Dean; his competitiveness led him to the altar.
But there were other moments when he simply couldn’t remember things. When I asked him to talk about Bob Spear, his first boss at the Air Force Academy, he said, “you tell me about him. Maybe it will come back.”
I left knowing two things: I was going to need more time with him than I’d thought because, unlike in the old days when the only thing that slowed down an interview was Dean asking you something like, ‘why would you ask that question? I don’t see why that’s important,’ there were now long stretches where he simply couldn’t remember details that once came easily to him. And second, I was going to need more help from his friends than I had initially thought.
I talked to both Roy Williams and Bill Guthridge about the sessions I’d had with their old boss. Neither was surprised. “It’s an important book to do,” Bill said to me. “People down here understand what he accomplished that has nothing to do with basketball but I’m know there are a lot of people who don’t understand. It should be done. He’s such a remarkable person.”
Roy, of course, felt the same way. They both said they’d help in any way they could and told me that if I was patient, they were convinced it could get done. That was exactly what I planned to do.
Dean, through his long time assistant Linda Woods, had provided me with phone numbers for all his family members. It was when I started contacting them that I realized I had a problem. They were, understandably, concerned with how the time involved would affect Dean’s health.
I had a long talk with Dean’s son Scott, who at one point offered to sit in on the sessions. That would do two things: it would allow him to make sure his dad was doing okay and not getting too fatigued and it might help him jog his dad’s memory on certain things. I thought it was a great idea. One thing was clear in my dealings with Scott and with Linnea, Dean’s wife: they understood why those who cared about Dean wanted to see the book done and, I think they knew that Dean trusted me to do the book the right way. But I think their concerns about his health out-weighed all of that.
Which I completely understand. After a number of conversations with them and with Rick Brewer and Roy Williams and Bill Guthridge I came to the conclusion that I would be pushing an envelope, which, since I’m not a doctor, I really didn’t completely understand if I kept trying to move forward. I thought briefly about suggesting that I do the project without interviewing Dean any further. Given all the past interviews I had done with him, if I had the cooperation of everyone else involved, I could still write the book. But that didn’t feel right: the agreement Dean and I had was to work together on the book. It was what I had always wanted to do. Going forward with him only being peripherally involved felt wrong.
So, regretfully, I decided not to go forward.
Naturally I’ve been asked about the progress of the book by a lot of people since then. I’ve simply said that Dean’s health became an issue—an honest, but incomplete answer. As I said, it has hardly been a secret in North Carolina for a long while but it wasn’t until last week when The Fayetteville Observer published a story about Dean’s memory problems that it was really talked about in the public domain.
As I said, this was one time when I had absolutely no interest in breaking a story. That’s in part because of how and why I knew the story but also in part because the story is so sad. The Fayetteville story said Dean has good days and bad days. At the very least he had some very good moments last August.
And there was one moment I will always cherish. At one point we took a break. While I was waiting for Dean to come back, my cell phone buzzed. I wasn’t going to answer it but when I looked at it I saw Lefty Driesell’s number come up. I thought Dean would get a kick out of talking to Lefty. When Dean came back, I told him I was talking to Lefty and handed him the phone. (I then had a brief notion that I’d screwed up because he might not remember Lefty. But he did).
While they were talking I could hear Lefty say, clear as a bell, “Dean I can’t believe you’re gonna do a book with a Duke guy.”
Dean laughed. “I don’t think of him as a Duke guy,” he said. “I just think of him as a good guy.”
It only took me 32 years to get him to say that. It was worth the wait.
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