Monday, July 12, 2010

Not wanting to break the story, I can now discuss Dean Smith

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.

John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases


Anonymous said...

Its unfortunate that Coach Smith's health is fading....I wish the best to he and his family.

That said, his story truly needs to be told. Hopefully you would reconsider your decision to not write it without him. Sounds like it would be a difficult task, but an important one.

Dana King said...

There's no question this would be a good book, and that you have all the information you need to write it well. That being said, deciding not to go forward is very classy on your part.

Gene said...

Dean was all about making the world better. As much as he wanted championships, he wanted to teach his players basketball the right way, and in so doing, to teach them about life as well. The positive difference he made in the lives of others is his real legacy, not the number of wins or championships. If the book would further that, then perhaps he would want it written, even without his immediate input.

John from Indiana said...

I have only observed Dean Smith from afar.... just like most of America, either on TV or in print. I must confess that the lions share of what I've read about him has been in Feinstein books over the years. During that time his life seemed somewhat paradoxical in that he appeared a bit paranoid, yet was absolutely fearless in doing the right thing, either morally, politically, or both. It would seem to me that sommeone who could so spellbindingly write of a dual between Rocco Mediate and Tiger Woods without EVER speaking with one of the participants, could likely come up with a comprehensive, insightful portrait of Dean Smith, given all the water that has passed under that dam in the last thirty years. Particularly with the loving assistance of so many people so close to him. This book needs to be done, and you need to get your rear in gear and do it.

MOMUS said...

Peripherally involved? No offense, John, but it sounds like you're copping out. Okay, it would have been nice for you to be able to interview the "old" Dean at length, with you transcribing all of his recollections into a nice tidy little book, just like all of your other books. That doesn't have to be the case, however. Now is the time to dig a little deeper, work a little harder, see what kind of researcher/writer you really can be if you don't have full access to your primary source material (it's not like you don't already have a wealth of information from Dean that you can draw upon). Perhaps in the process you'll surprise yourself at what you're able to produce, and write a book that would be truly worthy of Dean Smith. As Bill Guthridge says, this is an important story that completely transcends basketball.

charles pierce said...

Johnny --
That's so sad, and a tragedy with which I'm all too familiar, as you know. Here are my two Dean stories.

1) As you know, he made a couple of mistakes in the 1977 Final game that helped Marquette and Al win their national championship. I sent him a Christmas card for the next five years. Once, he actually answered me.

2)At the 2002 Final Four, my family and I went to Easter services at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both Martin Luther Kings had been pastors. The new church is across the street from the one over which they presided. After services, we all went through the old church, which is now a national landmark. Inside, they pipe in recordings of Dr. King's sermons. Way in the back, out of the way, Dean was sitting by himself, listening, with his eyes closed. I've always been touched by that moment.

triadwatch said...

from a TAR HEEL to a DOOKIE the time is now to write this book .

Mark said...

John, it is very sad that you cannot write the book you wanted but I can certainly understand. It is your life, your talents, and it has to be your decision.

I grew up right outside of Washington DC when Lefty Driesell was in his glory at Maryland and we HATED North Carolina. I don't remember having anything in particular against Dean Smith other than the fact his team beat us most of the time.

Then I went to college at a small school in southwest Virginia and played basketball there. The spring of my freshman year myself and some of my teammates were walking around near the library and all of a sudden Dean Smith appeared - walked right up to us. I could not believe it!

Let me tell you, a more gracious, nice man I have never met. He spent 20 minutes just chatting with us, asking us about our team (he knew EVERYTHING about small college ball in Virginia). It was quite an experience. It turns out he was good friends with one of the professors and had just stopped in to say hi and have lunch.

Anyway, I still root against North Carolina but I think Dean Smith is an A-1 person. I am very saddened about his health issues and I send my prayers to him and his family.

MDB said...

Have you spoken with Dean Smith about whether to proceed with the project (with him in a more limited role than originally planned)? If he says no, don't write the book, then case closed. On the other hand, he may give you the green light to go forward.

Also, talk with Bob Woodward, and get his advice.

charles pierce said...

Yeah, Woodward's able to get money quotes from the comatose and half dead, as I recall.

Anonymous said...

Damn. I'm one of the few Duke graduates (with completely no connections to UNC or the state of North Carolina, btw) who considers Coach K to be his second-favorite coach. Knowing what Dean Smith did outside the court was always amazing to me. As soon as I heard about the book, I knew it was going to be on my xmas shopping list a LOT someday. So sorry it's not goint to happen.

DH in DC said...


While I of course respect your decision to decline writing the book, I must confess that it is not entirely clear how you reached that decision. You state that the reason is because you would not be writing it with Dean Smith, as you had agreed. But from what you describe you you did work closely with him for a time. It seems to me like you reached the decision in a vacuum. Did you ask Smith? His family/friends? It seems out of character that you would make this decision without significant input from others who, by your accounts, feel strongly not just that the book be written, but that it be written by you. I'd be interested in hearing more about why you decided to not pursue writing a book about one of the most important people in your professional universe.

Debbie Carter said...

Book or no book, Coach Smith is a wonderful person. I had the good fortune to encounter him several times in the 1990s. He is genuine and sincere. He also has the ability to make you feel that you were the most important person at that moment you spoke with him, whether you were a star player or the person cleaning the floor. A rare and special quality that I have found in only one other person.

One of my favorite quotes is, “You should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do it.” In an age where everyone wants to draw attention to themselves with the social media phenomenon, it is refreshing.

James said...

My aunt gave me an autographed biography of Coach Smith in the late 70s when I was 10 or 11. He signed it "Study hard in school."

This same aunt, as well as other family members, have memory problems similar to Coach Smith's. I can't imagine trying to write a book or interview someone in this condition. One minute they remember some minute detail from 20 years ago, the next they can't even remember whom they are talking to.

If Coach Smith can't remember Bob Spear, then he is in no shape to reflect on his life accurately or insightfully.

I think you have made the right decision. It's sad because while there are numerous other books about Coach Smith, you no doubt would have brought a unique perspective. Unfortunately, like so much of life, timing is everything.

ARCstats said...

Having gone through a similar medical situation with my mother, grandmother, and father-in-law, don't ever question your decision regarding this book. You've made the right choice.

case said...

Dean Smith is truly an admirable person
a brief story
i was a young jv coach in nyc when i met him at a clinic--we spoke briefly , but we had some common friends
i didn't see him for years--then when he saw me at a game ,he greeted me by name and began a meaningful conversation
i wish him all the best

Anonymous said...

I am in the business and know a whole lot of writers who would not have sat on this story for this amount of time.
They might not have blurted out the real story here, but would have found a a way to get it in print. I admire you for many things; this is just another. Thank you.. Sammy

Bob Ibach said...

Hey John:

I respect your decision 100 percent. It was a classy way to handle this, and a lot of others in this profession would not have sat on that story. Always admired your work going back to the days when we went head to head on a few stories when I worked at the Baltimore Sun. There's always some inner struggle in our business, as I found out when I authored "Caught in the Net" with coach Tates Locke in did the right thing with Dean. All the best to you and keep up the great work you do.

My best, Bob Ibach

Corbett Foster said...

Hi, my name is Corbett Foster, I am 11, and I am Dan Foster's granddaughter. You made the right decision and handle very well. Never doubt the choice you made with your story; it was the right one.

Doc said...

Well, I heard about this a while ago from my parents but didnt think it would ever get this bad.

Quick story: I was volunteering at the Jordan camp in Vegas a few years ago and Coach Smith was there. Although he knew my parents, I wasnt sure he would remember me as the last time he saw me I was a little kid. When I introduced myself, he knew who I was and insisted he get a pic with Bill, Him and I. He sat and talked with me for 30 min or so. The next year he brought me that same picture back. All the while posing for yet another picture with my son which believe it or not, his middle name is "Dean". I wish him and his family all the best during these difficult times.