A Good Man

For as long as I can remember, on my parents’ basement wall there’s been a simply framed one-page handwritten letter. The paper is a light shade of blue with University of North Carolina letterhead printed at the top. It’s largely unremarkable; if I didn’t point it out to you, your focus would be drawn nearby to a picture of my tuxedoed father, posing for the cover story of a novelty Forbes magazine. But if you looked closer at the letter, you’d see two words in the lower right hand corner that make all the difference to our Tar Heel bred family: Dean Smith.

Years ago, when my mom worked as an executive assistant for a small company in Rocky Mount, NC, she set up a meeting between the company’s executives and Dean Smith–the Dean Smith. Being a huge UNC fan, she was ecstatic to get a chance to meet and speak with the legendary coach. A few weeks later, she received a letter in the mail from Coach Smith himself. Not from his secretary, with a signature rubber stamped at the bottom of a typed form letter, blandly thanking my mother for her support, but a fully personal letter, thanking her for setting up the meeting, referencing their conversation in detail–all in his actual hand writing. This letter quickly became a prized possession, and is the closest thing my family has to a holy artifact (the Shroud of Tar Heel). Over the years, that letter has always stayed with me. Not because of its place on my family’s walls, but because of the reason it was written at all.

Coach Smith believed everyone he met had importance, regardless of what they could do for him. I still hear stories from fellow colleagues in the sports world. About how they had met him once and, many, many years later, as they passed by each other in the halls of some gigantic sporting arena, he said hello to them by name. He didn’t have to write my mom a letter: lord knows I wasn’t a potential recruit; she wasn’t a big dollar athletic donor; we weren’t even season ticket holders. He just believed that everyone was worth knowing. That everyone was worth his attention and respect. That strong personal belief was probably a powerful motivating factor in his political activism for civil rights. He believed everyone was worth something, well before the US government, or even the majority of his team’s fans, did.

He was also famous for his staunch dismissal of attention: for a reunion of his ’82 Championship team at the Smith Center (you know, the place with his name on the outside), we basically had to lie to him, telling him he wouldn’t be singled out during the ceremony before he agreed to be a part of it. After he was introduced to thunderous applause, he proceeded to wave off all of our cameras putting him on the video boards. Coach Smith didn’t crave attention–he outright rejected it.

Coach Smith was the first to tell you he was just an ordinary man.

But he was wrong about that. He wasn’t just a man.

He was a good man.

God Coach, Blasphemed

I read a couple of articles today about the worship of college basketball coaches as demigods. One example:

The experience of the coach is simply much more accessible to almost every grown-up fan than the experience of any high-level player…He’s still connected to the magic of sports, but with him it takes the form of inspired halftime speeches and brilliant late-game stratagems — basically work e-mail lifted to a spiritual plane.

And another one:

 “Look at the intensity of these coaches,” [Dick] Vitale crowed as ESPN went to its own timeout. “You think these guys don’t want it?”

And Vitale was not wrong, as both Crean and Izzo were screaming and gesticulating and emoting like late-period Al Pacino. But amid all that noise and college-kid emotion and fraught promise and everything else, amid all that, the coaches?

Both articles are interesting reads, especially the first one from Grantland, and they’ve given me something to chew on–the sports media and fans really do elevate their authority figures to ridiculous heights.

I was ashamed of my own transgressions–DEAN SMITH IS A GOD–but before I fully explored my alter of coach-deities, my mind went to a memory involving the aforementioned Dick Vitale.

ImageImageBefore a massive game against #1 ranked Ohio State, I was eating dinner with the media in the tunnels of the Smith Center when Vitale decided to take a seat at the table I was eating at. (Side note – whatever you think of Dick as a broadcaster, he was incredibly polite and gracious to our table of 20-something punk kids. My recollections, however, might be colored slightly by my starstruck-ness, as I was fresh out of school.) Where we were eating happened to be on the way to the visitor’s locker room, and the giant trees of OSU’s team were soon lumbering by us. As soon as Thad Matta got near our table, Vitale lit up with a huge grin and sprung out of his seat to greet the up-and-coming superstar coach. It was evident they had spoken before; they had the appearance of good friends. Though he spoke briefly with their injured center, and jolly giant, Greg Oden, Dick ignored the players and focused on exchanging pleasantries with their coach. Later, when Vitale was gushing over Thad on the broadcast that night, I thought there was something slightly off about the display of friendliness I had witnessed before the game–though Vitale’s just a cheerleader, a prop to ignite excitement in the game, there still should be some distance between the commentator and the commented upon.

The articles I read today gave me another perspective on their interaction: Dick avoided talking to most of the players not because it wasn’t necessary for the broadcast, but because he couldn’t relate to them. So, of course, he’s going to point out the coaches during the game–after all, he’s more comfortable in slacks than gym shorts.