Saying Goodbye to Basketball Icon Dean Smith


After seeing Georgia Tech celebrate the 25th anniversary of their 1990 Final Four Team, it kind of got me to thinking about growing up watching basketball.

I grew up on the West Coast. Born in Oakland, California, moved to the Bay Area suburbs at 10.

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets /

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

I was exposed to basketball around 6-years-old by my dad simply by watching TV.

There are just certain names and faces that are ingrained in your head– even at that age. If you are an observant person there are certain people that you will always associate with basketball.

In the 80’s and 90’s, for the most part, when you talked about college basketball, it was all about ACC and Big East basketball.

If you were to ask me as a kid what coaches I would associate with ACC Basketball, the list would be short; Dean Smith, Mike Kryzewski, Bobby Cremins, and Jim Valvano.

Dean Smith had to be the first name out of your mouth.

All of those coaches stood out for each of their reasons.  Coach K always looked like he had command; Bobby Cremins was the guy with the shiny hair; Jim Valvano looked like he was going to jump out of his skin.

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But Dean Smith gave off a vibe like he brought wisdom to his bench. You could actually feel that through the TV screen as a kid.

When I think about the UNC players I got to watch Dean Smith coach when I was a kid, players like James Worthy, Michael Jordan, Brad Daugherty, Kenny Smith, Sam Perkins, among many others, it made me appreciate how much wisdom it took to get a group with that caliber of player to buy in to his philosophy and beliefs.

To coach 36 years and amass 879 wins, 13 ACC Titles, 11 Final Four appearances and two NCAA Titles is simply incredible.

After reading the statement of ACC Commissioner John Swofford today where I found out that Dean Smith had passed Saturday night at the age of 83, his on court accomplishments were put in perspective for me:

“We’ve known for a while this day would come, but it still hits hard. 

Sometimes we are blessed to be around certain people in our lives.  For me, one of those people was Dean Smith.  For 21 years I had the privilege of working with him. 

He personified excellence day-in and day-out, year-in and year-out.  The remarkable number of wins is well chronicled, but most importantly those wins came while teaching and living the right values.  He won, his players graduated and he played by the rules. He was first and foremost a teacher, and his players were always the most important part of his agenda.   

His impact on the University of North Carolina, the Atlantic Coast Conference, college basketball and the sport itself, is immeasurable.  His leadership off the court in areas such as race relations and education were less chronicled, but just as important.   

Sometimes the word legend is used with too little thought.  In this instance, it almost seems inadequate.  He was basketball royalty, and we have lost one of the greats in Dean Smith.”

-ACC Commissioner John Swofford

Yeah, Dean Smith won a lot of games! He put a lot of great players on the court, and excelled in basketball circles!

But Dean Smith also touched a lot of peoples lives and used his platform to improve the world and promote change.

So if I could go back in time and talk to young James FitzGerald, and relive the first time I saw Dean Smith with him, which was oddly enough in the 1982 Final Four when UNC beat John Thompson’s Georgetown team 63-62, I would tell him that Dean Smith was a lot more than the championships he won.

I would tell Young James while he was rooting for John Thompson in 1982, or Michigan’s “Fab Five” 11 years later, that Dean Smith did a whole lot for civil rights to help black people like John Thompson, “The Fab Five” and Young James FitzGerald, so that we could be seen as people, and not less than.

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The last thing I would tell Young James is to do what Dean Smith did, use whatever platform God gives you to inspire change and improve the lives of others, even if it is just one person.

That is why Dean Smith’s death though sad, is to be celebrated.

He touched a lot of people and enriched lives whether they came in direct contact with him or not.

Goodbye Dean Smith! Yeah I rooted against you, but I did pay attention. Thanks for all you did.