by Dean McCord
photograph by Missy McLamb
When I arrived in Chapel Hill in August of 1981, I had no idea of how my life was about to change. This 17-year old Pennsylvanian had never flown on a plane, or been farther west than Ohio. I was about to become a manager for the UNC basketball team, and I was about to meet my coach, Dean Smith.
My first two years were with the JV squad. We would kneel behind the bench during varsity games, handing out water and wiping sweat off the coaches’ seats. During one nationally-televised game early in my freshman year, I saw the camera fixed on me, and from behind the bench, I waved and mouthed, “Hi, Mom.” The next day I learned Coach Smith wanted to see me. I was shaking with excitement, as I had actually never spoken to the man. I fantasized that he was going to move me to varsity, but I instead learned my first of many lessons from Coach. “Dean,” he said with a sheepish smirk, “I just wanted to know how your mother is doing.” He had watched the film of the game and had noticed an attention-starved manager behind the bench. “I just want you to know that we don’t do that here. The focus is always on the team, not the individual.”
As I worked with Coach Smith every day, I began to understand that he didn’t just teach basketball. He taught us about life.
Despite this early dressing-down, I managed to be promoted to varsity manager my junior year. And as I worked with Coach Smith every day, I began to understand that he didn’t just teach basketball. He taught us about life. Coach Smith recognized that some players came from families who, for one reason or another, might not have been aware of the most basic dining etiquette. He wanted to be sure that none of us would ever be embarrassed in formal dining situations, and to accomplish this he took the team to the Fearrington House, where owner Jenny Fitch walked us through a multi-course meal that served as an intensive etiquette seminar on proper fork usage, finger bowls, artichoke and lobster eating, and when it’s fine to eat with one’s hands. Coach Smith was preparing us for a world after basketball, where we would be as comfortable in a Michelin three-star restaurant as we would in a Denny’s.
But Coach Smith would never take us to Denny’s. We would eat at the finest restaurants and stay at the best hotels. When we played in New York City (my first-ever visit to the Big Apple), I roomed with three-time All America Sam Perkins. In the Essex House. On Central Park South. In a multi-room suite. It’s been over 31 years since that road trip, and I haven’t stayed in a nicer place since.
Yes, we were pampered, but Coach did this to show us what opportunities could lie ahead, if we worked hard. He also looked at every road trip as a teaching opportunity; he wanted us to understand the culture and history of places we visited. When we went to Greece, he had us take a seminar on ancient Greek history, and our professor accompanied the team, pointing out facts about the ruins in Athens, the architecture on the islands, or the civil unrest in the northern part of the country. Coach even let us drink ouzo and experience the nightlife, because that helped us understand the culture. He had but one rule: Don’t embarrass yourself, your family, or the university.
A trip to Japan included a traditional shabu-shabu dinner, a journey on the bullet train, and a visit of the Imperial Palace gardens. Hawaii brought a full-blown luau, snorkeling, and discussions of Pearl Harbor. We ate Cajun food in Louisiana, hit Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, and toured American Revolution sights in Boston. And probably at the direction of Coach, our bus traveled through some highly impoverished areas of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Life is difficult and complex, and Coach wanted us to know that, too.
And now, 30 years later, I’ve come to understand that I am the man I am today because of Dean E. Smith. We may have lost our coach and mentor, but the loss is tempered in knowing that he left a large part of himself in every player, manager, secretary, and statistician he touched. Including one small town boy from Pennsylvania. Thank you, Coach.