Thursday, August 19, 2010

Dean Smith: A Life Well Lived Is Getting Harder To Remember

A July article in the The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer has the ACC abuzz over Dean Smith’s mental condition.

According to a recent article in U.S.A. Today, “Dean Smith still plays golf, still pops into his campus office and still savors watching the North Carolina program he led for more than three decades take the court under Roy Williams' direction.”

Unfortunately, his family now says the Hall of Fame coach is also losing some of his memory of past events.

Smith's family sent a letter to former players and coaches discussing the 79-year-old's health after generally declining to comment for privacy reasons. Smith's condition was described as a "progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory."

"He may not immediately recall the name of every former player from his many years of coaching, but that does not diminish what those players meant to him or how much he cares about them," the letter said.

"He still remembers the words of a hymn or a jazz standard, but may not feel up to going to a concert. He still plays golf, though usually only for nine holes instead of 18."

The situation was brought to our attention a little over a month ago when John Feinstein commented on his blog about Smith’s condition saying he was planning on writing a book with the former Tar Heel coach. While he was unwilling to break the story, Feinstein commented after the Fayetteville newspaper article made the story public. The book is unfortunately on hold.

Bryant Gumbel also commented on the story this week during his HBO show Real Sports, saying:

“Just as fishermen are inclined to rue the one that got away, I'm regretting having waited too long to do a story about a Hall of Fame basketball coach who somehow managed to take on important matters in the real world as successfully as he impacted the game he coached. This coach who I wanted to profile won 879 games and two national titles while leading his team to the Final Four 11 times. But the real story I wanted to tell was how he was a bigger man off the court, a man who fought segregation, worked to ban the death penalty, promoted a nuclear feeze, spoke out against the U.S. involvement in Iraq and in support of gay rights.

Unfortunately it's a story I won't get to do. I won't because just last month, the family of Dean Smith released a letter stating that the 79-year-old former UNC coach has a progressively neurocognitive disorder. It's not Alzheimer's. But it's enough to make it impossible for Smith to accurately discuss the exemplary life he's led as a sports legend with a proper sense of priorities.

Unlike some of his peers, Dean Smith never embarrassed his family like Rick Pitino or his program like John Calipari or himself and his school like Bob Knight. Instead he showed as much self-discipline as he asked of his players. And in the process, he gave them an example on which to model their lives. Too often we all wait until good people die to give them the praise that they’re due. Dean Smith's not dead. Not by a long shot. But having waited too long to do his story justice, this abbreviated version is the best I can do."

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