Dean Smith, the legendary North Carolina basketball coach, who amassed 879 wins, won two national titles and reached the Final Four 11 times, celebrated his 83rd birthday on Feb. 28.
Though for years now the Hall of Fame coach has endured an ongoing struggle with dementia. John Feinstein of the Washington Post published a story on Saturday, detailing his relationship with his players — from Michael Jordan to walk-ons — and the lasting impact he’s had on Chapel Hill. It was Feinstein’s call to remember all Smith had done, even if he has a difficult time recalling those memories himself.
“Of all people, for it to happen to him is beyond cruel,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “You’re talking about the person who had the sharpest mind and the most remarkable memory of anyone I’ve ever met. It’s just not fair.”
The first time I ever saw him have difficulty recalling something was in 2005. I was interviewing him for a book I was writing on the Final Four and he had trouble remembering the name of a coach he had met the first time he went to the national semifinals as Frank McGuire’s assistant coach at North Carolina.
Dean Smith reaching for a name and not finding it was slightly more stunning than waking up to find the sun rising in the west.
“My memory’s slipping,” he said. “I forget things now.”
He had just turned 74, so a little memory loss didn’t seem like a big deal.
Smith last coached in 1997. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983 and was part of the inaugural National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame class in 2006.