CHAPEL HILL — Dean Smith waved, but he did not speak. The crowd at the North Carolina alumni basketball game in February kept chanting Thank you! Thank you! as he walked off the court and into the tunnel.
It was quieter under here, a place Smith had been thousands of times, in a building named in his honor. But he looked disoriented. His eyes darted around the space. He took off his suit jacket, and his shirt showed the sweat.
"You did fine, coach," said current UNC coach Roy Williams. Then he paused. "You feel OK?"
"Yeah," Smith said, still glancing around the tunnel. "Yeah, I think."
It has been an open secret for months among people close to North Carolina basketball: Dean Smith, the legendary Tar Heels coach, is facing health issues. Smith, who's 79, is an intensely private man. But rumors about his condition had spun so out of control that a school spokesman had to confirm last week that Smith is still alive.
Not labeling anything
Asked if she could put a specific name on his condition, Smith's wife, Linnea, said in an interview Saturday: "It is a complex medical diagnosis. ... It's in a category of progressive memory disorders, and we're staying away from labels."
She added: "I think that we all face adversity; you can imagine someone whose work involved [so many] intellectual processes, that it's been a tremendous adjustment for him, as well as the rest of the family. But you move forward."
Smith's family also released a letter, which said in part:
"...Our dad has a progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory. So now, he may not immediately recall the name of every former player from his many years in coaching, but that does not diminish what those players meant to him or how much he cares about them. 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 eighteen. He still attends some sporting events - you might see him in the stands at his grandson's baseball game. He has difficulty traveling long distances to see the Heels on the road, but he insists on watching all Carolina basketball games on television and cheers as hard as he can for Coach Williams and the team."
Linnea Smith said her husband didn't know that his family was preparing a statement, and they hadn't told him as of Saturday afternoon.
One of Smith's gifts over the years has been an astounding memory. He could recall a specific play, the players on the court and the time on the clock, from a game 40 years ago. He still has those days. But some of those memories are fading.
"He's 79 years old, and he's finally started to show the wear and tear that the rest of us show at 50," Williams, who has been hesitant to talk about Smith's condition without permission from the family, told The Sporting News recently. "He does have his good days and bad, and I'm really thankful that I've been around some of those really good days."
It can be hard to attach a particular diagnosis to memory loss. Linnea Smith stressed that everything that can be done medically is being done, and she thanked Smith's doctor and consultant. She emphasized that his overall health is stable and his condition, while progressive, isn't an imminent threat to his life.
"Short-term [memory] changes before long-term," Linnea Smith said Saturday. "It takes more effort to process and focus, so he tires more readily. And so it's unusual for him to see him withdraw - but he'll withdraw more, and need to rest more. ... So it's a change to see him be less active. So we try to find ways to have him be more active, and feel comfortable."
When Smith retired in 1997, after 879 wins and two national titles, he left a legacy as one of the greatest coaches in any sport.
He was an innovator, popularizing the Four Corners offense; the "tired signal" for fatigued players who needed to come out of a game; and the idea of pointing a finger at the teammate who passed the ball for a basket. He was also known for running a clean program, and he recruited UNC's first black scholarship basketball player, Charlie Scott.
Smith and his family have stayed in Chapel Hill, where he's been active in church and social issues. He still attends public events, such as the Carolina Kids Classic golf tournament last month. He still has an office at the Dean Smith Center, and an open door for any former player.
People started questioning Smith's health in early 2008. Linnea Smith told The News & Observer then that Smith had "cardiological and neurological complications" after knee replacement surgery in December 2007. Dean Smith told The N&O then that he was "fine," and looking forward to cheering for the Tar Heels the next day. Since then, interviews have subsided - then halted.
The last interview
Author John Feinstein was the last known member of the media to interview Smith at length - last August, for a book about the Hall of Fame coach. But as Feinstein explained this month on his blog, feinsteinonthebrink.com, "... there were now long stretches where he simply couldn't remember the details that once came easily to him."
The project was halted when Feinstein realized he would need more interview time with Smith, and family members worried how the extended sessions would affect Smith's health. Feinstein blogged about the subject after the Fayetteville Observer wrote a story about Smith's health July 5.
"There were still moments when he was classic Dean," Feinstein wrote. "His description of the night he met his first wife, Ann, was hysterical: 'It was the graduation dance. She came with a football player I didn't like. The guy was really cocky. I decided to ask her to dance and we hit it off right away.' ... But there were other moments when he simply couldn't remember things. When I asked him to talk about Bob Spear, his first boss at the Air Force Academy, he said, 'You tell me about him. Maybe it will come back.'"
Bill Guthridge, who was one of Smith's longtime assistants and succeeded him as head coach, said he talked to Smith at his office last week.
"He likes baseball, and I like baseball, and so we talk a lot about that during the summer," Guthridge said. "Then when it gets close to basketball season, he starts talking basketball. He still talks with Roy about basketball a lot."
Former players check in
Guthridge said more former players have been checking in lately, as word got out about Smith's condition.
"It's tough for all of us because we remember how he could remember everything," Guthridge said. "But he and his family have been hanging in there."
"For Coach Smith to have to be dealing with this, I don't think he would wish it on anyone else, because I'm sure he feels like he's strong enough to deal with it, and would rather have it on his shoulders than anyone else's,'' said Eric Montross, who played for Smith on UNC's 1993 national championship team and is now an analyst for Tar Heels games on radio. "For myself, I concentrate on the moments and the embraces and the conversations that I have with him, which are always very meaningful. There's no point to look into the future and to try to figure things out, because as far as I'm concerned, there's only one person in this universe that has that plan."
Linnea Smith said she hopes players know they're still welcome to visit and that Smith still wants to see them.
"His withdrawal from the public arena is in no way a measure of his lack of interest in the program, or in his previous experiences," she said. "It's more a function of his physical condition, health and well-being."
At the February alumni game, Smith's appearance was a surprise - even to him. UNC didn't tell him he would be honored during halftime of the "Celebration of a Century" game, for fear he wouldn't come down to the court because he wanted players to remain in the spotlight.
But after a montage thanking Smith for all he had done for the program and college basketball, the former Tar Heels coach walked to mid-court, flanked by Williams, Guthridge and Eddie Fogler, three of his former assistants.
Then dozens of players surrounded Smith, taking turns to embrace him. It was so moving that current UNC assistant coach Joe Holladay sat on the bench, tears in his eyes.
Charlotte's Bobby Jones - an All-America player under Smith in the '70s, and part of an NBA championship team in Philadelphia - had thought about what he wanted to say. He knew Smith was having problems with his memory.
"So I just said, 'Coach, it's Bobby Jones. Thanks for all you've done for me. We all love you.' He looked up. I could tell he certainly recognized me, and said 'Hey, Bobby.'"
In that moment, encircled by his former players and the cheering crowd, Dean Smith remembered.
Staff writer Ken Tysiac contributed to this report.
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