Even more than his talents as a basketball coach or his impact on how college basketball is played, what stands out about Dean Smith in Showtime’s new documentary “Dean Smith” is his extraordinary humanity and his loyalty to his players.
More than once in the one-hour documentary, which debuts Wednesday at 9 p.m., former players – Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Hubert Davis, Eric Montross, Antawn Jamison and many others – emphasize the role the legendary coach and mentor played in their lives, long after their days in Carolina blue ended.
When players had a problem – any type of problem – Smith’s response was always, “Let’s do something about it,” says Worthy. “Let’s. L-E-T-apostrophe-S.”
Smith passed away Feb. 7, leaving a void in the lives of those players and in the hearts of Carolina fans everywhere.
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In the documentary, narrator Sam Waterston describes Smith in this way: “Disciplined and humble, innovative and creative. A fierce and fair competitor, determined and hell-bent on winning – and doing it his way.”
The film is a treat for fans – Carolina fans, ACC fans or fans of college basketball in general. It documents Smith’s life, beginning in Kansas and into his first days in Chapel Hill, with plenty of archival footage from early games, practices and press conferences. There’s even a clip from the late ’60s in which Smith wears a deep red blazer that Norm Sloan himself would have been proud to own.
Ample time is devoted to Smith’s two NCAA championships in 1982 and 1993, his innovations and his rivalries. After laying out the heated intensity of Smith’s rivalry with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (they stop just short of calling it “hatred”), the Duke coach says that they later became good friends, calling Smith a “brother in arms.”
“I love Dean Smith and I respect him as much as anybody I’ve been around in coaching,” Krzyzewski says. “And I understand him.”
Perhaps, for my money, a bit too much time is devoted to Michael Jordan, but that’s a minor quibble.
And the stories about Smith’s political activism both before and after retirement, including a confrontation with former Gov. Jim Hunt over North Carolina’s death penalty, are as illuminating as any of the basketball stories.
Filmmakers do touch briefly on the recent UNC academic/athletic scandal, primarily to note that investigations produced no evidence that Smith knew what was going on. And players stress over and over Smith’s emphasis on academics and how they were always expected to go to class, and how the coaching staff checked on that.
But whether it’s Smith “using basketball to teach us the importance of saying thank you,” personal notes Smith sent to players and their families annually, or about Smith essentially teaching teenage boys how to be men, those player-coach relationships seem as important a legacy as anything that happened on the basketball court. Smith was an influence not just for four years, but for a lifetime.
“He’s still our coach,” Worthy says. “He’s still our coach.”
“Dean Smith” debuts 9 p.m. Wednesday on Showtime.