North Carolina

Michael Jordan on Dean Smith: 'He never put one kid ahead of another'

A 2010 photo shows former North Carolina coach Dean Smith congratulating Charlotte Bobcats majority owner and former UNC player Michael Jordan upon his induction into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
A 2010 photo shows former North Carolina coach Dean Smith congratulating Charlotte Bobcats majority owner and former UNC player Michael Jordan upon his induction into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. 2010 Charlotte Observer file photo

Last week, former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Observer NBA writer Rick Bonnell talked to Bobcats owner Michael Jordan and Brad Daugherty, both former Tar Heel stars, about what they learned from Smith.

The phone call would come pretty much weekly during Brad Daugherty’s rookie season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

There would be niceties and maybe some cursory talk about basketball, yet that clearly wasn’t the intent. Quickly enough the caller would revert to three basic questions/warnings:

How many watches do you own, because no one needs more than one expensive watch. How many cars do you own, because you can only drive one car at a time. And whatever you do, don’t let anyone talk you into owning a restaurant.

This was Dean Smith checking up on his kids. He was playing dad, and not just with players drafted in the first-round by the NBA. It was student managers. And athletic trainers. And tall guys who proved to be nothing more than towel-wavers who got a free education at the University of North Carolina.

That’s what Michael Jordan, probably the best player Smith ever coached, found compelling about his relationship with Smith: Not how much Smith cared about his success and happiness, but how equally vested Smith was in anyone who became part of the Tar Heels’ family.

“Players with different backgrounds, different outlooks, different potential: He seemed to be able to reach all of them the same way,” Jordan said in an exclusive interview.

“If you talk to a guy who never got off the bench, he says the same thing I say. That’s what a father figure is really like – he never put one kid above the other.

“The love that came from him: The caring, the advice, the education, and the persistence and determination he had in pushing all his players, not just me.”

Lessons from coach Smith

Jordan isn’t big on storytelling. Daugherty, the No. 1 pick in the 1986 draft, is. Daugherty wasn’t all that into basketball. He grew up in Black Mountain preferring to have his head under the hood of a race car. Smith saw his 7-foot size and athletic grace, and helped him become an eight-season pro who built major wealth.

Now Daugherty has motorsports-related businesses and is an analyst for ESPN’s NASCAR coverage. In a 40-minute interview on Smith’s legacy, Daugherty never once brought up basketball. That’s because what he got from Smith was more than how to defend a pick-and-roll.

“I learned so much about how to treat people,” Daugherty said. “The first thing I learned was humility. He never made it about him and that was an exceptional lesson. It’s not what you accomplish. It’s never about you, it’s about what the people around you did to help you succeed.

“The other thing he taught me was sportsmanship. He always said you learn much more from losses than wins. Competitive as he was, he thought winning was meaningless unless you did it the right way.

“He’d make sure we went to classes and that we took classes that would challenge us. We didn’t just get a degree, we got an education.”

Daugherty now owns several businesses where he must keep tabs on numerous employees daily. He finds it daunting to converse effectively with all the people who keep those businesses afloat.

That’s what made Daugherty marvel at the letters, the phone calls, the kibitzing that became intrinsic to how Smith led the Tar Heels from 1961 through 1997. Smith’s teams won two national championships and reached 11 Final Fours.

“There had to be a thousand people, between players, managers and trainers, who he took responsibility for,” Daugherty said. “How do you stay so involved with so many people’s lives like that?”

Daugherty invoked a story about Smith calling him on behalf of some fellow who played for the Tar Heels in the ’60s. The guy had a relative looking for a job who had moved to Atlanta, where Daugherty was based.

There was no pressure to help this kid, just a networking gesture to say, “If you see an opportunity, keep him in mind.” Rather than treat this as a nuisance, Daugherty was touched by the gesture. It occurred to him that had basketball not worked out, he might have needed the same help from his college coach.

Jordan leaned on Smith during tumultuoustimes

For all his success, Jordan can relate. He’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but he made mistakes: He had to testify about why he paid tens of thousands to convicted drug dealer Slim Bouler. Turns out Jordan paid to settle debts over golf bets. He went through a messy divorce that cost him tens of millions.

Smith was always there as a resource. A nonjudgmental resource, who at first was a second father, and then became the surrogate after James Jordan was murdered in Lumberton in 1993.

“I never felt shy about telling him anything,” Jordan said. “If you ever have problems, you feel like the only one you can talk to is your father. He may educate you, but he’s not going to look bad at you. Coach was just like that. I had no problem telling him issues that bothered me. That’s what I remember most about coach Smith.”

Daugherty remembers how precisely – surgically, really – Smith sized up people’s personalities to get the best from them. He used the contrast between himself and Jordan to illustrate his point.

“With Michael, you could so viscerally challenge him because he was such a competitor,” Daugherty said. “If you told him you could hold your breath longer than him, he’d turn purple just to beat you. So that’s how coach Smith addressed him.

“With me, it was more a matter of figuring out what to do to get the best results. So he’d explain – patiently – how to play to your strengths.

“I remember he’d say, ‘It’s OK to have weaknesses. Just don’t play to them.’”

Smith’s strength was establishing trust that he wanted what was best for those in his charge, regardless of what they could do for him. Daugherty didn’t fully comprehend that until Magic Johnson approached him as a pro, first with a needle, then with praise.

“He started out with, ‘Oh, you Carolina guys,’” Daugherty said. “But the last thing he said was, ‘It’s incredible what he’s created.’”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer