On Dean Smith and my Dad

Published 10:46 am Saturday, March 3, 2018

by John Railey

I have a confession to make, one that hit me hard several years ago as I ate lunch with Coach Dean Smith: As I wished my father could have been there, I realized that I should have been there for him all those years as he sat spellbound in front of the TV cheering on Dean and his boys.

As a basketball fan who bloomed late, I think about this as we approach another ACC tournament.

Coach Smith of the University of North Carolina had me to a one-on-one, off-the-record lunch in 2005 in Chapel Hill because he’d liked a column I’d written about his liberal politics. As a Carolina graduate, I’d long admired Dean as an Atticus-Finch-type man right up there with my father. But back then, I wasn’t a basketball fan. Dean, who’d long since retired, might have liked the fact that I didn’t ask him any questions about basketball during that lunch. My father had recently died. I told Dean about him and how much he’d respected him. Dean was comforting.

Now both those fine men are gone.

They both stood for the best of Carolina, fiercely competitive and ambitious men who rose high, but never forgot the underdogs they once were and never stopped fighting for other underdogs in terms of criminal justice and integration.

My father died in 2004. In the years after, I slowly became a Tar Heel basketball fan, to the point that I live and breathe it now. I will never have the technical expertise of the game my father had, but I love it just the same.

My father, a lawyer, was my constant teacher in that and all things, even though it took me years to realize that. He worked like hell at the law he loved seven days a week, but after church on Sundays was for me when I was a boy. He would take me for walks by the beautiful Nottoway, telling me about his days growing up poor just across the border in Northampton County, North Carolina, and of his times in as a Navy lieutenant in the South Pacific in World War II.

I savor those talks and try to remember as much of them as I can.

And I think about the lessons I could have gotten from him but missed, those of watching Carolina basketball with him.

I was a Carolina student in 1982 when Dean led his led his team to the national championship over Georgetown, the game when Michael Jordan emerged as the superstar he would become. I did watch the riveting closing seconds of that one, but was more interested in the wild parties that followed.

I wished I would have watched that one more closely. And I wish I would have watched many other games with my father.

ACC basketball was a mean business then and is, obviously, a lot meaner now. But the more I study the game, the more I love underdogs like the late great N.C. State Coach Jimmy Valvano. As flawed as he was, he was definitely cool and courageous, especially in facing death. There are so many other ACC stories to learn from, ones about triumph and tragedy and guts and cunning.

And it is, of course, tribal.

In my family, in addition to us Carolina graduates, there are graduates of Duke, N.C. State, Va. Tech and UVA, the latter where I spent a year before seeing the Carolina Blue light.

As I watch the ACC Tournament, I will hold close my father’s memory. I will yell for our Heels, hoping he can hear me.

JOHN RAILEY,  who grew up in Courtland, is the former editorial page editor of The Winston-Salem Journal. He can be reached at raileyjb@gmail.com.