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College Basketball Loses A Legend: Dean Smith Dead At 83

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is time now for sports. We are joined, as ever, by Mike Pesca. He's the host of The Gist podcast from Slate.com. Good morning, Mike.

MIKE PESCA: Hello.

MARTIN: So today, there is sad news from the sports world. Legendary UNC basketball coach Dean Smith passed away last night. He was 83 years old. You interviewed him, right? What kind of coach was Dean Smith?

PESCA: Well, at the time I talked to him, and I've talked to him a couple times - one was after he wrote a book - he was a history buff. And I liked talking about random things about history with him. He also lived history. But he was a legend at that point. And he had earned his legendary. He had won two National Championships, made 11 Final Fours, which is the second most ever, won 879 games, 10th on the All-Time list, graduated - the vast majority of his players won a gold medal. We could list all these achievements. He was - for 27 years, the team won 20 games or more. So UNC was the team that you would just always pencil in as a good to great team, and some years, they were the best team. And it was because of Dean Smith. But Dean Smith's greatness or his statistical greatness was because of who he was.

MARTIN: And who he was off the court as well, right?

PESCA: Exactly. So he was - it's been described as a social activist who wore it lightly. He was a smiley, present and a positive guy, but he definitely felt strongly about issues. So he desegregated a lunch counter in Carolina in 1964. He, by allowing Charlie - or by recruiting and giving a scholarship to Charlie Scott. That was the first black player at UNC, the first black player in the entire conference, the ACC. He really lived his values. He was a Baptist from Kan. And in fact, he - the lineage of Dean Smith - the basketball lineage goes right through to the start of basketball 'cause Dr. James Naismith invents basketball, becomes the coach of Kansas. James Naismith's player is Phog Allen. Phog Allen's player is Dean Smith. Dean Smith wins a championship, is on a championship-winning team for Phog Allen. So it all flows through Dean Smith.

MARTIN: I'm looking on Twitter right now. There are all kinds of remembrances coming in. There's a picture up on Twitter of Dean Smith being kissed by Michael Jordan.

PESCA: Right on the head, right?

MARTIN: Yeah. Right on the head. It's a great photo.

PESCA: Yeah. And that was - and one of the great things that said about Dean Smith is he's the only man who could keep Michael Jordan under 20. And what that means is Jordan didn't average 20 points while playing at UNC because Dean Smith conducted his offense with precision. And it was a slow offense. In fact, he would often go to the four corners, which is passing the ball around before the era of the shot clock, frustrating opponents. Everything he did frustrated opponents because he was so good at it. And his style of play might - wasn't maybe the most exiting unless you're a Carolina fan and you enjoyed the wins. But to the basketball cognoscenti, they just look at the complexity of his defenses, just this pure number of different defensive things that the team would do. And no one could quite believe it.

The other amazing thing is, you know, a knock on Dean Smith - oh, is it hard to be that great a coach with so many great players? He kept getting the great players and kept essentially stifling their points per game, which is not what a player wants. But players bought into the system, so that's a tribute to him, too. That's why he kept Michael Jordan under 20.

MARTIN: How will he be remembered do you think? What's his legacy?

PESCA: One of the greatest coaches of all times. People who know him will always speak of him as a great person. Two great quotes from two other great coaches, in fact, the two college basketball coaches with the most wins. John Wooden, the UCLA coach said Dean Smith is the best teacher of basketball that I have ever observed. Think about that. And Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke coach - and Duke and Carolina are such bitter rivals. Krzyzewski and Smith did not have a love fest when they played against each other, but he has a photo of the two of them on his desk in his office. And when Smith was alive, he told a local newspaper that he looked at it from time to time, and it felt like two generals now at peace.

MARTIN: Mike Pesca, host of The Gist podcast from Slate.com remember legendary UNC coach Dean Smith. Mike, thanks so much.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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