I Have a Memory of Dean Smith…Thanks to Dean Smith – From the Bird’s Nest
My first season doing Ragin' Cajuns basketball on the radio was 1992. The timing was perfect, because the Cajuns were playing in the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu. It was my first trip out there and it was a place I'd probably never get to go if not for my job (as it turns out, I've now made four trips out there.)
To this day, it's believed the 1992 Rainbow Classic was the best field in the history of the tournament. The field included three teams (North Carolina, Kansas, Michigan) that went to the Final Four that year. In addition, Nebraska won twenty games and made it to the NCAA tournament. The Cornhuskers were led by Eric Piatkowski. Jackson State was upset in the finals of the SWAC tournament by Southern, but made it to the second round of the NIT with all-time Tigers' great Lindsey Hunter. And, the Cajuns were coming off a Sun Belt Championship and an NCAA Tournament appearance where they had reached the second round. The Cajuns were slated to play Carolina in the first game.
There were great coaches, including Kansas' Roy Williams, North Carolina's Dean Smith, Michigan's Steve Fisher, Jackson State's Andy Stoglin and Nebraska's Danny Nee.
So, in addition to being awed by the paradise that is Oahu, I was pretty awed by the teams and players we were going to see.
The night before the tournament began, there was a small welcoming banquet. Cajuns' coach Marty Fletcher invited Don Allen and me to come along. As it turned out, we were the only radio broadcasters there. They had roast pig, raw fish, poi and other island delights. The coaches all got up and spoke. I thought it was very cool.
Afterward, Don and I were standing alone in the corner of the room, waiting for the coaching staff to say it was time to go. All of the coaches were milling together on the opposite side of the room. A man...a very recognizable man, came walking toward us. I was sure he was headed to see someone else and then I realized there was no one else there. Just Don and me. The man smiled as he approached.
"I don't believe I've had the pleasure of meeting you guys. I'm Dean Smith," the man said as he extended his hand.
Are you kidding me? Did Dean Smith...one of the greatest coaches of all time, just walk across the room to introduce himself? To Don and me?
To be honest, I don't remember a lot about the conversation. It was brief and I know we talked about the fact the Cajuns and Tar Heels would be playing the following night. He said the game would probably come down to the last possession.
That was the day I chose my blue.
In the Tar Heel State you're either Carolina blue or Duke blue. Since that day I've always been a columbia blue kind of guy. I don't root for Duke. Ever. Nothing personal. I've heard what a great guy Mike Krzyzewski is. He's the kind of guy who would have crossed the room to say hello as well.
But he was in Maui. I was in Oahu. And Dean Smith decided what blue I would choose.
The tournament was great. The Cajuns trailed Carolina by seven points with three minutes to go before a late run made the final score lopsided. The next day the Cajuns beat #20 Nebraska by 28 points. Michigan got a Jalen Rose putback at the buzzer to beat North Carolina and defeated Kansas in the final. Lindsey Hunter had an incredible game to lead Jackson State over the Cajuns in their third and final game.
And Dean Smith walked across a room to say hello.
Michigan and North Carolina would meet again in the national championship game. That was the game when Chris Webber called a time out the Wolverines didn't have and coach Smith had his second national championship.
When I heard of Coach Smith's passing yesterday, I was sad, knowing that college basketball had lost an icon. But I smiled when I remembered that evening in Honolulu when a man who was perhaps the most famous man in college basketball came and introduced himself to a radio college basketball rookie.
He didn't have to do that. But you know what? There isn't a person who knew Dean Smith that would be surprised by my story.