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How Dean Smith Won and Lost His Best Recruit

Remembering an A.C.C. Icon, Dean Smith!

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Full disclosure here.  My mom was a huge U.V.A. basketball fan in the 80's.  I remember, as a kid, it was a HUGE deal that Ralph Sampson came back to school.  The local news showed the "decision", before the LeBron decision 30 years later.  It was over a family dinner that my mom actually shrieked. Even as an eight year old, I understood that its not everyday your mom shrieked while making stove top stuffing.  Around that time my sister, Kelley, was twelve.  Now having a 12 year old daughter myself, it all makes sense.  Mom liked the 'Hoos, Kelley liked the Tarheels.  Kelley had insisted on an all-Carolina Christmas from Santa that year.  Tarheels' sweatpants, wristbands, and even a Tarheel basketball.  I can only imagine my mother's agony as she marched into K-Mart to procure the enemies apparel.  I received a Wahoos sweatshirt in attempt to stem the familial tide.

I guess for about 6 months as an eight year old I was technically a U.V.A. fan.  I wanted to see my mom happy, and I despised my older sister.  I remember when the fam gathered in the living room to watch the Carolina Vs. Virginia regular season matchup.  There sat my sister in all her Tarheel glory.  I was gamely sporting the Christmas sweatshirt I had worn only once prior, Christmas .  Ralph Sampson looked like a giant.  Imagine right now if you went and played basketball at your son's pee-wee league.  You would stand out obviously.  Ralph was also super, super skinny. His 7'4" frame looked like a ship inside a glass bottle.  Move too suddenly, too quickly, and the whole structure would collapse.  As the game wore on, the weight of the sweatshirt began to feel like a lead weight.

There are two distinct things I like about Carmichael Auditorium.  It seemed very small.  It also was very, very loud.  It was a spectacle to see Ralph Sampson roam the court in what was, in effect, a cage.  I also loved the hand operated scoreboard near the west end corner that the cheerleaders manned.  Again, being an eight year old keeping up with the baskets as a coed flipped over the numbers.  Around midway through the second half, I removed the sweatshirt.  The Carolina blue was too pretty.  The folksy gym looked like my elementary school.  The U.N.C. coach was the "Dean". The 'Hoos has Terry Holland.  Terry Holland sold you insurance.  The Dean taught basketball.  As Carolina slowly pulled away, my mom went upstairs silently.  Full disclosure here.  I was a North Carolina fan from the ages of 8-12.

As I got older I found the game of basketball to be the absolute best.  I had a hoop in my driveway, and I played thousands upon thousands of imaginary games in Carmichael Auditorium.  I was in the 8th grade when I learned the power of the pen.  I hand wrote letters to every single A.C.C. basketball coach.  I told them that I had hoped to play for them one day, but more importantly, could I please have an autograph?  With my attention span at the absolute lowest, I waited.  This was "snail mail" after all.  After weeks of waiting without payoff I got my first envelope.  It was from the University of North Carolina.  It was from the athletic department.  Inside was an 8"X10" glossy black and white.  It was the Tarheels team photo with replica autographs from each 'Heel.  In the lower left hand corner, almost an afterthought was Dean Smith.  It was written in what I imagine was a Bic pen, blue ink.  Neat cursive. The cursive was in the style of my son who is really trying to write neatly.  They also included information of their basketball camp.  I immediately procured a frame and hung this proudly in my bedroom.  I then proceeded to the driveway to shoot free throws.  Dean would never want a guy who can't hit his free throws.

The next few weeks I got more letters. Jim Valvano sent me a huge "glamour shot" of himself, big schnozz in its full glory.  Terry Holland sent me a head shot of him a blazer ready to do my taxes.  Bobby Cremins gave me a little extra flair with the note, "Best Wishes".  A very, very young Mike Krzyzewski sent me a simple black and white 5X7" with his signature.  I put the Coach K picture away.  He wouldn't do anything at Duke.  Now I know the cynics in you are saying, "Their secretaries probably signed all that."  To that, I would reply,"I don't care."  I got a letter in the actual mailbox, from Chapel Hill, Durham, Atlanta, and Charlottesville. For me, that was like receiving a letter from Hollywood.  I loved them all, but I loved Dean's the most.  He replied first.  He coached my favorite team.  I would be the one in 5 years hitting crucial free throws down the stretch in Carmichael.  I would be friends with Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Kenny Smith, and all the other Carolina greats.  "See you soon, Dean, see you soon."

Around my freshman year of high school, I realized I wasn't A.C.C. basketball material. Hell, I wasn't rec league material.  I still rooted for U.N.C. and coach Smith, but I was not a McDonald's All American.  I liked McDonald's quite a bit so I turned my attention to football.  I came inside for dinner, and my mom was talking about the Hokies' game that weekend.  I asked my mom, "What's a Hokie?"