We recently lost one of the great masters of basketball and life, former Tar Heel head coach Dean Smith. I don't get to meet many legends of basketball in my normal life as a philosopher, but I did get to meet him, long ago, and our interaction told me a lot about the man and his extraordinary character.
It was 1985. I was a fourth year assistant professor of philosophy at Notre Dame and was jogging around an indoor track with a graduate student, talking about his dissertation. Suddenly there came Digger Phelps, Notre Dame's head basketball coach, jogging in the other direction, approaching and about to pass us. The grad student smiled, waved, and yelled, "Hi coach!" But Digger didn't even look at him as he ambled by.
Twenty minutes later, we were standing in a hallway, cooling off and still talking. Down a bit, in a big hallway that intersected with our own, I was shocked to see the UNC basketball team in their Carolina Blue warm-ups walking by. I said, "What's going on? What's are the Tar Heels doing here?"
"Oh," the grad student said, "It's the second round of the NCAA Tournament and Carolina's here to play. They go up against the Irish tomorrow!" I didn't know anything about it, immersed as I was in teaching and writing philosophy.
Then, minutes later, down the hall, I caught sight of Dean Smith himself, walking alone. "Hey coach!" I called out. "Welcome to campus!"
He stopped and looked at me. "Is that a North Carolina accent I hear?"
"Yes, sir! Morehead Scholar, class of 74!"
He began to walk in our direction. "What are you doing here at Notre Dame?"
"I teach in the philosophy department. After Carolina I went to Yale for a PhD or two, and now I'm here."
"How long have you been here?"
"This is my fourth year." At that point, we had met the famous coach half way down the hall, and we continued to talk. The grad student introduced himself, as did I, and after a minute or so, we began to walk our new friend out to his waiting bus, as we chatted about life and South Bend and philosophy. When we got to the bus, I knew he had to go, despite his relaxed demeanor with us and a tone in his voice that said he had all day for us, so I said, "Well, Coach, my wife and I will be sitting in front of the TV tomorrow rooting for you guys."
"Don't you have tickets?"
"No sir. I'm an assistant professor. I can't afford tickets."
"They will be two tickets for you and your wife at the Will Call window tomorrow. Come see the game in person."
"Really? That's great! Thanks so much!"
I showed up to the game in my Carolina Blue UNC Sweatshirt and got booed by all the Notre Dame students who had been in my classes. I taught an eighth of the student body many years, so that was a lot of booing. But it was good natured, and very funny. At the end of a close game, ND's top player, David Rivers, dribbled the ball off the side of his foot, and UNC's Kenny Smith scooped it up, threw it down court to a teammate and BOOM, it was a Carolina victory, 60-58.
About a year later, I was in the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center again for a jog, and I glimpsed down a hallway the sight of flash bulbs popping. It was a gaggle of photographers and journalists standing in front of Dean Smith! I didn't know that he was back for a regular season game. But I yelled out, "Hey, Coach! Welcome back!"
And he turned from the journalists, saw me at a distance, and shouted in reply, "Professor, I've got tickets for you again!" He remembered an assistant professor of philosophy a year later. Amazing. And he gave us tickets again. We sat a few feet away from Michael Jordan, at the peak of his fame, visiting from the Bulls.
That game, UNC came in ranked Number One, and Notre Dame was unranked. But Digger somehow pulled off an upset, by the same exact score, just turned around. Irish 60. Carolina 58.
I went out right away and bought Coach Smith a small gift to thank him for his kindness, a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream Whisky. And I wrote him a note. "Coach Smith, here's a little something Irish that will be easier to swallow than that final score." I thanked him for the tickets and wished him a great rest of the season.
I boxed up my gift and took it to UPS. The man said, "Declare your contents."
I said, "Baileys Irish Cream Whiskey."
He frowned and said, "I'm sorry, I can't ship that across state lines. It's against the law." He then looked at the address label. "Wait. Is this THE Dean Smith?" I said yes and told him the story. He said "I think what you have here is Glass Ware." And he shipped the package.
A week or two later, I got a really nice hand written note from Dean Smith thanking me for the gift and telling me how he and his wife had put the Baileys out at a party at their house and how much everyone had enjoyed it and the story behind it.
I telephoned my mother and told her about the note. She was more excited than I'd ever heard her. She called her Baptist minister and told him about it. She then called me back and said that the Reverend had told her, "I always knew Tommy would amount to something great." He was proud. She was proud. She had been proud of the Morehead Scholarship, and the Yale Fellowship, and the PhD in philosophy and in religious studies, and the job at a place like Notre Dame, and the books I had written. But she had never been so glowingly proud as she was that day, because her son had gotten an personal note from Dean Smith, a great man who did good things by nature, showing concern and kindness everywhere he went.