WALTHAM, Mass. — College basketball lost a legend Saturday when Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith died at age 83.
Smith, who served as head coach at the University of North Carolina from 1961 to 1997, left an undeniable imprint on the landscape of college hoops, even for those who never had the chance to play for or against him
That group includes Boston Celtics center and UNC alum Tyler Zeller, who began his Tar Heels career more than a decade after Smith’s retirement but still felt his presence all around Chapel Hill.
“I actually got to spend some time with him early on in my college career — freshman, sophomore year,” Zeller said before Tuesday’s practice. “He’s a great man, somebody that’s very intelligent, knew the game extremely well, but even more importantly, that cared about you off the court, cared about who you were, cared about making sure you grew up to be a great young man. He’s somebody that I respected greatly. It’s a great loss for the North Carolina community and basketball in general.”
Smith’s coaching accolades (879 wins, two national championships, 11 Final Fours and an Olympic gold medal thrown in for good measure) place him among the best coaches the college game has ever seen, but, as Zeller mentioned, it’s his contributions to the world outside of basketball that have been most discussed in the wake of his passing.
“I think that’s a unique thing,” Zeller said. “A lot of coaches are kind of all about basketball, but from every story I’ve ever heard, every player that’s played for him, he really cared about you on and off the court. … He’d put you on the court and get after you, but he’s going to love you as practice is over, as soon as the game is over, and he’d help you in any way possible.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens, himself a successful college coach before making the leap to the pros, offered similar praise for Smith, calling him a model all aspiring coaches strive to emulate.
“I never met Coach Smith, but I read his books,” Stevens said. “I studied him and admired the way he not only coached but conducted himself. I think the best compliment that he can be given are all these former players talking about him. All of the rest of us in coaching look up to people like that and admire people like that. … He had an impact on a lot of people.”
Thumbnail photo via Michael Thomas Shroyer/USA TODAY Sports Images
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