Dean Smith finds way to touch his former players even after death

SHARE Dean Smith finds way to touch his former players even after death
SHARE Dean Smith finds way to touch his former players even after death

Inever have respected Dean Smith more than I do now that he is dead.

Don’t misconstrue me: I’m not happy the former North Carolina basketball coach died. I’m only happy about the news that recently came from his will after Smith died last month at 83.

Smith ordered that his executor mail out a check for $200 to each of the 184 lettermen (Sports Illustrated’s count) he coached during his 36 years leading North Carolina’s program. That’s $36,800 total, if you’re keeping score.

His note to all those former Tar Heels was to ‘‘enjoy a dinner out compliments of Coach Dean Smith.’’

This just makes me happy on a number of levels. And I know it makes Smith’s former players — including George Karl, Mitch Kupchak, Phil Ford, James Worthy, Kenny Smith, Billy Cunningham, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, Rick Fox, Bob McAdoo, Eric Montross, J.R. Reid, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and a guy named Michael Jordan — happy.

Indeed, stories already have begun spreading that Jordan spent his check lighting a cigar on a Barca-Lounger. Or lost it on the first tee. Not true, I don’t think.

In an NCAA universe where money is considered the root of all evil for players — though never for coaches — Smith’s gesture is a fresh one. Of course, the men are all plenty old enough to take graft from anyone they want. Smith’s last year of coaching was 1997, and the amount is nice but relatively insignificant.

Is it safe to say a lot of those former players are millionaires? Yes, it is. But this was unique as a gesture.

We used to joke the only man who could stop Jordan in a game was Smith. Lots of people thought Smith should have accomplished much more than winning two NCAA titles with the talent he had.

They pointed to the Indiana-North Carolina game in the NCAA tourney in 1984, when Jordan was held in check by the marginally talented Dan Dakich. Told before the game by Hoosiers coach Bob Knight that he would have to guard Jordan, Dakich later would say his first thought was: ‘‘How has Indiana sunk this low?’’

Dakich, now an analyst for ESPN, is a funny guy, but he speaks some serious truth when asked about that matchup and Smith’s failings in it. And, conversely, Knight’s success.

‘‘If you look at the talent that coach Knight won with compared to the talent Dean Smith lost with?’’ Dakich said not long ago. ‘‘Hell, yeah, he outcoached him.’’

Everybody gets outcoached at some time. But Smith didn’t get outcoached with this money giveaway by anyone. What a wonderful way to say thank you to your pupils!

And with all the good cheer it spreads, it makes me wonder something: Why haven’t other coaches done this?

And while they’re alive. Smith didn’t make the tens of millions of dollars some coaches now make in a relatively short time. If he had purchased many years ago an annuity for a small sum of money — say, $5,000 — Smith could have had the $36,800 in compounded interest to pay the dinner bills for his old chaps easily.

So why doesn’t somebody such as Rick Pitino, John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski give out, say, $100,000 a year to former players, especially those who could use it?

In some of these recent NCAA games, there have been shots made by players that literally earned their coaches $50,000 or more. The players, meanwhile, get nothing but another game to play in.

Sharing the love? Why not?

Coaches get money when their players get good grades, when they graduate. Nobody can stop a free American from gifting money to another one, except while you’re an ‘‘amateur’’ in the NCAA.

So hold it out there as a work reward once the NCAA can’t stop you anymore.

Think about it, rich coaches.

For now, all you North Carolina lettermen under Smith, bon appetit!

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com

Twitter: @ricktelander

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