A little over 27 years ago, I remember watching Super Bowl XXII. I also remember it because we watched the pilot episode of ‘The Wonder Years’ after the conclusion of the game. This show was the first of its kind. It was a look back at the experiences in the life of Kevin Arnold, played by Fred Savage, a kid growing up in the 1960’s. Each episode was narrated by “grown up” Kevin as he looked back at specific moments or people that shaped his childhood memories and his life. I think the show made such an impact because who doesn’t look back at their childhood and reminisce about events and people in the same way Kevin Arnold did? I know I do.
When I think back to my childhood, one part of my life that I remember fondly and still experience to this day, is being a North Carolina Tar Heel Basketball fan. Fred Savage’s character grew up in “Anywhere, USA.” Well, I grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My parents went to school at UNC and my father played football for the Tar Heels. So, needless to say, we were Tar Heel fans; and if you were a Tar Heel fan growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, then one name rose above all…Dean Smith.
Chapel Hill was a quiet little college town and was a great place to grow up. The town and the University were linked together in so many ways, but for me and my friends, and the kids my age that grew up in Chapel Hill; none was bigger than UNC Basketball. For most of my generation, our first memories are of Michael Jordan making the game-winning shot to beat Georgetown in the 1982 National Title game. We were Jordan fans before he was Air Jordan and became the greatest basketball player of all time. We were James Worthy fans before he joined forces with Magic Johnson and won multiple championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. We were Kenny Smith fans before he became Kenny “The Jet” Smith. The list goes on and on. It’s safe to say, my friends and I were spoiled by UNC Basketball; and it’s safe to say it’s all because of Coach Smith.
Following the team was engrained throughout our daily lives. I remember getting to go to a game in Carmichael Auditorium with my father. It was so loud and so exciting. He told me why Coach Smith was a great coach and how a great team always has a great coach. I remember my mother ordering Domino’s Pizza and ice-cold Coke and finding whatever TV was available in the house to watch the Heels play. You knew every player’s name no matter what the season turned out to be or how good the player ever became. I remember getting to know the players when they would visit our schools to tell us why drugs were bad. When those guys walked into our classroom you would have thought the Beatles just arrived in the U.S. The Tar Heel Basketball players were the biggest celebrities we knew. Their leader, Coach Smith, was probably bigger to most of us than the President of the United States. Hey, we were kids. People say “All politics are local?” Well, Coach Smith was local.
Then one year, a certain building opened. I thought it looked like a palace. It was the Dean E. Smith Center. It was 1986. This was before schools started funneling money into bigger and better stadiums and facilities. It held over 21,000 people under its dome, more than twice the size of Carmichael Auditorium. Originally, Dean Smith didn’t want the Dome to be named after him. Anybody that knew Coach Smith would know he hated attention on himself. However, the powers that be convinced him that it would help ensure that the funding went well. Actually, when it opened, they tried calling it the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center. The emphasis was put on the ‘Student Activities Center’ or ‘SAC’ for short. That didn’t last very long. In fact, I can’t really ever remember not calling it the ‘Dean Dome.’ Sorry Coach Smith, but that’s its proper name.
Over 2300 people donated money to make the Dean Dome a privately-funded reality. My father was one of those people. We’ve had seats in the Dean Dome ever since. We’ve been spoiled by my father’s wise choice then to donate and the memories are too many to count. I only got to experience one season in the Dean Dome with my father before he passed away when I was 10 years old. I still remember him being willing to get to the games early. I liked to watch my favorite player, Jeff Lebo, warm up as he shot one three-pointer after another. It’s a memory about my father I still hold dear. Thank you for that Coach Smith.
Those of us growing up then probably sequence memories of certain years in school based on UNC Basketball memories. I remember the class visits by the players in elementary school that I mentioned before. That was also a time I remember a little known Tar Heel named Ranzino Smith, or the “other Smith” as some called him because he played alongside Kenny Smith. Ranzino was special to those of us growing up in Chapel Hill because he was from Chapel Hill too and played at our high school. I remember him too because around then my grandparents used to take my younger brother and I out to dinner once a week. One of the places in the rotation was the K&W Cafeteria. Well, Ranzino’s mother worked there and made sure to say hi to us and talk a bit because my grandparents were regulars there. Ranzino was a hometown kid who got to live out his dream and play at UNC. Pretty cool gesture Coach Smith.
Around that time I played on my first organized basketball team. After years of playing my imaginary championship games in the driveway against my younger brother, my mother signed me up to play for real. By the way, every kid in Chapel Hill with a hoop in the driveway ran outside to recreate UNC basketball games right after watching them on T.V., usually with the volume turned down and the radio turned up to hear Woody Durham call the game. My favorite memory of playing on that team? Getting to go to my coach’s dorm room to eat Domino’s pizza, drink ice-cold Coke, and watch the Tar Heels beat NC State on T.V.
That summer I got to participate in a rite of passage for a young boy growing up in Chapel Hill by attending the Dean Smith Carolina Basketball Camp. I remember two things about that camp. First, we stayed at Granville Towers, where the basketball team lived. I was convinced that I got Michael Jordan’s room. Second, on the last day of camp I got to shake hands and take a picture with Coach Smith. Just the two of us. Thank you for that picture Coach Smith.
In middle school we experienced the agony of getting so close with many great teams, but never quite getting over the hump and winning another national title. To make matters worse, Duke had won twice by the time we were in high school. Then came 1993.
UNC had a great team led by Eric Montross and George Lynch. However, Michigan had the Fab Five. I remember watching the game at a friend’s house as we were now old enough to drive and “go out” with our friends. We watched an incredible game and then the moment came. Chris Webber called a timeout; one Michigan did not have left. Technical foul. UNC was going to win the national championship! We stormed out the door and went straight to Franklin Street. It was pure pandemonium and a feeling of exhilaration. Thank you for giving us that feeling Coach Smith.
In college, I remember locking myself in my room to watch Dean Smith go for the all-time wins record in the NCAA tournament. Why was I locked in my room? Well, UNC was playing Colorado for the chance to break the record. The Buffs had upset Indiana the night before and Coach Bobby Knight was so angry he walked back to the team hotel form the arena alone. Back to the locked door. My friends were ready to beat me up if they heard me cheering for UNC. Why did they care? Well, as fate would have it, I was a student at…Colorado. I was very happy for Coach Smith. Quietly happy, but happy none the less.
I remember where I was the day I heard Coach Smith announced his retirement in 1997. I was standing in Room 14 at the Kappa Sigma Fraternity house in Boulder, Colorado. I was speechless. We didn’t have cell phones or social media to run to and hear all of the reactions. I sat down and watched Sportscenter the rest of the night, hoping to hear everything possible about Coach Smith’s retirement.
That night I thought about my personal connection to Coach Smith. My first job ever was at a drive-thru restaurant in Chapel Hill called Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen. I made minimum wage and worked the cash register window. I was only sixteen years old but since I was the only employee without a criminal record my manager explained I had to work the register. Well, working the window allowed to me speak with the customers and say hello to familiar people from Chapel Hill. One of those people was Coach Smith. I didn’t even have to see his car to know who it was driving up to the window. When that voice came over the speaker, the voice I had heard for years during and after UNC games, I knew it was him. He was always kind. Always humble. He even seemed embarrassed when I called him ‘Coach’ as if it put too much attention on him. He always asked me how I was doing and he always knew my name. I always asked how the team was looking and he would say, “We’re getting there.” He would always give me a $20 bill and tell me to “Keep the change,” even though he had only ordered one biscuit. I learned a lot about how to carry one’s self in those brief interactions. Thank you for the lesson Coach Smith.
I knew after his retirement announcement that while I would always be a UNC Basketball fan, things were never going to be the same. In that moment, not only did Coach Smith announce his retirement, but it was as if my childhood went into retirement as well. We still go to as many games as we can. We still have the same four seats in the Dean Dome that we sat in when we were young. In fact, the same family sits right near us. We used to call the father of this family ‘The Screamer’ because he yelled constantly at the refs. He’s much more relaxed these days, but my brothers and I always wink and nod at each other and whisper, “‘The Screamer’ is still here.”
But in the end, that moment in 1997 ended the last enduring part of my childhood. There would be no more Domino’s Pizza nights watching Coach Smith’s teams. No more moments of awe watching his brilliance during a game. No more feeling calm in any game situation because you thought to yourself, “Dean’s got this.” I felt like Kevin Arnold in the last episode of ‘The Wonder Years.’ The narrator, older Kevin, tells how life played out for all of the characters, but one thing was for sure, his childhood was over. The final words of the narrator were the following:
“Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place, a town, a house, like a lot of houses. A yard like a lot of other yards. On a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back… with wonder.”
I remember Chapel Hill. I remember my mother and father taking me to Carmichael Auditorium and to the Dean Dome to watch the Heels play. I remember many exciting victories and devastating losses. Games like a lot of other games. But I also remember a Coach not like other coaches. I remember a man who was always kind to me in that drive-thru line. I remember you, Coach Smith, and after all these years, I still look back with wonder. Thank you Coach Smith.
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