Letters, Feb. 25, 2015

An encounter with Dean Smith

My story with Dean Smith goes something like this….

I tried like everything to go through his secretary to line up an interview for my book, ?Hallowed Hardwood.? But it was a brick wall.

So, I asked, ?I know he loves basketball history and Kansas. Should I write him a letter?? She said, ?Sure, go ahead. Knock yourself out.?

So, I did. Four days later, I had a letter back, on North Carolina stationery, signed by Dean Smith. Sure, he would love to do an interview when he would come back to Topeka, which is about once a year. Oh, and be sure to interview these several other old coaches. Included was his direct phone number to his office.

Some time after that, I heard he was coming back to Topeka to accept an award for Kansan of the Year, so I called. This was shortly after he had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he retired.

?What do you want to ask me?? he bellowed. ?Oh, this is more of a photo shoot,? I said. ?I can get statistics, wins, championships out of books and off the Internet. What I really want to ask you is, what does it mean to be from Kansas? What does it mean to be from Topeka, things like that.?

I didn?t want to say ?touchy-feely,? but that?s what I meant. ?Aw, you can get that out of books and off the Internet, too.? Click.

So, it?s a two-hour drive to Topeka. My wife, college-aged son was home from Germany, and 16-year-old basketball-playing daughter all wanted to tag along. Before, it was Dad just going around shooting pictures of old gyms. But now he was interviewing Dean Smith. Now it was a big deal.

But I was sweating nails. All the way up to Topeka, I was thinking that here I was, about to interview arguably the most famous basketball coach in America, and I had absolutely no idea what to ask him.

Waiting in the Topeka gym with the A.D., I was still pacing the floor. The door opened and he stepped in with his high school buddy, Bill Bunten, in the state legislature and now Mayor of Topeka.

Bill spoke first.

?We were playing in a state tournament in here in 1948. This was the biggest gym in the state (4,500 seats) and bigger than KU or K-State at the time. I was in this corner, you were over there. You cut there, I threw you the ball?.?

Then it hit me what they wanted to talk about. They wanted to talk about when they were 17.

There was no talk of KU, or North Carolina, or the NCAA championships, or most wins ever at the time. No mention of coaching the Olympic gold medal team. No mention of coaching Michael Jordan.

?So, when were you last in this gym, anyway?? I asked. ?Oh, about 1953.? ?You mean, you haven?t been back in this gym since 1953, and you came back for me?? ?Oh, no, I?ve been back to other parts of the school, just not the gym.?

He then took us on a tour through the fabulous building, the auditorium with chandeliers, the library with a fireplace, and walking through the doors, he opened doors for my 16-year-old daughter. The most famous coach in America, and he still has class and humility. What does that do for a father to watch that?

So, I was extremely privileged to have met him and spent time with him. That?s my memory of Dean Smith that will last forever.

Brian Stucky

Goessel

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