Spring is my favorite time of year for a reason that has nothing to do with the weather. I love March Madness – the intense college basketball tournament that closes out the month of March and opens up the month of April.
Basketball has always been a big thing at our house. Both my sons played from an early age and I coached them both. Bob became quite a good player. He was on two state high school championship teams and played AAU ball for me for four years. He was recruited to play college ball – but not at UNC–Chapel Hill, where he’d always wanted to go and where he’d been accepted. When he got to Carolina, he tried out for the JV team and almost made it. He was cut on the last tryout.
All of this brings back great memories of my three encounters with legendary Hall of Fame basketball coach Dean Smith. All of them were a testament to the phenomenal memory that he was blessed with for most of his life, including a wonderful ability to recall people and events. The first two encounters were related to each other. In the fall of 1981, Fayetteville real estate developer J.P. Riddle and I played in a fund-raising golf tournament in Chapel Hill and we actually got to play with Jack Nicklaus. (That is a story for another day.) Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that we won the tournament. At a social gathering afterwards, I had the chance to talk with Dean Smith. We talked for about 20 minutes. Now fast-forward to the summer of 1984 when our family attended the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. We had purchased two tickets to the gold-medal basketball game and Dean Smith was there because his players Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins were on the U.S. team. Coach Smith was sitting several rows in front of us. When he got up to leave, he passed by our aisle seats and I spoke to him. He stopped to chat and remembered that I had played in the Chapel Hill golf tournament three years earlier with J.P. Riddle. I found his recall remarkable and introduced him to my awestruck 10-year-old son, Bob.
Now let’s move forward 22 years, to Bob’s 31st birthday on February 10, 2006. He was dying of cancer – but he still loved Carolina basketball. With the help of Joe and Carol Quigg, my older son Hughes had arranged a special treat for his brother – a phone call from Dean Smith. The coach talked to Bob for 10 to 15 minutes about Carolina and basketball. During that conversation, Bob said he had met Coach Smith at the 1984 Olympics. Amazingly, Coach Smith remembered the meeting. He said he recalled that Bob’s dad (me) was friends with J.P. Riddle. Bob died three weeks later, on March 2, 2006, and Alzheimer’s disease would soon start to claim Coach Smith’s astonishing memory and then his life.
But I will always marvel at his pre-Alzheimer’s ability to remember people and events. And I will always be grateful for the kindness he showed in taking time to talk to a dying young man who idolized him. Those are great memories that come back every March and April.