By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
The plan was to be on the University of Maryland campus at least two hours before tip-off. After that, our fate would be in the hands of the basketball gods.
We executed to precision. My buddy, a devout North Carolina fan, was decked out in Carolina blue; I rocked the best threads from my extensive Terrapins wardrobe. We were quite the visual contrast, but we shared a common dream: to find our way into Cole Field House to watch the Tar Heels play the always courageous, if not equally talented, Terps.
There was a fly in our basketball dream’s ointment: we lacked tickets. That would be a minor issue in today’s age of StubHub, but this game was played on February 22, 1997. Game day scalpers controlled our fate.
There was another problem: we were young lads of limited means. We had eighty bucks. We were all-in.
After trolling around Cole for a while, we learned that many (affordable) scalped tickets were specially marked for students. To use them, you needed a Maryland ID. The regular tickets? They far exceeded our meager budget. It looked bleak for the little fans that could.
Dejected, we sat slumped on a curb holding out two fingers (a non-verbal demand signal for two tickets). Five minutes before tip, a voice from the heavens asked, “you guys need two?” Uh, yessir. We confirmed they weren’t student tickets and then asked the fateful question: “How much?”
“Gimme forty…for both.”
The seats were in the third row, a few feet from the baseline. Thieves were we. Unfortunately, the game lacked the drama of our pre-game adventure. North Carolina, behind Vince Carter and Antwawn Jamison, cruised to a 93-81 victory. The 1996-97 season would prove to be long-time Carolina head coach Dean Smith’s last and this game his finale at legendary Cole Field House.
Nearly 18 years later – February 8, 2015 to be exact – I was back on the Maryland campus to watch the women’s basketball team play Nebraska. At halftime I grabbed my wife’s phone and checked the sports headlines. Bad news. Dean Smith had died.
Smith, after 36 years on the bench, retired with then-record 879 Division 1 wins (many at Maryland’s expense). Before Duke became Duke, Maryland’s archrival, the thorn in the Terrapins’ shell, was Smith’s Tar Heels. North Carolina almost always had better talent, seemed to get all the calls and had a knack for break-your-heart late-game heroics.
I remember one game fondly, though. On February 20, 1986 – maybe to the day you’re reading this – Len Bias scored 35 points to lead Maryland to a 77-72 overtime win over North Carolina, in Chapel Hill. It was the Tar Heels’ first loss at the glossy new Dean Smith Center.
But such victories were rare. Carolina was the big brother Maryland could rarely whip, the standard Maryland never reached.
This jaded, frustrating history should, by definition, mean that Smith is the enemy. He should be hated. Loathed. His image should incite rage.
Truth is, I love and respect Dean Smith. He was just so darn classy. He wasn’t flamboyant. He never sought attention or craved credit. Smith never tried to be bigger than his players, his opponent or the game – he sought only to blend in, despite his gigantic status. Character was something Smith possessed, not something he was. And this being Black History Month, it is important to remember his under-publicized (just as Smith would want it) contributions to desegregation. His progressive acts included being the first UNC coach to grant an athletic scholarship to an African American and crashing a previously all-white restaurant with an African American player shortly after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Former All-American Maryland center and sworn on-court Smith adversary Len Elmore sent out the following tweet after Smith’s death:
“A life well lived, a job well done. The game, society has lost an icon. God bless #The Dean.”
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