Dean Smith’s death was the top story on NBA.com Sunday morning even though Smith never coached a single game in the league. Sometimes the medium really is the message. That editorial decision is a reflection of Smith’s pervasive influence on the NBA, a greater impact than any other college coach.
At North Carolina, Smith coached five (Michael Jordan, Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, Walter Davis and Bob McAdoo) of the top 55 scorers in NBA history, and three of the NBA's top 25 in coaching victories (Larry Brown, George Karl and Doug Moe).
Then there’s Billy Cunningham, who coached the 1983 champion Philadelphia 76ers. And Mitch Kupchak, general manager of the past four Los Angeles Lakers championship teams. The Carolina Network is real, still present almost two decades after Smith coached his last game in Chapel Hill.
I always felt the true testament to Smith wasn't the greats such as Jordan and James Worthy. It could be found in guys like Joe Wolf, who stuck around the league for 11 seasons despite his pedestrian career averages of 4.2 points and 3.3 rebounds. Or Hubert Davis, who played a dozen seasons and once led the league in 3-point field goal percentage. Signing one of Smith’s players meant a GM didn't have to worry whether he really understood how to play basketball.
Dean’s guys got it.
I miss the sight of college coaching legends turning into highly credentialed cheerleaders at NBA playoff games, the way Smith and Georgetown’s John Thompson (another Smith protege, with the 1976 Olympic team) did during the 1990s. That went away during the preps-to-pros generation. The closest thing now is John Calipari working the green room at the NBA draft each year when the latest batch from his Kentucky stable enters the league.
But Calipari’s been at Kentucky for only six years. Smith coached Carolina from 1961 to 1997. He helped desegregate the sport at the major conference level. He stocked rosters in the NBA and ABA. He made the North Carolina campus a home base for players from Phil Ford to Jerry Stackhouse.
You can find Smith’s name near the top of the lists for career college coaching victories and Final Four appearances. You can also find him throughout the NBA. You don't have to look very far.