The recent passing of Dean Smith at the age of 83 on Feb. 7 connected me once again to my namesake. My life has been a pleasant journey into the throes of irony because of his name and his legendary career.
As the son of a college basketball coach, I am thankful to have the same first and last name of one of the greatest coaches of all time. I watched Coach Smith’s teams run their vaunted four corners offense as a young Terrapin fan and read his books about basketball. In our basketball family, we looked up to him and studied his teams on Saturday afternoons from Carmichael auditorium on a black-and-white television.
I played high school basketball and as a point guard ran Smith’s four corner offense during practice. It was designed to run out the clock but it was also deceptive and potent as it could lull a defense to sleep, creating drives to the basket and back door opportunities.
Phil Ford was my favorite Tar Heel. I also liked Bobby Jones, Walter Davis, James Worthy and John Kuester. Michael Jordan was more of a Chicago Bull to me than a Tar Heel.
Throughout my life I get asked the question about my name. I immediately respond to these inquiries with “I am a Dean, and not connected to The Dean.”
I wondered what life was like for all of the Adolph Rupps, John Woodens, Bobby Knights, John Thompsons, Phil Jacksons and Hank Ibas who were not the coaches. I’m fairly sure there might only be one Mike Krzyzewski.
My Irish father, James “Snuffy” Smith certainly knew what he was doing when he suggested that I be named Dean Smith. His Italian father-in-law, Dino Bartoli wanted the first-born grandson to be named after him. In September of 1963 neither family was ready for a “Dino Smith” –though that sounds cool to me. Dad had played college basketball at the University of Baltimore and was about to embark on a coaching career of his own.
He suggested a compromise that he had encountered numerous times within the sports pages of the Baltimore Sun and the News American whenever Maryland played the team from Chapel Hill, NC. The Tar Heel coach was about to begin his third season. My father won awards as a sales manager for Esso and he used these sales techniques to recruit great players for the University of Baltimore, Wheeling College, Johns Hopkins University, UMBC and VCU over a twenty-year career.
My dad is my favorite coach.
A few years back I decided to further differentiate myself as a writer by keeping my grandfather’s last name “Bartoli” as my middle name. Baltimore writer Rafael Alvarez inserted it under a photo I took for a Baltimore Examiner newspaper travel story about Los Cabos that he was working on. I’ve kept “Dean Bartoli Smith” there because it celebrates my grandfather who worked the nightshift as a yardmaster at Sparrow’s Point and played minor league baseball in the 1930s. He took me to Oriole games and taught me to make contact with a simple phrase repeated many times, “Swing level, hit line drives.”
I’ve also kept it there because any search on “Dean Smith” returns millions of hits about the Tar Heel legend. The Dean’s brand is strong.
When I checked into the Kenan-Flagler Center at UNC a few years ago for a conference, they admitted they thought I could be the coach. He’d used different addresses while traveling. Coaching my children’s sports teams here in Baltimore, parents have often come up to me and told me how happy they were that their child was being coached by someone named “Dean Smith.” My research over the years has confirmed that if I ever wanted to live in North Carolina, I would be interviewed for jobs based solely on my name.
The name has made my life more enjoyable, but the moniker has also had its humbling moments.
During my second year at the University of Virginia, I was attending a tip-off tournament with my dad in University Hall. My dad was an assistant at VCU with Tubby Smith at the time. They’d lost the opening game against Fairfield and we were watching Virginia and Ralph Sampson play in the championship game. At halftime, my mother’s ticket was called to shoot foul shots for $100 each. She gave it to me.
I hadn’t thought about my name as I walked toward the foul line. I didn’t know that UVA coach Terry Holland had a dog named “Dean Smith.” In high school, I made 21 foul shots in a row to make the freshman team. Once during the halftime of a UMBC game, I had launched a basketball through the net from half court and won $50.
As I walked across the well-lit court I heard the announcer’s voice.
“You’re not going to believe this! The next contestant’s name is Dean Smith!”
When he said my name, the place erupted and my knees started to tremble. Arms were waving from behind the glass backboard. I was too strong on the first shot and it bounced high off the iron. I was short on the second and then long again on the third. I went 0-3.
The crowd was on their feet cheering.
My basketball career had officially ended and Coach Smith had something to do with it.
That’s when I started writing.
Thanks for your lessons, coach.
Born and raised in Baltimore, Dean Bartoli Smith is the author of NEVER EASY, NEVER PRETTY: A Fan. A City. A Championship Season (Temple University Press, 2013) and a contributor to the 2nd Edition of Ted Patterson’s FOOTBALL IN BALTIMORE (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).
He attended Loyola High School and graduated from Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Illinois. He majored in English at the University of Virginia and received an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. He is director of Project MUSE at The Johns Hopkins University, a leading provider of digital humanities and social science content for the scholarly community.
His poetry has appeared in Poetry East, Open City, Beltway, The Pearl, The Charlotte Review, Gulf Stream, and upstreet among others. His book of poems, American Boy, won the 2000 Washington Writer’s Prize and was also awarded the Maryland Prize for Literature in 2001 for the best book published by a Maryland writer over the past three years.
He writes sports for Press Box and Baltimore Brew.