Chapel Hill, NC -- Dean Smith's office still has the lights on. The name is still on the desk, with mementos on the wall and pictures of his grandchildren on the shelves.
This is Monday morning, and he is scheduled to be in later, for he still usually visits the first three workdays each week. But there will be little conversation with anyone, because one of the greatest basketball coaches the game has ever seen now dwells in the darkness. He'll turn 82 later this month, and the "progressive neurocognitive disorder," as his family called it in a letter to the public in July 2010, is as merciless as it is relentless.
"Dean Smith could remember everything and everybody," his longtime assistant and friend and UNC successor Bill Guthridge is saying. "And now he can't.
"He has good days and bad days. But his good days aren't very good."
No disease can touch his aura, though. The pitfalls of the modern world have trapped and destroyed a good many legends. Lance Armstrong. Joe Paterno. Any number of would-be baseball Hall of Famers.
But Dean Smith is still Dean Smith, and always will be. A scandal-less and cloudless titan with 879 wins, whose only demerit is that maybe he could have won another championship or two. Does he understand how the legacy still resonates? "I'm not sure," Guthridge says. "It is very hard."
In a corner of the Dean E. Smith Center, where the Tar Heels play, the past still reports for duty. Current coach Roy Williams made very sure that when his office was renovated, room was made for a suite for North Carolina's yesterday.
So there is an office for Smith, who won his second and last title 20 years ago this spring and has been retired since 1997. It's next to the one for Guthridge, Smith's assistant for three decades and then head coach for three years and two Final Fours, and next to the one for Linda Woods, who was basketball secretary all that period.
Around her desk are boxes of letters and memorabilia that go back to 1961. The keepsake blossoms of a remarkable time.
"We're a family," Guthridge says, and to see them that way is at once uplifting and heartbreaking. "Very seldom do I ever get much of a conversation going with him. Linda orders some lunch for him, and he'll start nodding away, and then he goes home."
The roots for Guthridge, 75, and Smith stretch back to their ancestors in Kansas. Once, Smith dated Guthridge's sister. And now, they are still near one another at twilight, one unable to recognize the other on many days.
"I'll get emotional," Guthridge says, and who can blame him? He was by Smith's side for all those victories. By his side when Smith's memory was so limitless and amazing, as the time they were walking together and Smith called a passerby by name. Guthridge later asked Smith how he knew the man,
"About 10 years ago," Smith said, "I played golf at Charlotte Country Club with him."
When could Guthridge sense something was truly amiss? A few years ago, when Smith came to the office one day and parked his car right by the door. "That," Guthridge says, "was un-Dean.
"I think towards the end in the '90s, he was beginning to say, 'I can't remember that.' But he was still probably smarter than anybody else in coaching."
Guthridge gives a quick tour of Smith's office, describing items in a devoted voice. So many honors. So many memories. In a world where reputations can crumble like a sandcastle at high tide, no shadows have seeped in here, except for what damage that age has done.
What would Guthridge give to be able to talk about the old times with Smith?
"That would be fantastic," he says. "If I could spend a day with him, and we could reminisce. But that's not going to happen."
Outside the door, a phone rings and Woods answers. Another well-wisher checking on how Smith is doing. The calls come all the time now.
"He's hanging in there," she says.
Guthridge walks back to his office. His old friend should be in any time.
Written By: Mike Lopresti, USA Today