Their one shining moment, made famous when a Fab Fiver from Michigan turned forgetful in the final seconds of the championship game, is now bittersweet and ironic 20 years later because their coach can't remember any of it -- not even their names.
Not now. Not anymore. Not ever again.
On that North Carolina 1993 national championship team, Derrick Phelps learned the value of sacrifice from his coach. George Lynch picked up leadership skills. Eric Montross, a Paul Bunyonesque center, became an All-American. Those players, along with others on the squad, have all paid visits to their former mentor who still keeps an office on the Chapel Hill campus. They've reintroduced themselves, hoping for a sign, maybe an acknowledging nod from the man who changed their lives.
Instead, Dean Smith will give the same introductory smile he offers to strangers -- because in Smith's world, that's what most people have become. He has no recollection of coaching that 1993 team to a 34-4 record, or Chris Webber's timeout, or anything associated with his final and most unexpected NCAA championship, or any other Tar Heels season, for that matter.
Smith has Progressive Neurocognitive Disorder. That's what his family revealed with sadness three years ago when it was clear the coach was in a losing battle with a debilitating illness. It's a slow, torturous, evil, goddamn part about getting old. Much like Pat Summitt when she lost her grip on her ability to recall former players and championships, Smith finds it increasingly difficult to connect with his past. And that past, with 879 wins, two titles and hundreds of players who learned about basketball and life from his knee, is deeper and richer than most.
"What's really hard," said Lynch, "is that I was one of his favorite players, from what people told me, and the last time I saw him, I had to tell him my full name. 'George Lynch, coach.' That's what I said. He started studying my face. I could tell he was trying really hard to remember who I was. This is a man who knew my aunts and uncles by name when I was being recruited. When I started my own family, he learned all of my kids' names and knew my wife, just like that, the next time he saw them. It was one of the things coach was great at, the ability to never forget people. That's when his situation hit home with me. I felt sad for him, for myself, for everyone he ever knew or helped."
As March Madness begins another slow and heart-pumping buildup toward the first Monday in April when the next college basketball coronation will be held, another round of buzzer-beaters, hugs, tears, Dick Vitale sightings and clipped nets await. This is the game at its finest, when even the President gets bracket fever, when the tournament consumes students and professors and parents and gamblers and locks us inside a three-week trance. This is where Smith found himself almost every spring in a career that stretched four decades. Yeah, sure, maybe he could've won another championship or two. Yet there's no denying his program represented North Carolina and college basketball well, remaining free of scandal and away from police blotters.
It's the time of year when an 82-year-old ex-coach should be swapping stories and sharing his memories and bestowing his wisdom to a generation that desperately needs it. That's not going to happen. So instead, some members of his '93 team, realizing the gravity of the situation, are turning the tables. They've gone to the coach and told him stories. Imagine that. They've described what he meant to them and what he meant to that season, maybe the best he ever coached.
"It's not really like it's an obligation or anything like that," said Phelps. "It's something you want to do when you see him and get the chance. It's something he needs to hear. When we left school, he said his door always stays open and we could come by anytime."
Phelps remembers how he arrived on campus as a young man and four years later left a wiser man. Phelps was like many players who flocked to Smith. They wanted to win, they wanted to play for a legend and they had no idea how to blend into a system because, in high school, they were the system.
"I was a McDonald's All-American and just that whole process of coming to a place where almost everyone was a star in high school, it's something you had to get used to," Phelps said. "With coach Smith, you definitely learn how to place your ego aside and do what's best for the team, and that's with everyone."
Smith had teams with more talent that won less, and that's what made 1993 so unique. The Tar Heels weren't a dominant No. 1 by any stretch and weren't even in the same sentence with Jordan-Perkins-Worthy of 1982, his only other championship team. Kansas, Duke, Indiana and the Fab Five from Michigan had more weight in '93, and North Carolina was only ranked No. 1 for the final few weeks of the season.
But under Smith, they had a sense of belief, according to Montross, that anything was possible. Their vision was sharpened just before the season when Smith had mock copies made of the New Orleans Superdome scoreboard that read "North Carolina 1993 NCAA champions" and put one in each locker. The Final Four was at the Dome that year and the Heels had an instant and daily snapshot of what victory would look like if the right steps were followed.
"It was just a constant reminder, however subtle, about where we were headed that year," Montross said. "There was an absolute commitment from everyone and that started with Coach's belief in us."
The season went rather smoothly, save for a few burps; losing to Michigan at a holiday tournament on a Jalen Rose buzzer-beater, and then to Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament title game without an injured Phelps. The most frightening moment was also Smith's finest. It came in the regional final against Cincinnati with the score tied and 0.8 seconds left. Smith drew up a play the Heels had never practiced before, calling for Montross to pose as a decoy while Brian Reese sneaked in for the tip-in, which is about all anyone could manage in a fraction of a second.
"Now, Brian," said Smith in his final instructions in the huddle, "don't try to dunk the ball. You're not going to have time to gather yourself for that. Just tap it in."
Reese went for the dunk. Miss. Overtime. North Carolina eventually won, but still.
"Coach almost instinctively knew that would happen," Lynch said. "He can read a situation at any time and draw up a play in any pressure situation. He always had a great feel for the moment. In my years playing for him I never remembered leaving the huddle after he called a play wondering 'is this going to work?' We knew it would work. It was a matter of whether we executed it or not."
In the national title game the Heels were the smarter and more composed team and watched the Fab Five trip over their own baggy shorts. It was a coup for Smith, his final NCAA title, another gold brick for a legacy that saw him integrate the ACC and stay devoted to North Carolina for decades and build a lasting program through unimpeachable ethics. He was held in high regard by players, administrators, students, secretaries, even opposing coaches. Four years later, he retired. Several years after that, his memory started to slip. Faces, events, names, they became a challenge.
"A few years ago I went down there for a coach's clinic," said Phelps, an assistant at Monmouth College. "I saw him in his office, so in situations like that you just go in there and drop yourself in a chair and speak to him, like always. Usually it's, 'Hey Derrick, good to see you,' and he is still happy to see you, but he has no clue. I just talked to him for a few minutes, anyway. I filled him in on what I was doing. You're just happy that he's living his life as best he can live it. You still love the man."
Montross works down the hall at the Dean Smith Center, as the radio color commentator for the Heels and also helping with fundraising efforts. He makes a point to drop by whenever Smith is in the building, which is less and less these days.
"Coach will always be Coach, a mentor and friend we all look up to," Montross said. "As far as his condition, that really doesn't change or affect the enjoyment I get from seeing him and interacting with him."
There was a reasonable belief by the players that the 1993 championship team would be the hardest for Smith to forget. They weren't his best but they played hard, weren't universally considered championship material when the season began. And they were his last. Has it really been 20 years? Seems like yesterday.
And so, whenever the chance arises, they tell him who they are, what they did, how it felt and what it meant to play for him that season.
"I think we all share the same interest to sit down with him, as much as anyone would with someone they care deeply for," said Montross. "You try to communicate but it's mostly for our own benefit. It's a natural, perfectly reasonable mode of behavior."
They quickly discover that Dean Smith is still there for them, as always, even when he isn't. As he promised, just come by any time. The door's open.