Although we had heard about this, it's not something that we wanted to talk about, certainly not on our own, although it has been quietly understood for some time: Dean Smith is not a well man.
We don't know exactly what his diagnosis is, but he's losing his ability to recognize people he's known for years.
When UNC had their 100 years of basketball celebration earlier this year, we kind of had the feeling that it was also Smith's public farewell.
While Smith was frequently infuriating as a coach, where his great strengths of loyalty sometimes came across as petty or vindictive to opponents, even Duke fans can see and appreciate his devotion to his team and to his players, and in turn, theirs to him.
His public humility at times seemed an act -- you cannot do the things he did without a substantial and very healthy ego -- but like Coach K, he is, we suspect, misunderstood not simply by fans of other schools but in many ways by his adoring fans.
No one would disagree with this statement: Smith is not a simple or uncomplicated man, and the emotions which he generates in others are complex. We remember one account of an ACC coaches meeting where Lefty Driesell, after Smith stepped out, told the other coaches "we've got to get that guy."
Only his words were probably a little less delicate.
Near the end of his life, former State coach Norm Sloan came to terms with what his competitive nature cost him with his colleagues. We recall reading a story of his approaching Smith on the golf course and finally dealing with him, not as the hated UNC coach, or nemesis, but simply as another man.
This was apparently not easy for him. What happens when you realize that your passion can blind you, that the virtue of single-minded focus is paid for by what you don't focus on?
Our guess, although we could be wrong, is that Smith had a better balance and a healthier perspective, than did Sloan.
As far as the rest of us go, we sincerely hope that Duke fans can put aside the emotions of the rivalry and extend sympathies to the remarkable former coach of our great and formidable rival, the University of North Carolina.
Anyone at this point who can't find some compassion for Smith is beyond the pale. His part of the rivalry is over, and if we are honest, Duke fans should thank him for everything he did to help build it into the greatest rivalry in college sports. He is no more perfect than the rest of us, but he is a talented and compelling figure. It's very sad that we are losing him.
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