When the big moment comes for Dean Smith at the White House on Wednesday, he will not be there. The ravages of age and time on his health have made that impossible.
And yet, he might be robbed of his memory, but not this moment. He is to be one of 16 new winners of the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest honor this nation bestows on a civilian. And if he cannot be there when President Obama calls his name, his wife and children can. Plus two familiar faces, forever attached to him from Smith’s golden days at North Carolina. Men with hearts split in two on Wednesday -- thrilled to help represent their mentor on such a day, but crushed at the face who will be missing.
Roy Williams apprenticed under Smith for more than a decade, and now is the carrier of the Tar Heel torch as head coach.
"There’ll be so much pride and joy and a feeling of satisfaction that this is so fitting," Williams said Monday. "But at the same time, I’ll be very sad. I would rather see him there, shaking his head, saying no, we don’t need to do this. He would be trying to avoid the whole moment."
Bill Guthridge, an assistant and friend for so long, followed Smith as the North Carolina coach.
"I wish he could be there," Guthridge said. "He would certainly be praising other people that were associated with him. He wouldn’t be praising himself, that’s for sure. We all have to do that."
Wednesday’s honoree list is a varied group of 16 glittering names. From former president Bill Clinton to former Chicago Cub Ernie Banks. From cultural icon Oprah Winfrey to country star icon Loretta Lynn. From Gloria Steinem, who represented the potential of women on the ground, to the late Sally Ride, who represented the potential of women in space.
And Dean Smith. The medal has gone to more than 500 people, but precious few college coaches. Only true legends, please. John Wooden. Pat Summitt, Bear Bryant.
To be sure, Smith is not included Wednesday solely on the glory of 879 wins or 11 Final Four trips or two national championships.
There was so much more to him, as a man who spoke for equality and backed up his words with actions, amid the steamy tumult of the 1960s. The White House press release noted that Smith graduated 96 percent of his players and “remained a dedicated civil rights advocate throughout his career.”
Williams and Guthridge knew Smith well enough to understand that this legacy is more complex than staying atop the ACC standings.
"Every basketball coach has great causes and things to do," Williams said. "What Coach did and attempted to do in a very difficult period off the court is greater than any coach has ever done.
"I’ll be thrilled to be there to help honor a great man, not honor a great basketball coach. A man who tried to effect change during a very difficult time in our history, and tried to care about people, not just if you were shooting the ball with your elbow flying out."
Added Guthridge, "He was as good or better than anybody I know at dealing with those things."
The family statement about Smith’s condition in 2010 mentioned a “progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory.”
Whatever the actual cause or name, it has meant growing darkness. And old friend’s words of helpless hurt carry as powerful a tribute to the man as any White House medal.
“The last couple of years have been really bad,” Guthridge said. “We were together for 33 years. He was so smart, he could remember everything.”
In Williams’ visits with Smith, there is growing uncertainty what is understood, what is lost.
Dean Smith will be at the White House Wednesday, if not in person, then in name and aura and record and impact. He will be there in the minds of two men who accompanied him across the years.
"There will be some sadness. The way I’ll get past that is to look at his wife and children and see the pride they will have," Williams said. "I’ll be sad that it didn’t happen when he still knew everything that was going on. He was one of the brightest men I’ll ever know in my life, one of the proudest men I’ve ever known in my life."
The Tar Heels lost a tough game Sunday against Belmont. If Smith could, he would be reassuring Williams, telling him things would be OK, just stay the course. "I’m going to be thinking," Williams said, "what he would be saying to me."
Smith coached the 1976 gold medal U.S. Olympic team, and Guthridge was an assistant. Together, they attended a White House reception for that team.
What memories the two could share Wednesday.
"Dean’s the one we all worshipped," Guthridge said. They will be there to honor Dean Smith at the White House Wednesday. And to miss him.