CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- They were all the rave three years ago, those former high school All-Americans who had enrolled at North Carolina. They were heralded as the greatest class ever, as future national champions, as the latest legends to appear on that mythical strip of asphalt known to all as Tobacco Road.
No superlative was too outrageous for this quintet, that is how it ++ was back then, and each was variously lauded for his size or his artistry or his precocious basketball acumen. "But the minute we got there, I'll never forget this," remembers forward Pat Sullivan, a member of that group.
"Coach [Dean] Smith took the five of us and we did this drill. A passing drill. You can't dribble, you just have to pass the ball. He called the veterans over and told them to run what we call motion. We had no idea, and the next thing we know, they had about 96 passes in a row and we had about 20. This was in front of [high school] coaches [on hand for a clinic], so he embarrassed us right there."
Right there, in the wake of this embarrassment, they would be forced to endure yet another when Smith sent them out to scrimmage against the veterans. "The highly touted freshmen against the upperclassmen," remembers center Eric Montross, another of the highly touted. He laughs at the memory. "We got crushed. We got pummeled. Basically, we didn't have a chance. They were doing back doors, doing all kinds of passes, setting screens we'd never seen before."
"As far as basketball was concerned," remembers Sullivan, "we knew how to play, but we really didn't. I still remember that game. We were all going one-on-one. But the veterans were zipping the ball around and laying it in on us."
And what is the aim of that exercise and embarrassment?
"First and foremost, it makes freshmen understand it's their first time through," says Kansas coach Roy Williams, who spent 10 years as Smith's assistant. "They've been 'The Man,' or close to 'The Man.' They've gotten all the attention and all the accolades. But there, number one, you have to understand it's a team game. You have to step back. There are other guys who've already done it on this level. You have to understand you haven't been successful on this level."
He is as consistent as a metronome, Dean Smith is, the constant caretaker of a basketball program that glows like some eternal flame. A record 19 straight times he and it have appeared in the NCAA tourney, and a record 13 straight times he and it have advanced to the Round of 16. He has more tourney appearances than any coach in history (23), more tourney victories than any coach in history (55), and more career victories (774) than any coach in history except Kentucky's late Adolph Rupp (who retired with 875).
But those numbers, despite their glitter, are hardly the story here, as Smith enters his 33rd season at North Carolina. It also matters little that his Tar Heels are the defending national champions, or that they are hugely talented and favored to win that title again. Those facts, instead, are mere adornments to the man, and to beliefs that have held steady through decades of tumult.
A "system," that is what Smith's way is conventionally called. A "philosophy," that is what Smith himself wishes it be called. "We change every year. That's why I dislike the term 'system.' We change offensively, defensively," is what he says while explaining his preference.
"I think it is a philosophy," says Montross, now a senior and a pre-season All-American. "System is too rigid a word. A philosophy adapts, a philosophy teaches, and there's a lot more to Coach Smith than just a system. It's everything from the way he conducts himself to the way we conduct ourselves."
Surely Smith, like all great coaches, adjusts to his talent, employs basketball schemes that best utilize his talent. But the root of his product never changes, and is as firmly a part of him as his bushy eyebrows and nasal twang and self-effacing manner.
Attention to detail
Teamwork, as Williams mentioned, is a large part of that root, as are other familiar saws like defense and chemistry and attention to detail. Before games, all Tar Heel players take off their warmup jackets at the same time. ("No one is above the system," Michael Jordan once said.) When those players go through their pre-game layup drill, a manager is there keeping track of the misses. (This is just one of a plethora of personal stats Smith has kept.) And somewhere, in some cabinet in his office, are the plans from every practice he has held. ("If we have a problem in a particular area, I can look back and see what we were doing another time," he explains.)
Minutes played are not listed on Carolina's stat sheets (could endanger harmony), and on its weekly releases players are listed alphabetically, not top scorer on down (engenders egalitarianism). Generally, at a post-game news conference, Smith first mentions players who did not star (more egalitarianism), and in the school's annual press guide, seniors (not All-Americans) appear first and are followed in order by juniors, sophomores and freshmen.
"It's almost like a hierarchal system," says Sullivan, and nowhere is that clearer than in the freshmen's place. They are the ones who carry the ball bags on road trips. They are the ones who chase loose balls in practice. They are the ones who drink last during a water break in practice. "They," continues Sullivan, "basically aren't called by name. They're pretty much called freshmen."
"All that helps bring them down to another level," adds senior center Kevin Salvadori. "It's a way for Coach Smith to say, 'High school's over with, you're starting over in my program and I can do whatever I want.'"
"I think as you go through, you do gain certain rights," concludes Montross. "I hate to use the term rite of passage. That sounds pretty harsh. But that's kind of it.
"Looking back on it as a freshman, obviously it wasn't the greatest not having a longer water break, it wasn't the greatest always having to chase loose balls or carry bags. But that isn't something I'd trade anything for because it helped me grow close to the team, it helped me work hard and hustle. I think all those things are there for a purpose."
They are all the rave this fall, the former high school All-Americans who are now freshmen at Carolina. One is a mobile center (Rasheed Wallace), the second is an accomplished point (Jeff McInnis), the third is called the state's best prep product since Jordan himself (forward Jerry Stackhouse), and now they are showered with those same superlatives that once fell on Montross and Sullivan, on senior point Derrick Phelps and senior forward Brian Reese.
Yet, like all the freshmen before them, they are mere neophytes learning new ways. Each has been given a job. Each has been embarrassed in that same passing drill that once embarrassed the current seniors. And, most significantly, each has learned how much he must learn about the system Smith insists all his teams play.
"They're starting almost from scratch," Salvadori says.
"They're a little bit lost," Sullivan says. "In a scrimmage situation, we set one screen or make one move without the ball, they're lost."
"But I think that's normal," says Montross. "Things that are second nature for us, they're learning for the first time. Things as easy as a defensive stance or a way to guard your man going across the lane -- things we do in a heartbeat, they're still doing step by step."
Still, Smith says even now, he likes these freshmen and anticipates that they will contribute in the season ahead. "This is the most quality offensive depth I've ever had," he says, but then bumps up against the single conundrum now facing him and the philosophy he has adhered to for so long.
"That's good news and bad news," Smith finally puts it. "The good news is the depth you have if you have injuries. But I've always felt if you have eight excellent players and the rest walk-ons, that's the best team. If you have great players from nine through 13, that's the downside to building chemistry.
"In January, I'm probably going to have to settle on eight, and some of our very good players won't be playing. So the good team chemistry we had last year will be hard to duplicate. That, to me, is the number one concern of mine.
"I think we have excellent personnel. I just hope we can get them playing together." And, he might well have said, to accept a system, a philosophy, as enduring and as successful as he is.