No, I can’t say I was a friend of Dean Smith. But he was a friend to me, more than once. The U. North Carolina coaching legend accepted to play a game vs. my Chile National Basketball team on 10 November 1972. Of course, they were way too much for us, winning by a score of something like 126-62. But he gave us our first taste of big-time basketball, which would help us, later, in the Worlds and South Americans. And, when I told other schools UNC was playing us, they thought, “Well, if Dean Smith is playing them, we’ll play them.” It was a huge help to our program.
In 1974-75, my American player for Virtus Bologna was Tom McMillen, who had originally declared for North Carolina and then decided on Maryland. Dean Smith came to Milan for a coaching clinic and Tom and I had lunch with him. He put us both at ease and they talked like old friends, with no sign of any bad feelings. Tom had just the greatest respect for Dean Smith. And, though he played his heart out for Maryland, I had the feeling he regretted not playing for Smith. It was a lesson to me that life goes on and that relationships can last forever.
In 1975-76, we won the national title with Virtus Bologna (with Terry Driscoll as our US player). I thought I knew a bit about coaching. Then, in 1976, Dean Smith had his USA team in preparation for the Olympics and played an exhibiton game vs. the Denver Nuggets. His guard, Phil Ford, made the worst play I’d ever seen: forced drive, turnover, foul at the other end for a three-point play. I thought, “Man, Dean Smith will be all over Ford.” Smith. “Aaaah, Phil. Two.” Meaning ‘2’ play. The previous play was over for him. No looking back. Another lesson.
In 1986, we signed future Hall of Fame inductee Bob McAdoo for our Olympia Milan team. I had recruited Bob for four summers with no luck. I finally said, “Bob, what does Dean Smith say?” He called Smith and Dean said, “It’s time for you to try this experience.” Bob took us to the Grand Slam: Italy Cup, Italian Playoffs, European Cup. Two years after that, Dean was in Milan for a clinic. I went to see him, shake his hand and thank him for all he’d done for me, especially Bob McAdoo. I will miss him. As will everyone else. UNC-Chile; Tom McMillen; Ford & Smith; McAdoo.