A Column of Enchantment: Dean Smith, Jerry Tarkanian & Why We Root For Who

Posted by Joseph Nardone on February 12th, 2015

It is a bittersweet week to be a college basketball fan. Heck, not even just for college basketball fans, but for people who love sports or love good people and/or interesting characters. The biggest story, obviously, is that the sport lost one of its most important, endearing and historical figure this week in Dean Smith. That’s not it, though. Another legendary coach, Jerry Tarkanian, lost his life on Wednesday in a Las Vegas hospital.

Dean Smith With Michael Jordan in the Early 1980s

Dean Smith With Michael Jordan in the Early 1980s

Many people have already weighed in on the importance of Dean Smith in far better essays than anything I could ever possibly write. I am basically a bad joke-smith, so you will have to forgive me for not even attempting to write something as elegant as other folks’ work out there. I suggest you use the Google device to find such wonderful articles. Still, I’ll attempt to tell a story related to him and why I hated the “coach” part of him in my younger years before becoming old enough to realize how he was a man among boys and used his influence — even before he really had any to wield — to make an everlasting impact on the state of North Carolina and humans everywhere.


One of my best friends growing up was a huge North Carolina fan. I never had any problems with UNC on my end, but my friend and I were hugely competitive as far as any sort of competition went. Whether it was video games (NFL Gameday was better than Madden at the time of our peak rivalry), one-on-one pickup games or vying for the affection of whoever we deemed crush-worthy. Looking back on it, it was all very silly, but let’s be clear about one thing; I won almost every time (I’m telling the story so f-him!).

I grew up a St. John’s fan. There was never really any reason for me to dislike UNC because of that. The Tar Heels played in the ACC and St. John’s in the Big East and the two teams very rarely played. However, what we did do — more often than I’d like to admit — was pretend we were whoever our particular favorite players were at the time and play one-on-one while doing so. It should be noted, though, that whatever player we picked, we then had to play his “style” of game. Example (I’ll choose an easy one that most will understand): If one of us were Marshall Henderson we would have to hurl shots from 25 feet out, regardless of circumstance, and kind of flail around while doing it.

I can’t remember the exact year (I think around 1998), but I do remember the players picked. He chose Antawn Jamison, then a junior going pro and an all-around, do it all type of college player, while I chose Bootsy Thornton, an incoming freshman who we read (at the time) relied heavily upon jumpers. This is where I should probably mention that I was about four inches taller than him with a lot more strength but an iffy-at-best jumper. Basically, my friend got to play however he wanted since Jamison could do it all in college, and I, well, had to take a lot of jumpers. Ugh.

Other rules of the contest were pretty simple. We would play to 50 (damn ambitious kids); twos were worth one point and threes worth two; each guy was allotted three timeouts and halftime was when someone scored 25 points first. The fouls were called by yourself, yet we never called one on each other since stuff like that is for losers. The game was for a dollar a point difference. If you lost by 20 then you owe $20. Pretty simple math. Generally, games were never decided by more than four or five points — which was a good thing because it was our parents’ money. Okay, so let me get to the part as to how I ended up hating UNC and then Dean Smith through the transitive property of my apparently sh—y best friend.

Antawn Jamison Made Me Hate Dean Smith (Sorta).

Antawn Jamison Made Me Hate Dean Smith (Sorta).

It would be a lie if I pretended to remember the exact score, but it was close and the game was almost over. My friend called his last timeout so he could “draw up a play” after talking to Jamison’s coach (also played by himself, obviously) on the sideline, Dean Smith. No real play was drawn up. My friend hurled a fadeaway three (two-pointer) from about 88 billion feet from the basket and he made it to win the game. That was the very first — and only — time I ever lost to him playing one-on-one hoops (he did win with the ladies more than me, though. Sigh.).

I remember asking him why he thought that a stupid play like that would work or however the hell I phrased it. He had an insane look in his eyes, not only knowing he had my two or three dollars but that I was probably super furious because the only thing I hated more than losing was not having the chance to rub someone’s face in their own loss, and yelled something along the lines, “The GREAT DEAN SMITH DREW IT UP, JOE! YOU CAN”T {EXPLETIVE} WITH DEAN SMITH!”

After that I hated Dean Smith.


Jerry Tarkanian is a coach that I only kind of remember as I kid. I know now through reading, the picture-box, etc., that Tark was all that and a bag of chips, but as a youngster growing up about as far from UNLV as possible I only knew him as the guy who was attempting to eat his towel and my father hated for some reason (I’m pretty sure my dad is a closet Jim Boeheim fan, for whatever that’s worth). So I don’t have any super uninteresting story as to why I hate or love him.

What I did want to do is just acknowledge him. That I think to people outside who love college basketball as much as their kids might have lost him in the shuffled history that can be coaching legends. Everyone knows Coach K, Dean Smith, John Wooden, but some guys fall through the cracks for one reason or another. I don’t necessarily think that is the case for Tark, especially to those on the West Coast, but the stuff he did with recruiting over two decades ago was rather revolutionary at the time. I don’t even care how he got them to go play for him, either.

University of Nevada Las Vegas vs Duke University, 1990 NCAA National Championship

Tark the Shark Celebrates His 1990 National Championship (SI)

Sprinkles are for winners and Tark was a winner. Hopefully his god has enough up in his heaven for him. If he doesn’t, though, I am sure he can talk his way into getting some more allotted to him. I’ll just leave this quote from him here too. This is why, despite me never really knowing anything about him when he coached while I was a kid, that I like to think we could have been best friends.

“The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky they’re going to give Cleveland State another year of probation” – Jerry Tarkanian


Now, far less historical and sad stuff. This is something I am sincerely curious about. Outside of going to school at a certain place or living so close to it you couldn’t ignore it, how does one become a fan of a certain college basketball team? I mean that. I know how I became a fan of St. John’s, but how did you become loyal to the University of Broken Dreams? Also, at what age are we/you locked into not being able to jump from team to team? For me, I was always a Big East fan because of my father. Again, he bashed Syracuse so often that — even without ever admitting it — I am pretty sure that was “his team.” We used to go to the Garden, postseason NIT and a lot of other games as a kid. Most of them were not Syracuse, though, rather St. John’s. They were the closest to our house and my father and I followed the Big East closely, so I guess it made sense for preteen me to go with him to those games. So, I became a default St. John’s fan because I saw them play a lot as a kid with my dad — and, well, f-you, Dad!

Jim Boeheim Isn't Dead But Nardone's Dad (AP)

Jim Boeheim Isn’t Dead But Dad Had a Lot to Say About Him (AP)

Seriously, he couldn’t have taken me to go watch a better basketball program? I’m not retroactively suggesting that he take a time machine, move to Raleigh and force me to go to Duke and/or UNC games often (that would be ideal, though), but the gosh slam St. John’s Redmen?! Chris Mullin wasn’t even on the team when we first started going. My first memories of the team when I can actually recall the names of players were from the Thornton, Ron Artest, Lavar Postell, etc., era. Even then, though, this wasn’t a perennial power. Don’t get me wrong. They were good, but not Duke, UNC, Syracuse good. For jeeper creeper’s sakes, I didn’t even get to witness Uncle Lou in his supposedly glorious sweaters! F-you, Dad AND Mike Jarvis. F-you both to hell.

I did end up being locked in on that program, though. I am a loyalist to a fault. It was pretty easy in the beginning because St. John’s was a good program at the time. Nevertheless, it has been a long time since little Joseph from his mother’s womb was able to believe in his program regularly doing well. All of that makes me curious as to how non-alumni or locals became fans of their favorite teams, or if they jumped ship after they realized Valpo wasn’t an annual contender, or if they just followed Rick Pitino to wherever he hoo-ha-ed next. Tell me. Is it too late to jump ship? Don’t tell me on Twitter though because I don’t like any of you enough to look at my mentions in enough detail. Tell me in the comments below or something. I mean, I probably won’t look there either, but you guys discuss among yourselves. Eh, I digress. Basketball — kind of.

Joseph Nardone (22 Posts)

Joseph has covered college basketball both (barely) professionally and otherwise for over five years. A Column of Enchantment for Rush The Court on Thursdays and other basketball stuff for The Student Section on other days.

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