Over the past couple of weeks we’ve all heard about the memory loss to which former North Carolina coach Dean Smith has fallen victim. The subject was recently visited in an article that appeared in the Fayetteville Observer earlier this month, and John Feinstein soon followed up with a statement on his site regarding the matter, since he had worked with Smith on what now sounds like a abandoned project that was to be a book about the coach. The tragic irony — that Dean Smith, the very creator of so many college basketball memories for so many people, is now having trouble remembering parts of them — has been lost on nobody.
Then, over the weekend, Smith’s family sent a letter to his former players via current chief Roy Williams, a letter that served as an update on Smith’s condition, a note of appreciation, and a request for privacy. There are positives and negatives in the picture that’s painted, and the actual problem that Smith is having isn’t specifically named — on which more in a moment.
Smith is the second legendary coach we’ve seen in recent times who’s had to deal with a problem of this nature. Lute Olson, a man who’s face, voice, coaching style, and overall debonair still stand as symbols of Arizona Wildcat basketball, also dealt with issues of a neurological nature. Back in 2008, Olson underwent profound personality changes in a relatively short period of time, sometimes showing behaviors so inconsistent with his usual self that a subsequent MRI revealed a “previously undiagnosed” stroke as the causative factor.
Do not, however, make the mistake in assuming that Coach Smith’s situation is the same as Coach Olson’s, or that they will follow the same course. The scenarios are quite different. Olson’s behavioral change had a specific cause, but there doesn’t seem to be a specific reason cited to account for Smith’s spotty but evidently progressive memory loss. In Feinstein’s article, he mentions that both he and Coach Smith himself had noticed some changes in Smith in 2005, but that there was also a knee-replacement surgery in 2007 that had complications in the form of “neurological issues.” The words “Alzheimer’s Disease” have popped up in a couple of places (we are intentionally not linking them here), and while that would fit under the umbrella of what Smith’s family refers to as a “progressive neurocognitive disorder which affects his memory,” there are several other things that fit there, as well. We haven’t spoken directly to the family, haven’t examined Smith, and have no other data to use, so it might be a little early to make that diagnosis. There are at least 20 other disorders that could fall under that heading.