Sunday, February 8, 2015


Column: Sadly, Alzheimer’s wins again

In this photo from Dec. 8, 2006, former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith answers questions during a news conference in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Smith died Saturday night at the age of 83.

In this photo from Dec. 8, 2006, former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith answers questions during a news conference in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Smith died Saturday night at the age of 83.


The 60-year anniversary celebration of Kansas University’s 1952 basketball national title was coming up, and Roy Williams sent word through Lawrence friends that he would like to tell the story of why he left Kansas so that his mentor Dean Smith would receive the warm reception he deserved from the Allen Fieldhouse crowd.

“I felt I gave 15 years of my heart, body and soul and said no to go home the first time,” Williams told me over the phone, one week shy of seven years ago. “Then my own situation changed. We changed athletic directors. That made a huge, huge, huger-than-huge difference. My dad was struggling and died a year later. My sister started to struggle and was going into assisted living with Alzheimer’s. It boiled down to, No. 1, the last two years the whole job changed. No. 2, I was going back home. No. 3, personal things. I didn’t want to be the rich little brother sending checks home.”

In other words, Roy Williams made the decision, not Dean Smith.

Roy’s mentor, who rode the bench for KU’s 1952 national-title team, received the ovation he deserved in Allen Fieldhouse, 50 years later.

Not long after my conversation with Williams, Alzheimer’s wormed its way into his life again by setting its relentless, deliberate fangs into Smith’s mind.

The disease typically starts with depression, moves to a mix of agitation and confusion and gradually robs the patient of his or her memory and personality. In so many ways, it’s as relentlessly cruel to the loved ones of the afflicted. The legendary coach born in Emporia and educated at Topeka High had so many of those.

Smith won 13 ACC tournament-title games, 11 Elite Eight contests, two national-title battles and an Olympic Gold medal. But there is no winning against Alzheimer’s. It’s undefeated.

Fundraising efforts for research move almost as slowly as the disease itself. Why? Because there are no grateful patients to tell inspiring tales of recovery.

To make a tax-deductable donation to Alzheimer’s research, call 1.800.272.3900, or visit To donate by snail mail, send a check to:

Alzheimer’s Association

P.O. Box 96011

Washington, DC 20090-6011.

Appropriately, the stories told Sunday across the country about the coaching legend who died Saturday at 83 involved his healthy years.

Jerry Waugh of Lawrence said he was a senior on the basketball team when Smith was a sophomore.

“Dean would take the tail-enders, go to the other end of the floor and run, say, the Oklahoma cut,” Waugh said. “He would be in charge of running the Oklahoma offense against the varsity, and he did a lot of that during his time here. He seemed to like doing those things, and he would do a good job with it. Coach (Dick) Harp (assistant to Phog Allen) would give him all the information and send him to the other end of the floor and let him work it out.”

Clearly, Smith was born to coach.

“His father was a coach,” Waugh said. “So Dean had a natural bend for those kinds of things.”

Through the years, many talked of Smith’s uncanny memory for names, game details from decades past, you name it, he remembered it. So many happy memories gave way to such a sad disease. There are no happy tales to tell about Alzheimer’s.


Brian Anderson 7 years, 4 months ago

This story makes no sense, I think because the 50-year date is incorrect. Could it have been a 60-yr anniversary? Roy didn't leave until 2003.

Jack Jones 7 years, 4 months ago

I am so glad someone "thought" they had grasped the most important content in this story. Wrong again ~ in more than one way.

Brian Anderson 7 years, 4 months ago

Jack has bestowed me with plural existence. Excellent. Not sure where I claimed to be commenting on the "most important content." Keegan appears to be trying to rehabilitate Dean away from the UNC/Dean stole Roy narrative. In doing so he offers a jumbled array of dates and times that would have Roy explaining why he left Kansas prior to his leaving Kansas and prior to 50-yr anniversary of '52 champion team. For some reason the conversation with Roy Keegan references took place "one week shy of seven years ago" (in mid-February 2008). I'm sure, given his long history of covering the team, that Mr. Keegan might have useful information that sheds light on why Dean Smith should not be resented for Roy's departure; however, as it is presented here, it's incomprehensible. As for the "important content" I get it... Dean GOOD. Alzheimer's BAD. That's pretty obvious, what reduces the power of the simple message is the context provided is haphazard/jumbled.

Nathan Scholl 7 years, 4 months ago

Uhhh, Brian....1952 plus 50 years equals 2002. Just saying....R.I.P. Coach Smith. Hoy Hoy Mighty Troy, Topeka High! Rock Chalk, respect to your Tar-Heels. We've lost one of the TRUE gentleman of the game.

Brian Anderson 7 years, 4 months ago

Yeah, Nathan, I got that. Which is exactly why it doesn't make sense. Thank you for your mathematical clarification. I'm afraid it doesn't clarify, however.

Suzi Marshall 7 years, 4 months ago

Neurodegenerative disorders is the most difficult things to deal with as we age. We all should take note of the projected numbers for those affected by and cost of Alzheimer.

1) Stanford School of Medicine -

2) Stem Cell progress can be found on -

Alzheimer Trajectory Report issued by the Association referenced in the article -

I loved Smith for his honest and passionate care he had for his players and affections he always carried for Kansas Basketball. I have never been able to understand how the "Williams to UNC" leaks came about in '03 while preparing for the NC game.

Rodney Crain 7 years, 4 months ago

I am one week away from finishing my 6 week online course at John Hopkins on Alzheimer's. 50 hours of lectures, and tests which is a lot for a layman.

Due to a close family member being recently diagnoised with dementia, I have become educated over the last 6 weeks to this quiet killer that walks among us.

The depth of its affect, compared to how little has been done to understand it and treat it, are sobering to say the least.

I always had respect for Coach Smith. He will be missed.

I also would like to honor those who cared for him. As one just starting that long walk with someone, it can be quite daunting. I wish them strength as they deal with their loss.

Dirk Medema 7 years, 4 months ago

ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease, is much the same way. Watched/Tried to help a friend fight against that one. He made it about 5 years, which is incredibly long. There are no winners in that battle either.

Robert Brown 7 years, 4 months ago

It had to be 60 year anniversary since Roy was coaching during the 50 year anniversary. Interesting and touching perspective why Roy left. Clearly, through the years, some have made Dean Smith a villian in getting Roy to move to UNC. That was probably not a fair characterization.

Jeff Kilgore 7 years, 4 months ago

The title is misleading. "Alzheimer's" is not some outside entity that fights us. Nor is cancer. We are Alzheimer, just as we are cancer, scary as that is. Living to age 83 beats the US average by five years or so, and worldwide, probably 20 to 25 years. Sadly, to look at situation objectively, Coach Smith died of old age.

Rodney Crain 7 years, 4 months ago

No idea what you are saying, this makes no sense.

Jeff Kilgore 7 years, 4 months ago

I read below that your family lost a loved one who suffered Alzheimer's and I am sorry about that. The point I made is that the title is misleading. No one was "lost" to Alzheimer's.

Alzheimer's is not some outside entity that invades us, and understanding it that way is erroneous. If one were to discuss the disease objectively, it might be helpful to state that chain smoking is detrimental to the brain and may have led to Coach's death.

As it is, he did outlive most men on the planet, and good for him in doing so.

Rodney Crain 7 years, 4 months ago

I appreciate you respectful reply, I will do so in kind.

I do not understand your view on Alzheimer's, and that is ok. I do not believe we are Alzheimer's or cancer, nor that coach Smith died of old age. Objectively or not it would be erroneous to look at it this way too.

Walter Bridges 7 years, 4 months ago

"We are Alzheimer"? Cancer is not an outside entity?

Ever hear of mesothelioma? These diseases and causes still aren't understood.

Doug Longstaff 7 years, 4 months ago

Not to make light of a sad disease, but I almost wonder if the author is trying to demonstrate what it does the memory by his first paragraph. Roy was STILL THE COACH at the 50th Anniversary celebration. What he wanted people to do then was to welcome Dean even though Dean had TRIED to recruit him away after the 2000 season. The author is confusing two stories--the 50th anniversary (in 2002) and the 60th anniversary of the Field House just this season).

ABOUT THE grandfather had it, died at 89. I RESENT the idea that there are no happy tales about the disease. I watched my grandfather's memory slip way, which was horribly sad. But I watched my parents take him into their home. I watched my father lovingly carry his old dad up and down the stairs, give him baths and a comfortable place to rest. With more or less degrees of patience from all parties, Grandpa showed me what it was like to grow old (which is normal when you're, you know, 80+) in the loving embrace of his family.

Death comes for us all. It seldom comes clean. But even when it's rough, it can still be beautiful.

Cody Riedy 7 years, 4 months ago

It truly is fantastic in so many ways that your family was able to care for your grandfather themselves at home. But of course, for many families such an arrangement would be very difficult beyond the obvious difficulties of nursing someone: most families require two adults to be working, so either people have to be able to quit working, find different jobs or different shifts, or be able to pay for a nurse to be in the house during the day, which if a family can afford that, then they can afford to have someone stay at home and not work in the first place. Plus, these types of neurological diseases can set in very early for some people, meaning that they can need many years of care. I guess my point is that your happy story isn't so much about the disease but about the ideal of family care and a more natural, holistic approach to death and dying. Again, it is a happy story in a way, but probably for many people, one difficult to replicate even if they are willing to sacrifice to provide care for their loved one.

Doug Longstaff 7 years, 4 months ago

Right. Not saying every ending is a happy one. The author suggested there are "no" happy stories, and I disagree with this. He's painting with a broad brush.

I also disagree with the premise that Dean't death is some kind of tragic ending. Alzheimer's or demensia and the like are horrible things when they come on at a young age. Past 70,'s just normal to expect functions of the body (including the mind) to decline.

But you are right. Not everyone is willing or able to create the environment my parents did for my grandfather. But it does happen.

Tom Jones 7 years, 4 months ago

He was a very good coach. A little rigid, just like his protege, Roy, but a very good coach nonetheless.

Kristen Downing 7 years, 4 months ago

I think if you read a couple of the many tributes out there, his coaching was secondary to the type of person he was.

Rodney Crain 7 years, 4 months ago

Alzheimer’s is undefeated. Having family that has had versions of the disease it can be one of the most difficult things to deal with I have ever seen.

Deb Fitch 7 years, 4 months ago

Normally I hate the way people always criticize Keegan for his writing but I have to say this time I can't make sense out of this article. He WAS back for the 50 year anniversary. I was there and he had his powder blue suit on. We did give him a warm welcome. Then he did not end up coming back again. I believe the next celebration might of been in 2012 but by then Dean was already having trouble so his return was not expected.

Dale Rogers 7 years, 4 months ago

When Roy Williams left Kansas my wife and I were very upset. We both felt he left because 1. Al Bohl. That had to be a major factor. 2. His children were both in North Carolina. His son had graduated and was working in North Carolina. 3. His daughter was attending UNC. 4. Both his and Wanda's families are back there and are aging. 5. North Carolina is "home", just like Kansas will always be "home" to me (I live in another state).

If Bob Frederick had still been AD (they were very close) I think Roy Williams still would have left but the decision would have been far more difficult. Those of you who are old enough to remember how Al Bohl's jealousy of Williams' status spilled over into the media, the time, for example, when Bohl said something like "Roy Williams does not run the Athletic Department, I run it."

Titus Canby 7 years, 4 months ago

Rather than giving our best and brightest minds an incentive to fight diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's that suck the quality of life from extraordinary people and their families, we give them incentives to regularly create a new smart phone that will only last a year.

Planned obsolescence on both counts.

Keegan, thanks for a thoughtful column and an address to send donations to right this wrong.

Chad Dexter 7 years, 4 months ago

I think what people are forgetting is that some Kansas fans weren't mad at Smith because he lured Roy Williams away. It was because of the way he did it. Roy was in the middle of preparing for a Final Four run when Dean Smith was bugging him about that. Maybe it didn't take much to convince Roy due to all of those issues, but it was still a distraction.

John Randall 7 years, 4 months ago

I think nearly every American is simply unwilling to face and deal with the fact that every life ultimately leads to death.

Erich Hartmann 7 years, 4 months ago

Being in the medical profession, there is a too-long list of conditions and afflictions that medical science cannot cure yet--and this fact is painfully disheartening. There are 80yr olds swinging golf clubs, etc.., vs other 80yr olds that havent recognized their own spouse or children for years.

It saddens me to hear about Dean Smith's passing. It was also a punch to the gut to see the very aged, hunched-over Eddie Sutton standing out on Gallagher-Iba floor during the halftime event--I hadnt seen him for some time in public.

Do what we can for our loved ones/family members when they need us. Just as Roy wanted to be back for his family. I understand Roy's decision. Family should trump job, in the end.

RCJH, Dean Smith...RIP.

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