BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - The following is a commentary blog from FOX6 Sports Director Rick Karle:
Maybe I was just too young. You see, when you are a cocky 29-year-old thinking of yourself as the next hot-shot SportsCenter anchor, you don't have time to soak it all in. But as the years wear on, you take time to reflect on the more exciting moments of your career. Oh, I'm not done yet, but I've been in the TV business long enough to have had the fortune of meeting some of the biggest names in sports. Yucking it up at a gas station with Michael Jordan... Having a beer with Arnold Palmer... Shamelessly using my girlfriend for bait to interview Ted Williams... driving way too fast to keep my appointment with Bobby Orr... Seeing my wife sit with Muhammad Ali... and being asked by Charles Barkley if I could stay late in Atlanta to hang in Buckhead, it's been an adventure. And one memory that will never leave me? Covering Dean Smith at the NCAA Tournament back in 1987.
I usually don't get too nervous when I see the rich and the famous, but there he was: The legendary North Carolina basketball coach pacing back and forth outside his team's locker room as the Tar Heels were about to take the court for their tournament game against Notre Dame. You see, I was in East Rutherford, NJ to cover the Florida Gators for the CBS TV station in Jacksonville. While the Gators (Vernon Maxwell, Dwayne Schintzius and friends) would play Syracuse in the other regional semi-final, there he stood in a cloud of smoke. The bowels of the facility had cleared, as players from both teams were already on the court. Dean Smith? There he paced, furiously inhaling one cigarette after another (he was a two-pack-a-day man). He didn't notice me or the few others who had yet to walk into the arena. Breathing in one last time, he tossed his cigarette to the floor and walked onto the court amid thundering applause.
Smith's Tar Heels had mixed results that weekend, beating Notre Dame 74-68 and then losing to Syracuse 79-75. And in defeat, I learned from Dean Smith the art of humility. Even in defeat the coaching legend was patient and classy, answering each question with deep thought. To that point in my career, I had never seen a coach behave so brilliantly in defeat, and the thought quickly came to me: "If I ever face adversity like that I hope I can find the silver lining".
Two days after arriving back in Jacksonville, I was hit with a heaping dose of adversity with my doctor's confirmation: I had testicular cancer (that'll leave a mark on a young guy who was married two years prior). Radiation? It wasn't working, so I was hit hard with chemotherapy. Soon to be gone was my hair and about twenty pounds. I thought of Dean Smith. Thought of how he would handle adversity. And what'ya know, I made it through just fine. Sure I wore a wig on the air for a few months upon my return (yes, my hair today is the real deal), but twenty-eight years later? I'm still here, married now for 31 years, the father of two great kids.
I never knew Dean Smith personally, but I would imagine that his 879 wins, two national championships, eleven Final Fours and his Olympic gold medal weren't as important to him as the relationships he built and the family he loved. And what will I remember about that long weekend in 1987? I learned from a master about how to get through tough times. I learned that life is not always easy. And I learned that I was really glad I took that trip to New Jersey.