Fine Sports Illustrated salute to Dean Smith, yet haunted by one ghostly error

What we need here is a sports metaphor that will help me make a larger point about an amazing feature story that ran recently in Sports Illustrated, a tribute to the late, great University of North Carolina hoops coach Dean Smith.

This long and detailed piece story ran under the headline, "Hail and Farewell." The subhead provided the sad context: "Five years ago, amid his sad decline, the coach's former players and assistants found a way to say to him what he had always told them: Thank you."

I would love to link to this feature and share some of the finer points in it, in large part because both of my parents experienced dementia, of one form or another, in the last years of their lives. This SI story does a very sensitive job of dealing with the emotions involved in relating to loved ones caught in that bittersweet stage of life.

I would like to link to the piece, but I can't -- because it is behind a firewall, as is often the case with the best SI material (as opposed to swimsuit issue outtakes). I hope to add such a link in the future.

Anyway, my goal here is to praise this article, while also noting a really strange error at the end, during the crucial final passage. What I need here is a metaphor that links sports and religion to help readers understand the nature of this strange error.

Let's try this one, which uses a sports reference in a religion story, as opposed to this SI piece in which there is a timely religion reference in a sports story.

OK, let's say that you are reading a long, very detailed feature story about a world-famous preacher, like Tim Keller in New York City. It's a fine story and it offers all kinds of interesting and poignant insights into his life and work.

But right near the end, the article mentions this preacher being affected by reading a book written by -- this is the reference in my pretend article -- the "tennis player Jack Nicklaus."

At that moment, wouldn't you stop, puzzled, and say to yourself, "Wait a minute. Jack Nicklaus isn't a tennis player. He's a golfer. How could anyone mix that up?" You might even think, how could the team that produced this otherwise fantastic article include such a strange error of fact? You might conclude that the editors didn't take sports all that seriously. You might even think that this error indicates that the editors missed other sport-related themes in this otherwise fine piece.

What does this have to do with Dean Smith? The final anecdote in this piece describes a night in 1965 when Smith, as a young coach at UNC-Chapel Hill, crashed emotionally after a stunning 22-point loss to, of all schools, Wake Forest University. The players had even found "their coach hung in effigy" outside their own gym. The story then states:

Two years later Smith would reach his first 11 Final Fours, In another nine years he'd lead the U.S. to an Olympic gold medal, and by 1983 he'd be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. But in the aftermath of that moment outside the gym, somewhere in the bottom he had just hit, Smith found an unlikely strength.

Wait for it.

His sister, Joan, gave him a book by the theologian Catherine Marshall called Beyond Ourselves. From reading one chapter, 'The Power of Helplessness," Smith gradually accepted the futility of pretending that we can control the forces that act upon us. That realization proved to be both liberating and empowering, a glorious paradox alien to his chosen profession: Surrender and you shall be free.

But wait, the careful reader might say, Catherine Marshall wasn't a "theologian."

This famous scribe was a novelist and the writer of popular devotional -- evangelistic, even -- works for the laity, not weighty tomes of theology for academics. She was the wife of a powerful New York City evangelist and preacher (and U.S. Senate chaplain). Did the writer of the piece think, basically, that anyone who writes about God is a "theologian"? Was the goal to avoid calling her one of the superstars of evangelical Christian fiction and apologetics?

Most strange. Would it even have been accurate to call her a "lay theologian"? I think so. Using that term hides her greatness -- at another form of writing, at another calling.

It also makes me wonder about the role that faith played in the life of Dean Smith. Maybe there is a ghost in this story?

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