Jamestown Native Johnston Remembers Dean Smith

Jamestown native Donn Johnston played for the University of North Carolina from 1969 through 1973. Photo courtesy of Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article — another in the “Remember When” series — appeared in The Post-Journal on Feb. 11, 2015. With the NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship game originally scheduled for tonight but canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was deemed appropriate to look back at the experiences that Jamestown native Donn Johnston had playing for one of the greatest coaches of all time — North Carolina’s Dean Smith.

Jim McElrath Jr.’s basketball resume is pretty impressive. In three seasons as a member of the Jamestown High School team — 1973-1976 — he scored 923 points, which is 10th on the school’s all-time list, and he was good enough to parlay that hardwood prowess into a fine career at Mercyhurst University.

But one of his fondest hoops experiences had nothing to do with what he accomplished for Coach John “Dutch” Leonard at the “old gym” at JHS or the success he had at the Erie, Pennsylvania college. Instead, the night to remember took place when he was 10, five years before he laced up his high-top sneakers for the first time for the Red Raiders.

It was the night he met Dean Smith.

“It was 1969,” McElrath recalled Tuesday morning, “and my dad (Jim McElrath Sr.) went to talk to Dutch after a game.”

Jamestown native Donn Johnston played for the University of North Carolina from 1969 through 1973. Photo courtesy of Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame

As father and son ascended the stairs, they noticed a man in a long coat was waiting outside the locker room. That man — then in his 30s — was none other than Smith, the University of North Carolina coach.

“It was quite a thrill,” McElrath said. “A week or two later, he sent me a nice (Tar Heels) press guide and a nice cover letter.”

Asked where that press guide and cover letter are today, McElrath said, “They probably got thrown out with the baseball cards, unfortunately. But on the important night, I was there. The Dean Smith night.”

While McElrath’s meeting with one of the greatest coaches in the history of sport was by chance, Donn Johnston’s was not.

The 6-foot-8 All-American from Jamestown’s westside was a senior on that Red Raiders’ team and Smith had made the trip from the Chapel Hill, North Carolina to watch him play. Not long after, Johnston signed his letter-of-intent to play for the Tar Heels. And not long after that, Smith returned to Jamestown to attend the Red Raiders’ season-ending basketball banquet.

Smith died last Saturday at the age of 83.

Johnston’s memories of his iconic coach have not.

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Upon learning of Smith’s passing last week, Johnston’s wife went to the attic of their suburban Philadelphia home in search of some basketball memorabilia from his days at UNC.

Of particular interest to her was any correspondence with Smith.

“She did find one letter,” Johnston said. “It was a letter he sent me after he visited (Jamestown).”

It will no doubt be added to the other basketball memorabilia that he has occupying space in his Johnston Group office, a financial consulting business he operates out of his home. Other items on display are a basketball from JHS, and a framed jersey and trophies he was presented during his Tar Heels career, including one in 1972-73 for being recognized as the team’s most inspirational player.

Johnston, who was a captain his senior year with former NBA coach George Karl, didn’t have to look far for inspiration in those days. All it took was to glance at the guy calling the shots from the bench. And, once his college career was over, Johnston remained close to his old coach.

“There are very few people who had the influence on my life that he had, other than my parents,” Johnston said. “He had a tremendous memory and it didn’t matter when I saw him, whether it was five years after graduation, 10 years after graduation or 20 years after graduation. He asked about my brothers by name, he always asked about my parents, naturally, and he always asked about the chocolate chip cookies my mom made for him that he used to take home on the plane. But I’m not unique. He had that way with everybody. He was just a phenomenal person.”

Sadly, in recent years, Smith’s health declined as dementia took away many of the traits that made him so special. Fortunately, in February 2010, before he was totally debilitated, the UNC basketball family held an oldtimers game at the Dean E. Smith Center on campus.

According to reports, hundreds of former Tar Heels, ranging in age from their 20s to almost 90, were in attendance. Johnston was one of them.

“Unfortunately, he had started at that point to lose it mentally and everybody could tell,” Johnston said. “But being there was good for everybody.”

And, now, even in death, Smith’s legacy will live on. Even in those people who didn’t have the pleasure of knowing him personally and even in those people who didn’t have a clue of what he meant to the game of basketball and the world as a whole.

In his little corner of the world, Johnston is making sure of that.

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Johnston, 63, has coached middle-school basketball for the last 12 years. And as he gathered his team of seventh-graders together at a practice earlier this week, he told them that they were doing the same things on the court now that he was doing more than 40 years ago as a Tar Heel.

“We talked about the offense that we ran at Carolina,” Johnston said, “we talked about pointing to the guy to thank them for a pass following a made basket, we talked about standing up when teammates come out of the game and we talked about putting a fist up when you’re tired.”

“All those kids and their parents had no idea who Coach Smith was, but when I stopped talking after five minutes it was sort of cute, because they all started clapping.”

Somewhere Dean Smith is smiling.


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