His family sent a letter to former players and coaches Saturday, discussing the 79-year-old Hall of Famer's health after generally declining to comment for privacy reasons. Smith's condition was described as a "progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory."
"He may not immediately recall the name of every former player from his many years of coaching, but that does not diminish what those players meant to him or how much he cares about them," the letter said. "He still remembers the words of a hymn or a jazz standard, but may not feel up to going to a concert. He still plays golf, though usually only for nine holes instead of 18."
Smith had largely kept a low profile in retirement, consistent with his habit of trying to deflect credit to his players while never seeming comfortable with the attention that followed him during the peak of his coaching years. He has maintained a campus office, frequently coming in to meet with former players, sign autographs or return fan mail.
According to the letter, Smith "insists" on watching North Carolina's televised games to cheer for the Tar Heels and Roy Williams, an assistant to Smith for 10 years before spending 15 years at Kansas.
Smith's health became a question after The Fayetteville Observer recently reported he had occasional memory loss. A week later, author John Feinstein posted on his blog that he backed off an effort to collaborate with Smith on a book in the past year because of related issues.
The family letter states that Smith has had two hospital procedures in the past three years, one for knee replacement and the other for an abdominal aortic aneurysm. His wife, Linnea, said following the knee replacement surgery in December 2007 that there had been some "cardiological and neurological complications," though she didn't elaborate at the time.
"It's a stark contrast," the letter states of Smith's memory loss, "because he is widely known for remembering a name, a place, a game, a story - it's what made other people feel like they were special, because our dad remembered everything.