When sportswriter John Feinstein set out to write a profile of North Carolina’s Dean Smith in 1981, the coach was uncooperative. Not because he was mean-tempered, but simply because he didn’t want the attention. So it was the Rev. Robert Seymour – Smith’s pastor at Binkley Baptist Church – who told the story of how Smith had helped begin the desegregation of Chapel Hill.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had outlawed segregation, though change was slow in coming to North Carolina – and “the Southern Part of Heaven,” Chapel Hill. Many of the city’s restaurants still refused to serve black patrons, including The Pines, an establishment frequented by members of UNC’s basketball team. Smith wanted to help integrate the place, so he joined Seymour and a black theology student there for dinner. At the time, he was not the coaching legend he would become, but the management of The Pines knew him, and the men were served. Thus did the walls begin to break down.
When I asked Smith to fill in details on that night, he said, “Who told you that story?” I told him it had been Seymour. He shook his head and said, “I wish he hadn’t done that.”
Surprised, I said, “Dean, you should be proud of doing something like that.”
He looked me in the eye and said, “John, you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.”
That attitude came through in the way Smith, who died Saturday at the age of 83, ran the University of North Carolina’s basketball program as well. In 1967, he made Charlie Scott the first black scholarship athlete at a major program in the South. He was a progressive, supporting liberal candidates like Howard Dean and Bill Bradley, and a driving force in building the Baptist congregation he joined – a congregation that was later expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention for licensing a gay man to minister. He was a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War and the death penalty, too.
But for Smith, it was more than just social issues. The on-court custom of pointing to your teammate after an assist originated with him, and he made education a priority (more than 96 percent of UNC lettermen graduated). Tellingly, his former players – including Michael Jordan, Jerry Stackhouse, Vince Carter and Rasheed Wallace – credit him with instilling in them something far greater than basketball wisdom.
“Other than my parents,” Jordan said in a statement, “no one had a bigger influence on my life than Coach Smith. He was more than a coach – he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father. Coach was always there for me whenever I needed him and I loved him for it. In teaching me the game of basketball, he taught me about life.”
When Smith retired in 1997, he left the game with 879 wins, the most of any coach in NCAA history at the time. He led North Carolina to 11 Final Four appearances and two national championships in 1982 – with Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins – and 1993, when UNC beat Michigan’s touted “Fab Five.” His only losing season in 36 years as coach was his first, when the team finished 8-9.
He was also the inventor of the “four corners offense,” a tactic that involved positioning four of the team’s players in the corners of the offensive half-court while the fifth – usually the point guard – handled the ball, playing keep away from the defense. It was so effective (and annoying) that it led to the introduction of the 35-second play clock to the college game in 1985 – exactly the outcome that Smith wanted.
He also was a direct link to basketball’s humble beginnings. Smith learned the intricacies of the game under legendary coach Phog Allen, who had been taught by James Naismith, the inventor of the sport. In turn, Smith passed his knowledge along to a whole new generation of coaches, including Larry Brown, Roy Williams and George Karl. In doing so, he profoundly and permanently changed both the way the game was taught and played.
Sadly, Smith’s death comes at a time when the sport of college basketball is at a crossroads. In this current era, education is seemingly an afterthought: One-and-done super teams blaze through the tournament, athletes treat college as an audition for the pros and coaches (and dynastic programs) reap the rewards. Ideals like teamwork, sportsmanship and selflessness are all but absent, and men like Smith – who stand up for social change, regardless of status or sponsorship deals – are few and far between. Rarer still are those that do it while eschewing the spotlight.
Which is why the tributes to Smith continually mention his impact beyond the sport. It’s the only way to truly measure the man. Even noted basketball fan Barack Obama – who awarded Smith the Medal of Freedom in 2013 – felt it necessary to recognize him, and not just for his considerable numerical achievements.
“Last night, America lost not just a coaching legend but a gentleman and a citizen,” Obama said in a statement released Sunday. “When he retired, Dean Smith had won more games than any other college basketball coach in history. He went to 11 Final Fours, won two national titles, and reared a generation of players who went on to even better things elsewhere, including a young man named Michael Jordan – and all of us from Chicago are thankful for that.
“But more importantly, Coach Smith showed us something that I’ve seen again and again on the court,” he continued. “That basketball can tell us a lot more about who you are than a jumpshot alone ever could.”