Dean Smith passes

A remarkable legacy

Former University of North Carolina players Sam Perkins, James Worthy and Michael Jordan, along with former North Carolina head basketball coach Dean Smith, watch a presentation honoring the 1957 and 1982 national championship teams on Feb. 10, 2007. (Ellen Ozier/Reuters)
Former University of North Carolina players Sam Perkins, James Worthy and Michael Jordan, along with former North Carolina head basketball coach Dean Smith, watch a presentation honoring the 1957 and 1982 national championship teams on Feb. 10, 2007. (Ellen Ozier/Reuters)

It is not just about the basketball triumphs—although having coached some of the greatest teams in basketball is an amazing feat. I’ll leave that aspect for others to eulogize. It’s the man Dean Smith whom I admired. Few of us here today lived in the Chapel Hill of 1958 when it was a very different place. Chapel Hill was segregated. Our communities’ great hospitals treated black and white people differently. Duke had separate water fountains for blacks, something inconceivable and totally unacceptable to most of us today. Black students could not patronize public restaurants. I’ve talked to people who were here then, some of whom ate with Dean Smith from time to time. He wasn’t going to tolerate the inequities, so he set about inviting black students and others to eat with him at various restaurants. That was a huge act of defiance in the late 1950s and well into the ’60s.

Washington Post sports columnist John Feinstein said it better than I could when he wrote over the weekend about Dean Smith and desegregation.

The story about his involvement in desegregating restaurants in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1958—when he was still an assistant coach—has now been told often, but for many years no one knew it had taken place. Not surprisingly, the first person to tell the story publicly wasn’t Smith, but the Rev. Robert Seymour, the minister at the Binkley Baptist Church, where Smith worshipped from 1958 until his death.

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.”

Talk about a teaching moment.

When sport enriches us—and there hasn’t been a lot of talk about that at UNC lately, for obvious reasons—it is because of the potential of sport to become a metaphor for life’s lessons. Teamwork, honesty, decency, collaboration, finishing what you start, integrity and standing up for what is right—those are the values and lessons sport teaches at its best. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Pollyanna. I understand that there are negative issues related to college athletics and that we face some of those issues here. Still, we’d be remiss if we didn’t take time to honor a man who stood for—and is said to have lived for—so many just principles.

Thank you, Dean Smith.

 

 

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