Former UNC coach Smith a hoops legend and even better man
Dean Smith, the legendary North Carolina basketball coach who died Saturday at age 83, was one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time. That is as indisputable as the fact that a former player of Smith’s, Michael Jordan, is one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
But to put Dean Smith in that limiting box of "college basketball coach" is to ignore the greatness of the man himself, the kind of humble and life-sweeping greatness that is sorely lacking not just in sports today, but in America.
Over the next few days, you will hear the numbers repeated, again and again, that define Dean Smith in the record books as one of the greatest coaches that’s ever walked this earth, in any sport. 879 career wins, the most ever when Smith retired in 1997. Eleven Final fours — second only to John Wooden — including four in his final seven years coaching. Four times named the national coach of the year. Two national titles and one Olympic gold medal. The head coach for 25 future NBA first-round picks.
These numbers are all phenomenal, but they should never be considered the measure of a man. Instead, Dean Smith’s greatness should be measured by a far more important code than wins and losses.
When I think of Dean Smith’s greatness, I think of a man with a deep and powerful connection to the beginnings of the game of basketball; Smith played at Kansas for Phog Allen, who had played at Kansas for Dr. James Naismith, who had invented the sport. Perhaps this is why Smith’s respect for the game was more than a cliche.
I think of Dean Smith’s players, even in an era of highlight dunks and me-first basketball, always celebrating a basket by pointing at the man who had passed the ball. I think of a man who, when he was asked to boil down his philosophy on basketball, managed to fit that philosophy into six beautiful, simple words: "Play hard; play together; play smart." I think of a man who had the respect of not just basketball people but of academic people, too; on the morning after Smith passed away at his home with his wife and five children at his side, Jeff Bradley, a former newspaper columnist and a UNC alum, tweeted this: "When you were a student at UNC and you crossed paths with Dean Smith, you stood up a little straighter, like he might put you in the game."
The fact that Carolina basketball is mired in an academic scandal at the same time as Dean Smith’s death is immeasurably sad. Perhaps the only silver lining in the degenerative brain disorder that took away his faculties in recent years is that, if he had been more acutely aware of the academic improprieties that had gone on at his school, it would have broken his heart. Because more than those 879 victories, the number Dean Smith would most likely to point as his favorite number was 96 percent — the percentage of his players who got their college degrees.
And yet there’s one even greater measure of Dean Smith’s life, something that goes far beyond anything he did on a basketball court or even in a basketball program. It’s a measure that was honored in 2013 when President Obama awarded Smith the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — and said this: "His successes go far beyond X’s and O’s."
A man’s courage is measured when he does the right thing when the rest of society is doing the wrong thing.
More than basketball, this is Dean Smith’s legacy, and the lesson we should all take from his remarkable life.
Early in his 36-year tenure as North Carolina’s head coach, Smith took a stand that was even bigger and more risky than his stated basketball goal of running a clean program being more important than winning.
It was the 1960s, an explosive time in the South. The Civil Rights Movement was taking shape. Instead of doing what too many sports people do today and go with the flow, not make waves — frankly, that’s what too many average Americans do, too — Smith took a stand. He took several stands, stands that weren’t popular with a wide swath of the people in the state where he lived. He joined a local pastor and a black North Carolina student in integrating a restaurant in Chapel Hill. He recruited Charlie Scott as UNC’s first black scholarship athlete. And he helped a black graduate student purchase a home in an all-white neighborhood in Chapel Hill.
"We lost a man of the highest integrity who did so many things off the court to help make the world a better place to live in," current North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said in a statement Sunday. "He set the standard for loyalty and concern for every one of his players, not just the games won or lost. He was the greatest there ever was on the court but far, far better off the court with people. His concern for people will be the legacy I will remember most."
Yes, Dean Smith was a political man, one of the most prominent Democrats in his state whose liberal politics led him later in life to take public stands on other fiery and often unpopular issues: against the death penalty, for gay rights.
There are those who, when sports and politics are stirred together, prefer to cover their ears and say that we must focus only on the game. To those people, Dean Smith’s greatness is encapsulated only in his 879 wins and 11 Final Fours and two national titles, nothing more.
These people, however, are cowards. And Dean Smith was the opposite of a coward. He was a rare breed in American sports, someone who was not only one of the greatest in his chosen profession but someone who realized the common measuring stick of his profession, the wins and the losses and the championships, was only one measure of a man, and a relatively unimportant measure at that.
We are all honoring Dean Smith’s greatness today because of who he was a basketball coach. But the lesson we should take from Dean Smith’s life is that, actually, basketball had very little to do with why he was truly great.
Email Reid Forgrave at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.