The Greatest Man I Never Met
There’s two dates in time that they’ll carve on your stone And everyone knows what they mean, what’s more important Is the time that is known in that little dash there in between
I learned many lessons from my mother that informed the person I am today. Compassion and love should be offered unconditionally. Thank you notes should be handwritten and prompt. There is no substitute for proper grammar. Willie Mays is the greatest baseball player to ever play the game. Elvis Presley will always be the king of rock and roll.
And Dean Smith might very well be the greatest man who ever lived.
So, it was Sunday morning that I found myself looking at my phone to find a breaking news text from ESPN reporting the passing of the greatest man in the world. My heart fell to my stomach. The blood drained from my face. I felt my blood pressure skyrocket. Yet, my first thought was “call mom,” which I did. I made a call I never wanted to make…EVER. Then, my own sadness bubbled to the surface because there isn’t a single second of my life when Coach Smith wasn’t a part of it. As I watched and read the stories flood in over the last several days, I found myself nodding my head. Some stories I hadn’t ever heard, but none surprised me because I’d heard a million other ones just like it. Stories that are unfathomable but nevertheless completely true because Coach Smith was one of a kind.
I could tell you all about the 879 wins, the 27 straight 20 win seasons, the one losing season in all 36 years of his head coaching career, the four national players of the year he coached, the Olympic gold medal, the four national coach of the year awards, the ACC regular season titles and tournament championships, the Final Four appearances, and the four college basketball national championships. Wait…what? Yep, I said four. Sure you’ve heard about 1982 and 1993, but maybe you missed that he won a national championship as a player at Kansas in 1952 and coached the Tar Heels to the 1971 NIT championship.
I could tell you the story about how his teams executed the four corners offense so consistently and with such suffocating perfection that the shot clock was implemented in college basketball to level the playing field.
I could tell you about the time he managed to win a game down 8 points with 17 seconds left and no three-point line.
Or maybe you’ve noticed players who just made a basket point to the teammate who passed them the ball. It’s called “thank the passer,” and it belongs to Coach Smith, but you’ll see it everywhere from AAU to high school to college to the pros. He believed no one player was more important than the whole. The name on the front of the jersey was what you played for, not the name on the back. He believed in teams, not stars even though he coached the biggest one of them all.
Oh sure, I could tell you all about how Michael Jordan had to do the same menial tasks every freshman who ever played at Carolina had to do, but through it all, Coach Smith taught him to respect the game. Coach Smith taught His Airness to be a leader in the 1982 National Championship game with 17 seconds to go. I could tell you how Michael, as Coach Smith simply called him, wore Carolina shorts under his NBA uniform every.single.game of his career because he was so dedicated to the Carolina Family. These two men became the state of North Carolina’s favorite sons: one adopted, one native.
You see, Coach Smith didn’t just coach basketball. He changed the way we play it, and he didn’t just coach his players in basketball. He coached them in life.
I can’t name every man who ever played Carolina Basketball, but Coach Smith could. Not only could he name them all, he could tell you the names of their family members, too because he kept in touch with them even after their sons finished their college careers. His secretary could walk into his office and say, “Michael is on the phone,” and he’d know instantly who it was just as instantly as if she’d said Larry or George or James or Phil or Antawn. These men…his men…counted on him for advice, for friendship, for guidance, and he never hesitated to help every one of them in any way he could.
The respect Coach Smith garnered throughout his life is evident in every player he taught. I’ve heard it multiple times over the last several days. Not once have I heard one of his former players refer to him as Dean or even Dean Smith. Every single time, they have called him Coach Smith or Coach. Even if the person asking the question refers to him as Dean Smith, the former player would respond with “Coach Smith…” every…time.
More than 96% of his players graduated even if it meant they had to come back to school during the NBA off season because they’d left school early for the pros. That’s practically unheard of in today’s world where student athletes jump to the NBA after their required one year of college is completed and never look back, but Coach Smith created a family that is recognized the world over not just because of its rich history and influence on the game, but because of the men it produced and the camaraderie they shared.
Yet, for as great a coach he was, Coach Smith was an even better person.
You may have heard that this man…this white man…walked into a well-known Chapel Hill restaurant with a local pastor and a black North Carolina theology student at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It was 1964. Coach Smith had been the Carolina head coach for just three years. He was not yet revered the way he is now, but he walked into that restaurant and quietly sat down. They were asked to leave, and he said, “no,” thus integrating that restaurant and eventually Chapel Hill.
Maybe you’ve even heard about the time he helped a black UNC grad student purchase a home in an all-white neighborhood, but did you know the grad student, Howard Lee, later became the mayor of Chapel Hill, a North Carolina state Senator, and chairman of the state Board of Education? Was Coach Smith responsible for those accomplishments? Probably not, but perhaps knowing Coach Smith was behind him, gave Howard Lee just a little more courage than he already had.
In 1966, Coach Smith signed Charlie Scott as the first black scholarship athlete at UNC helping to spearhead the integration of the ACC. All my life, I thought Charlie Scott’s name was “Charlie Scott First Black Player in the ACC” because the action was so significant in the south that it became his legacy. But, he’s also a high school valedictorian, an Olympic gold medalist, a NBA champion, and a successful businessman, and whether you want to believe it or not, when he and Coach Smith took that step together they paved the way for Bob McAdoo, Walter Davis, Phil Ford, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Michael Jordan, and every African-American basketball player who has played at Carolina or in the ACC after Charlie.
But understand, Coach Smith didn’t do these things with great fanfare. He wanted no recognition. He didn’t spend his time at post game press conferences telling the media what social injustice he was angered about that day. Coach Smith simply believed in decency and fairness and humanity, and he treated people as such because he believed “you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.” I saw multiple former Duke players say Coach Smith was the greatest man they ever met, but that sentiment didn’t stop with them. Members of the media, former players of other schools, NBA stars, and the President of the United States, who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, all had the same thoughts. Absolutely anyone whoever came into contact with him came away with a story they’ll never forget.
Now, Coach Smith wasn’t perfect, and he’d have been the first person to tell you that. In fact, he’d have hated all the commotion over him this week. But in the simple act of being himself and standing up for what he believed in, he became extraordinary while never compromising his convictions. And so I found myself in the last few days trying to figure out how to honor Coach Smith appropriately. What could I do? What could we all do? How could we make sure he’s never forgotten?
And then, it occurred to me. I never met this gracious man, but not a day of my life has gone by when I felt like I didn’t know him. Then, I realized the only reason for that is because his legacy lives in my mother. I heard it in Antawn Jamison. I heard it in King Rice. I heard it in Charlie Scott, and I read it from Charlie Scott’s children. His legacy lives in all of us, and it is our responsibility to carry it forward and share it. So, tell Coach Smith’s story. He certainly left us with enough material. Tell your Coach Smith story. Shout it from the rooftops. Tell it every day if you have to because Coach Dean Edwards Smith, born in Kansas to public school teachers, died in Chapel Hill Saturday night surrounded by his wife of almost 39 years, his five children, his seven grandchildren, and his great-granddaughter, changed basketball, changed lives, changed the world, and left it a better place than how he found it. He has tossed the ball to us, now. We have to make the shot and thank the passer.
Rest in peace, Coach.