In Memoriam: Dean Smith
If you don’t understand why the death of a basketball coach can move grown men to tears, you didn’t grow up in North Carolina.
If you don’t understand how that same coach could inspire someone to pursue a career in creating economic opportunity, then you didn’t have the fortune of growing up cheering for Dean Smith.
Of course, as a child of the ’70s and ’80s growing up a mere half-mile from the Dean Dome, it was, first, always about the basketball. From seeing Phil Ford run his coach’s brilliant Four Corners (driving opposing fans into despair) to a young Michael Jordan hitting The Shot sending us all pouring into downtown Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street, Carolina basketball brought me, my family, and friends more joy than I can impart in a blog format. (Though feel free to give me a call if you have an hour or 10 to spare.)
But then, as I began to learn more about the coach behind the games, I thought beyond the hardwood. We heard tales of Coach Smith famously helping integrate a restaurant in Chapel Hill. Of Coach Smith taking his players every year to play a scrimmage at Central Prison in Raleigh. Of Coach being outspoken on issues from opposing the death penalty to advocating for a nuclear freeze to wondering why, when all teams were strongly encouraged to wear an American flag in support of the troops during the first Gulf War, we didn’t wear flags to highlight homelessness in our own country. Our beloved Tar Heels were led by a coach whose convictions guided him—and his players—on and off the court.
Try to imagine any coach today in any sport writing these words as Coach Smith did in his autobiography:
“Why aren’t we more compassionate to people in need? Why aren’t we more loving of enemies? Why aren’t we concerned about the growing gap between the rich and the poor? Love of God means addressing the needs of our neighbors, in my opinion, as well as acceptance and tolerance for differences. . . You can’t hate your neighbor who is different or who is poor and say you love God. That is a lie. I may be wrong, but I think being grateful to God leads to ethical decisions that surely include education for all children, reasonable options for health care, and openness toward those who seem different.”
On the court, Coach Smith stressed loyalty and a sense of community among his players. He was just as likely in a press conference to mention the walk-on who had helped prepare Michael Jordan in practice as he was to mention Jordan himself. It was Coach Smith who required a player who’d just scored to point immediately to the player who gave the assist and the opportunity to score. I like to think that sense of community encouraged me to work in a field and at a place like MDC, where we understand that the only way we all will succeed is if everyone pitches in and shares in our prosperity.
And Coach Smith also introduced me to the greater community of North Carolina. If Chapel Hill is not an ivory tower, it is pretty close, or at least pretty far removed from the surrounding state. So when I saw a lineup filled with players from the metropolises of Pineville (Walter Davis), Black Mountain (Brad Daugherty), and Elm City (John Virgil—wait you don’t remember John Virgil?), I knew that my home state had a lot to offer. As I traveled recently through the state working on a project for the North Carolina Rural Center, those names of players’ hometowns came flooding back to me, and I thought again of Coach Smith.
So the news of Coach Smith’s passing on Sunday after a lengthy and terrible illness brought my family and I much sadness. But it also brought me some reflection. Our lives and careers are shaped by many influences. My parents, who always encouraged my brother and me to pursue careers that could make a difference, are, of course, the most important examples. But I’d be lying if my passionate support (OK…sometimes unhealthy obsession) for the Tar Heels hasn’t also shaped who I am and what I do for a living. And for that I point a finger in gratitude to Coach Smith.