I was stupidly sad yesterday over the death of someone I’ve never met but always admired. Dean Smith died at the age of 83. He was a great basketball coach and an even better human being.
I may have mentioned that my late father and I agreed on only two things: food and basketball. His idea of heaven when I was a kid was a Final Four that featured John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins and Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels. Both teams epitomized the sort of unselfish team oriented hoops that floated both our boats. Odd image but accurate.
The thing about Dean Smith some of you might not know is that he was a true progressive and a man who fought the good fight in his corner of the world, college basketball. The Dean single handedly desegregated the ACC when he recruited the great Charlie Scott, seen above in the picture with Coach Smith. When Jesse Helms ran an overtly racist campaign against an African American candidate, Coach Smith denounced him. Then there’s this excerpt from a 2014 profile of the Dean by John Feinstein:
…In 1981, Smith very grudgingly agreed to cooperate with me on a profile for this newspaper. He kept insisting I should write about his players, but I said I had written about them. I wanted to write about him. He finally agreed.
One of the people I interviewed for the story was Rev. Robert Seymour, who had been Smith’s pastor at the Binkley Baptist Church since 1958, when he first arrived in Chapel Hill. Seymour told me a story about how upset Smith was to learn that Chapel Hill’s restaurants were still segregated. He and Seymour came up with an idea: Smith would walk into a restaurant with a black member of the church.
“You have to remember,” Reverend Seymour said. “Back then, he wasn’tDean Smith. He was an assistant coach. Nothing more.”
Smith agreed and went to a restaurant where management knew him. He and his companion sat down and were served. That was the beginning of desegregation in Chapel Hill.
When I circled back to Smith and asked him to tell me more about that night, he shot me an angry look. “Who told you about that?” he asked.
“Reverend Seymour,” I said.
“I wish he hadn’t done that.”
“Why? You should be proud of doing something like that.”
He leaned forward in his chair and in a very quiet voice said something I’ve never forgotten: “You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right.”
You can see why so many tributes to the great man have featured that excerpt. It sums up everything that was so wonderful about Dean Smith. That last quote reminded me of my late mother who taught me much the same thing. I miss her every day and I will miss Dean Smith, a man of infinite kindness and humanity who did the right thing and never bragged about it.