We should take note when a good one passes. Dean Smith, the longtime coach of the University of North Carolina Tar Heel basketball team, was much beloved by basketball fans everywhere – he was a Hall of Fame coach of some of the greatest players ever, including Michael Jordan; an innovator with some of the most creative ideas the hard court has ever seen; and a man who made sure that 97% of his players graduated from college. But that was the tip of the iceberg.
Dean Smith integrated the Atlantic Coast Conference, at the time the most prominent league in the country. Charlie Scott, the first black player with a scholarship at UNC, had this to say about his coach: “Coach Smith never treated me like the first African-American to go to the University of North Carolina. It was all any person would want to be treated like — like everybody else.” He integrated more than just a basketball team, though; he helped a graduate student break the color line in an all-white neighborhood in Chapel Hill, and then broke bread at an all-white restaurant as well. He was also ahead of his time in protesting against the Vietnam War and nuclear proliferation, for equal treatment for women, and for LGBT rights. Years ahead.
But we wouldn’t be blogging about him if there wasn’t more. He took a stand against the death penalty when it was a highly unpopular position in North Carolina, and when Dean Smith took a stand he didn’t just mouth the words. He took his players to death row In Raleigh and to Angola Prison in Louisiana, and had them interact with the inmates. In 1998 he went with a delegation from People of Faith Against the Death Penalty to meet with then Governor Jim Hunt in a desperate attempt to save a mentally ill condemned man named John Noland. Pointing a finger at the governor, Smith called him a murderer – then he pointed at the others in the room and said, “And you’re a murderer, and you’re a murderer, and I’m a murderer.” He didn’t save Noland, who was executed two weeks later, but it didn’t stop him, either. “I really haven’t done much other than send a little money and talk to the governor and do some public-service announcements, so don’t make me out to be too much of a hero,” he said.
Dean Smith’s fight is not over, of course. But since his passing many have recalled his bravery, from the basketball court to the lunch counter to the governor’s office; and there is a sense that we are closer to his vision than we have ever been before. The good ones leave you feeling that way.