Dean of Humanities

Dear Virtual Editor,

I don’t usually write to you about sports.  I think the only post remotely related to sports so far mentions the Calgary chuckwagon races, and that is a bit of stretch.  But when a giant humanitarian who happens to be a sports figure passes from the scene, attention should be paid.

Dean-SmithDean Smith died February 7th at age 83.  Smith was coach of the University of North Carolina basketball team and when he retired in 1997, he had won more games than any other coach. That is the least of the reasons to remember and honour this decent man. At several points, Dean Smith influenced my life and that of two of my close friends, Ray Goad and Paula Lee.  I have invited them to share this remembrance.

I came to law school at Chapel Hill in 1966, directly from serving three years with the army in Germany.  I knew nothing then about the basketball world or, more importantly, about the very recent civil rights struggle to integrate public facilities in the town—and Dean Smith’s role in that effort.  A star player in a weak league, I had learned painfully as an undergrad that I was not good enough to play basketball at the college level, but I have always loved the game for its own sake. To be at UNC when the team went to the Final Four all three years was a wonderful surprise.  To be there when Dean Smith was the coach was a blessing I would only later understand.

The first hint that this man was much more than the best coach in the game came when I was a Resident Advisor in Granville Towers, a private dorm that housed some of the team.  Smith would chat with us from time to time when he came to visit his players.   Once, he looked me right in the eye and told me that there would be no changes in the Heels’ deliberate offense to accommodate the speed and skill of Charlie Scott, whom he had recruited as UNC’s first black athlete.  Even saints have to lie once in awhile.

These visits were only part of Dean’s very human concern for the welfare of all his players, from the stars to the end of the bench, a concern that legions of them this week are reminding us continued long after they graduated, as virtually all of them did. Smith cared about them as people.  He was not coming to  Granville to investigate compliance with bed check.

I devoted much of my personal and professional life to working against the death penalty.  By the 1980’s, Dean Smith had already become a well-known public figure, revered far beyond the borders of Orange County, NC.  I had heard that he opposed the death penalty, but I was stunned to receive a prompt and personal reply to my request for assistance. He asked what he could do.  His interest and his assistance continued. In the 90’s, when I served on the board of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, I found that, although there was not a Tarheel fan among them, the other members already knew Dean Smith.  For years, he had been providing signed memorabilia for the coalition to auction. Believe me, this was important. Fund raising for this cause at that time was not easy.  At a fundraiser in New Orleans hosted by Sister Helen Prejean, I happily paid $300 for a Carolina Basketball Staff shirt with his signature. I thought at the time it might help me sneak into a game or two. That didn’t work out, but I cherish the shirt.

I have a special and lasting image that blends my remembrance of Smith’s excellence as a coach and the passion for justice he exhibited by helping this obscure alum.  In

The way we were

The way we were

1974, I was driving across the sand hills of NC near Carthage, listening to the Carolina/Duke game. With 17 seconds to go in the game, the Heels were down 8 points. There was no 3 point shot in those days. Carolina won. Why was I not in front of TV set as I always was for this epic rivalry?  I was searching for a witness in a death penalty case.

The last time I spoke with Dean was only a few years before he retired. The Heels were coming to Lexington, VA to play the lowly Virginia Military Institute Keydets. I was teaching at Washington and Lee. I had written with an invitation to dinner. He promptly wrote back with regrets, painstakingly outlining the team’s tight schedule so I would know that he was not just blowing me off.  He did agree, however, to meet me at the game and sign a book for my friend Ray.  I turn the post over now to Ray and Paula, with this final thought. These are dark days for the people of North Carolina. But the spirit of Dean Smith, and others like him is alive. Better days are coming.

______

Ray

You may never have heard of Dean Smith before the news of his death this weekend. The headlines are about his mark on the game of basketball in the latter part of the last century.  However, Smith became one of the most successful, respected and life-changing coaches to ever grace the college basketball landscape, because of who he was as a person.

When Smith came to Carolina, the 1960s still felt a lot like the 1860s. On my first visit to Chapel Hill, the bus station still had separate Black and White drinking fountains. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the country was changing much faster than the State wanted.

I first heard of Dean Smith sitting in a law class with Bill Geimer, hearing our beloved raging liberal Labor Law Professor Dan Pollitt tell about how ugly the integration of businesses in Chapel Hill became in late 1963 and early 1964. In one incident, he reported that a restaurant owner’s wife urinated on two demonstrators who had stretched out on the floor at the entrance to prevent customers from entering. Protesters were doused with ammonia at another business.

The basketball team was all white and the players had many of their evening meals in a very fine local restaurant called The Pines (where Bill, Paula and I would later dine often.) The Pines was rigid about not admitting blacks. One evening Dean, with his minister and a black student, went to The Pines and asked to be served. With Dean Smith at the door, they could not say no.

His fight for higher pay for domestic workers also demonstrated his integrity and sense of human fairness. He helped establish a settlement house in a low-income neighborhood. He brought his players into the neighborhood to play ball with the kids.

Charlie_Scott

Charlie Scott

And in 1966, Dean Smith integrated the ACC with the arrival of Charlie Scott, who led the Tar Heels to their second and third consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances in 1968 and 1969. He was the first African American to join a fraternity at the University of North Carolina, and was a gold medalist at the 1968 Summer Olympics.

After that, Bill, Paula and I followed Carolina Basketball for the next forty+ years, and we have learned even more about Coach’s integrity and humanity as we watched his family of players grow with four National Players of the Year, including a player who would go down as the greatest of all time, and dozens of other special players making college basketball’s All-America list 23 times, each learning along the way what Dean called “the Carolina Way.”

In his book by that title, Dean says “The most important thing in good leadership is truly caring…I was a demanding coach, but my players knew that I cared for them and that my caring didn’t stop when they graduated and went off to their careers…”

The hallmark of the Carolina program became Coach Smith’s genuine lifetime caring and concern for all of his players, managers, and support staff. Phil Ford once said about Coach Smith, “I got a coach for four years but a friend for life;” and Michael Jordan’s quote running across the bottom of most TV sets this past weekend was “he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father…In teaching me the game of basketball, he taught me about life.”

In reflecting upon Dean Smith’s life, we now realize how grateful we are to have been a part of that time at Carolina.  While we have been addicted to its basketball team ever since, we too have appreciated becoming part of Dean’s family, knowing that our lives have also been influenced by the Carolina Way.

As we turn the post over to Paula, Bill and I recall the image she evoked for us of Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, during those days when we all seemed to be taking our place on the great Mandala, as it moves through our brief moment of time. It was a time we were privileged to share with Dean Smith. We recall another hit from the trio: Don’t let the light go out.

________

Paula

I first became aware of the legendary Dean Smith while finishing high school in Greensboro, NC. My dad and brothers were serious basketball fans and the “Four Corners” drove them mad. The next year, I was a UNC Tarheel and fully in Dean Smith admiration mode.

For those who don’t know or remember, Four Corners is an offensive strategy to kill time when you have the lead. With four players in the corners, defenders were forced either to foul or risk a great player like Phil Ford driving right past them to the basket.  There was no shot clock during most of Smith’s time. He did not invent the Four Corners but he used it so effectively that opposing teams were as frustrated as my dad and brother.

DeanOldWell

The Old Well, Chapel Hill

In the winter of 1968-69, I vividly remember the thrills of watching Charlie Scott dominate the court and each game. The hook was in deep by then. While living in Chapel Hill after graduation, Ray and I were fortunate to come by seats at Carmichael directly behind the Tarheel Bench. We were able to see first hand the interaction between Dean and his teams. He seemed completely unflappable and unbelievably calm in the midst of the “Carmichael Roar” for those exciting home games.

Ray and I had a restaurant for a while, RJ’s, and Dean Smith was a regular customer. I remember him coming on Tuesdays for lunch with his friend, a doctor of Psychology. They had long intense discussions and I always had the sense that Dean was picking his friend’s brain for thoughts on how to guide his players’ development both on and off the court.

Many years and games passed with many thrills and close calls. I remained a loyal Tarheel living in Seattle, WA, and was a founding member of the UNC Alumni Club in WA.

After Dean retired, his friend Dan Pollitt came to my attention. Dan had been a favorite professor to Bill and Ray at UNC Law School. He was invited to Seattle to give a presentation to a large Labor Law conference. When we heard he would be in town, Ray and I arranged to have dinner with Dan and his wife. During our conversations, the topic of the Tarheels and Dean Smith of course came up. Dan told us they were neighbors with Dean and attended the same church. Dean and his wife were soon to celebrate an anniversary. Ray and I decided to send Dean a bottle of WA wine from Chateau St. Michelle with a note of our appreciation for all the wonderful basketball memories he had given us via Dan on his return. Within a short time, we had a lovely hand-written thank you from Dean. I still treasure that note in my keepsakes.

Dean Smith deserves all the accolades being received. He truly was a class act who inspired us all.

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