The sign that Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith was most known for – other than the iconic four fingers raised to signal the four corners offense – was the index finger of the scoring player pointing to the teammate who made the pass. The meaning behind the gesture: “You deserve the credit. Thanks for the assist.”
Sunday’s celebration of the late Smith’s life was a two-and-a-half-hour point back from grateful players, friends and fans.
“Leaders are unique in how they convey their beliefs,” said Eric Montross, a former UNC-Chapel Hill and NBA player and current analyst for Tar Heel basketball broadcasts. “Coach Smith – he led with courage and wisdom and by example, giving all of us the opportunity to focus the lens through which we looked at life.”
Former UNC system President Erskine Bowles reminded those present that Smith, who passed away earlier this month, never wanted the arena affectionately known as the Dean Dome to be named after him. When the coach and Bowles’ father, Skipper, went “town to town, Tar Heel to Tar Heel” to raise money to build it, Smith insisted on calling it the Student Activities Center.
Bowles said that his dad and Smith only had one big argument, “and it was a humdinger. My dad was determined that this Student Activities Center would be named for Coach Smith and Coach was equally adamant that it would not. For me, it was the only time I was glad, in fact overjoyed, to see Coach lose. I can’t imagine this place being named for anyone else.”
The fact that Smith was a legendary basketball coach is undisputed. His 879 career wins, 11 trips to the Final Four and two national championships are testament to that. What the dozen speakers who knew him well wanted the audience to know was that the great coach was an even greater human being.
“The Carolina family knew him always as a great teacher, a force for good, a remarkable pioneer in promoting equality and civil rights. He was a great American and a true Tar Heel,” Chancellor Carol L. Folt said.
Although he maintained a fiercely personal life, Smith was not afraid to make a stand publicly on important issues. He broke the color barrier in college basketball by recruiting Charles Scott. He didn’t support the Vietnam War or the nuclear arms race. He insisted that players attend a religious service each week – unless they had an excuse from their parents. After his retirement, Smith was acknowledged for emphasizing education and selflessness with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Smith set a good example for his players, one that they remember years later. Sunday, former player Brad Daugherty (1982-1986) recalled how, while hurrying across a parking lot in the freezing cold, he was approached by a man asking for money. At first Daugherty muttered something about only having a credit card and kept walking. But then he thought about Coach Smith and what he would have done. He went back and gave the man some cash.
“I had this big warm feeling come over me because I can just see him now, hugging me around my waist,” he said. “I could just see him saying, ‘I’m so proud of you.’”
Smith reinforced the message of giving back to his teams by taking them to play at prisons and to visit sick children in the hospital. He was also loyal and instilled that loyalty and team spirit in his players. “I’ve never seen a man on the face of this Earth more loyal than him,” said 1974-1978 star player and former Tar Heels assistant coach Phil Ford.
“One thing that I’ve known in my 16 years in the NBA is the Carolina family. Whoever it was, we always had each other’s back,” said Antawn Jamison (1995-1998). Players from other programs were jealous, he said. “They were always saying, ‘What is it about you Carolina guys that makes you so special?’”
When longtime voice of the Tar Heels Woody Durham rose to introduce the speakers, the crowd gave him a warm welcome back to the microphone. The celebration also included music, songs and lighter moments, like the story about the time a player tried to teach Smith how to “raise the roof.”
Billy Cunningham (1962-1965) made dry comments about how it was Smith’s early, less successful teams that were the ones who shaped the coach and gave him character. Mickey Bell, better known as a businessman than as a member of the 1972-1975 teams, joked about how he was there to represent the “other end of the spectrum” from greats like Cunningham, Jamison and Ford.
Director of Jazz Studies Jim Ketch led the Department of Music sextet in “There Will Never Be Another You” as a tribute to Smith. The Clef Hangers a cappella group sang “Amazing Grace,” and the Harmonyx singers performed Carolina’s alma mater. Historian Freddie Kiger narrated a short video salute to Smith near the end of the service.
Rev. Robert Seymour, pastor emeritus of Binkley Memorial Baptist Church, admired his parishioner and longtime friend. “This stalwart man has influenced so many people,” he said. “Dare we hold up our lives against this man’s life?”
Calling Smith’s slow demise “a long goodbye,” he told the audience, “I hope your heart is beginning to be filled with gratitude overcoming your grief.”
In perhaps the most touching tribute of several that had men’s voices breaking with emotion, current Tar Heels basketball coach Roy Williams – who was an assistant coach under Smith — lamented that he never told his mentor and friend how much he loved him. “I never really told him what he meant to me,” he said. “I encourage all of you to tell people what they mean to you.”
Williams ended his remarks by raising his hand skyward and pointing up in that familiar gesture. The speakers on the dais and the people in the audience did the same.
“Let’s raise our hands and point and thank him for the assist,” Williams said.
- Sunday’s celebration of Smith wrapped up a family weekend, by Adam Lucas, goheels.com
- Video recap, goheels.com