When former University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith passed away Saturday night at the age of 83, the world lost a true legend.
Unquestionably, Smith was an innovative coach. His use of the four-corners offense was a stroke of genius made famous when Phil Ford handled the ball and used his quickness, speed and dribbling ability to terrorize defenses and create shots for teammates.
Smith’s teams were incredibly disciplined and just as classy. I can not remember the North Carolina team under Smith ever getting into a scrap with another team.
However, in the 60’s, blacks were ignored, overlooked, disrespected and refused opportunities to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The ACC was a pillar of racism, but Smith would have none of it. It came honestly.
The New York Times reported Smith’s father, Alfred, put Paul Terry, a black player on the 1933-34 state championship winning high school team, even though Kansas state officials refused to allow Terry to play in the tournament.
Perhaps my first knowledge of Smith was his decision to make Charlie Scott, a kid from Harlem, who attended the prestigious New York City Stuyvesant High School before going to Laurinberg Prep in North Carolina, the first black scholarship player at North Carolina.
As a kid approaching his teenage years, it was impactful for me to see Scott, the lone African-American player dominating amongst a sea of whites. Scott was a star and helped lead the Tar Heels to a couple of Final Four appearances, but never truly received the accolades his play deserved. There was one season when Scott likely should have been the ACC player of the year, but lost out to John Roche, an excellent white player at South Carolina.
It wasn’t so much that Roche got the nod, but five writers refused to vote for Scott, clearly one of the country’s best players. It has been reported Smith, upon learning of the approach taken by the writers, went directly to them and chastised them for the bigotry that led to the decision and said such mentality had to change.
Now, that was approximately 50 years ago, so clearly Smith was ahead of his time. Smith, a couple years later recruited another star from New York, forward Bill Chamberlain, from Long Island Lutheran. There weren’t many black students at his high school, so he was somewhat prepared to be one of the few African-Americans in yet another situation.
Smith was fearless in his quest to lead North Carolina to NCAA prominence, so bringing Chamberlain into the fold helped made it comfortable for other coaches to recruit black players. Smith never proclaimed superiority of humanity. He only lived a level of sensitivity that few of us can approach.
I was fortunate enough to cover a few North Carolina games and Smith always was beyond respectful and accepting. The man was all class. While entering the predominantly white sports journalism field, it always became apparent to me, which coaches seemed to go out of their way to make a then neophyte reporter feel comfortable. The coaching names that came to mind early in my career were Georgetown’s John Thompson (who maybe not so coincidentally enjoyed a tremendous relationship with Smith), then Tulsa coach Nolan Richardson, former St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca, TV commentator and former Seton Hall coach Bill Raftery and Smith.
Perhaps the most impressive testimonials were ones that weren’t intentionally provided. Conversations with former Smith players such as Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Kenny Smith and Adrian Dantley, who played on the Dean Smith-coached 1976 gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic team, revealed a warm, honest respectful reverence for a man who seemed to live life as only a champion would.