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June 30, 2011As the Naismith Good Sportsmanship Awards ceremony progressed Wednesday night in downtown Raleigh, the aura of the night consistently elevated.
With Tobacco Road legends Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and Kay Yow all being honored for their integral contributions to college basketball, it was hard not to be swallowed by the wave of appreciation that began in the back row of the theater and curled all the way to center stage.
For one woman in the balcony of the Progress Energy Center's Memorial Auditorium, silence was not an option, her howls from above giving the ceremony a church-like feel.
When emcee Bob Holiday heralded Yow's valiant 21-year fight against cancer and the inspiration her resolve gave to all those around her, the woman in the balcony shouted with approval.
When former Duke standout Steve Wojciechowski raved about Krzyzewski's energizing leadership skills, the woman exalted again.
And when Roy Williams, fighting a crack in his voice, spoke about the love he had for Smith and the life lessons he learned from his mentor, the woman in the balcony punctuated it all.
"Hallelujah!" she yelled.
You see, very often, college basketball is truly religion on Tobacco Road, the arenas at North Carolina, Duke and N.C. State providing magnificent houses of worship with unifying powers.
In that regard, Wednesday night's mass in Raleigh provided a blast of perspective, reminding everyone in attendance how lucky and how absolutely spoiled they've been to have had so many of the game's icons practicing and preaching right here before them.
Between them, Smith, Krzyzewski and Yow have 2,515 career coaching victories.
All three legends also presided over national teams that captured gold medals at the Olympics.
But beyond all the success and the triumph, the three coaches' legacies will all be defined by the manner in which they've inspired their players and assistant coaches.
N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow, who played for her older sister at Elon in the 1970s, relayed her own personal tribute to Kay on Wednesday.
It came attached to a story from an Elon-Wake women's game from decades ago, a game in which Debbie delivered one of the highlight reel moments of her career, a defensive play that needed revisiting with Yow recreating her sprint to the defensive end to thwart a free throw line jumper by a Demon Deacon player.
"As she raised the ball just behind the back of her head I got there," Yow said. "And my right hand planted right square on the ball. And just the force of that was so great, it knocked her right to the floor. And I was so proud of myself."
Instinctively, Debbie turned to the bench, looking for some reaction from Kay.
"I wanted some love," Debbie said.
Yet Kay stood without a smile and with her hands on her hips with a bigger concern.
"Help her up off the floor!" Kay told Debbie.
"And that's how you learn good sportsmanship."
Krzyzewski has left his own imprint on the game and on this state, but most of all with his players. Four-and-a-half months from now, the Duke coach will become the all-time winningest coach in the game, surpassing Bobby Knight on that list.
And yet through 31 seasons in Durham, Krzyzewski has diligently studied leadership and team-building, doing everything he can to learn new ways to draw the best out of people, to make all those around him feel as if their contributions are the most valuable.
It's no coincidence that all three of his assistant coaches at present - Wojciechowski, Chris Collins and Jeff Capel - are all former players, who even into adulthood, continue to look up to their leader.
"Coach K, thank you," Wojciechowski said Wednesday. "Thank you for always doing your best and demanding we do the same. Thank you for allowing your family to become ours. Thank you for helping us to succeed both on the court and in life, but more importantly for teaching us there's a right way to do it."
THANKS A MILLION
And then, of course, there is Smith, the standard by which success will always be measured at North Carolina, the man who made unity and selflessness, hard work and humility the fabric of his program's success.
The wins piled up because of it. Yet it's the profound admiration his former players still have for him that truly defines his impact.
Charles Scott, an All-American under Smith in 1969 and 1970, presented the legendary coach for his award Wednesday. And Scott confessed that to this day, he thinks of Smith in just about everything does.
Said Scott: "He set the standard by which every day I get up, I ask myself, 'How would Coach Smith feel about what I'm doing today? Am I a good human being? Am I a good father? And I a good neighbor? Am I compassionate?"
Scott is so often celebrated as the first African-American scholarship athlete at UNC. Yet, because of Smith's influence and care, he never felt obligated to be defined by that distinction.
"He never talked to me about being the first black athlete," Scott said. "He talked to me as a human being."
It was no wonder then that Smith's 10 minutes on stage Wednesday night had everyone in the building inching forward in their chairs. There were two standing ovations and a million goose bumps.
There was a stirring speech from Scott and an emotional expression of love from Roy Williams.
For a brief moment on center stage, Williams, Smith and Krzyzewski all stood beside each other, heightening the aura once more. Just the snapshots of that seem surreal.
On a mid-summer night in which college basketball took center stage and it seemed so right, heroes were honored, not so much for how much success they've enjoyed, but for how they've made people around them feel.
Fittingly, there was only one way to sum up the night.