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November 20, 2013

A True Man of Honor

"A true man of honor feels humbled when he cannot help humbling others." ---Robert E. Lee

For Dean Edwards Smith, integrating a restaurant in Chapel Hill---or helping integrate the Atlantic Coast Conference for that matter---wasn't a whole lot different than preparing and executing a winning game plan any one of the 879 times he led the North Carolina Tar Heels to victory over 36 seasons.

It required good people, a determined focus to meet certain objectives, a special emphasis on teamwork and selflessness, and finally and most importantly, a courageous willingness to faithfully execute the plan and stay the course.

On Wednesday, Coach Smith will be honored by the United States and President Barack Obama as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the country.

Sadly, Smith won't be able to personally be there, as his physical condition no longer allows him to make public appearances of this magnitude.

Coach Smith is still very much with us in body and spirit, as the 82-year old still comes to the building for which he's most uniquely honored---the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center---and spends time in the office that he still holds inside.

If you're lucky enough, as this reporter was one bright, sunny March afternoon just prior to the start of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, you might even still catch him coming in and out of the building which bears his name.

Still with that gleam in his shining blue eyes, still with that warm smile affixed to his face that UNC supporters came to know and love so well from some of his many glorious triumphs with the Tar Heels, you might get even a friendly, 'Hello' from the Hall of Fame coach while he walks in or out alongside his longtime wife, Linnea.

But tragically, that steel-trap mind that so effectively schemed against opposing teams, recalled names and dates like a human encyclopedia, and rallied for multiple worthy causes over his four decades in the spotlight no longer fully grasps its surroundings, as Coach Smith, like approximately four million other Americans, has been victimized in his older age by the challenges and limitations of dementia.

Smith's wife and family, as well as UNC head coach Roy Williams, one of Smith's prized pupils, will be in attendance at the Washington D.C. ceremony Wednesday, where a total of 16 prominent Americans are being honored.

"It's the highest individual civilian honor there is. I feel very honored to go up there and see that happen," said Williams last week. "I'm thrilled to be there. I'm very thrilled to have worked for Coach Smith. He taught me so much more about people than he did about zone defense or man-to-man defense. I think he's one of the truly one of the great mentors that you could possibly have. And he was a mentor to me and every player."

"He truly cared about his players. It's impossible to talk about Coach Smith (without being emotional)," Williams added, choking up a bit. "It's hard for me. It's hard for every other player. If we'd won by fifty (instead of losing to Belmont), I'd have a hard time (talking about him). Just a unique man and leader for so many people."

The Medal of Freedom was established in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy and is presented to those who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

It doesn't take very long to walk the streets of most any town in the state of North Carolina and find those who revere Smith's accomplishments on the court, which includes a .776 winning percentage at UNC, 17 ACC regular season championships, 13 ACC Tournament titles, 11 Final Fours, an Olympic Gold Medal, and two national championships.

But it's what Smith did in 1964 at The Pines restaurant in Chapel Hill, and a few years later when he brought Charles Scott to the UNC roster, that more than anything else helped change the sport he coached and the community that he lived in.

And those factors, as much as any single game Smith won on the court or any single All-American who played for him, are why he's being honored as a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.

In 1964, Smith was still trying to find his way as a young college coach when he voluntarily elected to participate in the struggle for integration in his new home community.

Smith had landed the UNC job three years earlier at the age of 30 when Frank McGuire, the architect of North Carolina's legendary undefeated 1957 NCAA champions, left for the NBA's Philadelphia Warriors amidst an NCAA probe into point shaving allegations surrounding the Tar Heel program, as well as excessive recruiting expenditures.

Even though Smith didn't win big those early years in Chapel Hill, he was laying a foundation on the court with the successful recruitment of future stars including Billy Cunningham, Bob Lewis, and Larry Miller, while demonstrating his progressive ideals with his dedication to promoting Civil Rights and basic freedoms in Chapel Hill.

Chancellor William Brantley Aycock above all wanted Smith to run a clean program---a program that graduated its players and stayed above the fray on the recruiting trail---and Smith was accomplishing that basic goal though the Tar Heels only went 66-47 his first five seasons and failed to make a single NCAA Tournament appearance, though it was much more difficult back then, requiring an ACC Tournament championship to qualify.

The Hall of Fame coach's greatest moments on the court were well in the future in 1964 when he teamed up with his pastor, Bob Seymour of Chapel Hill's Binkley Baptist Church, and an African-American UNC theology student, to test what was still then stiff resistance to integration in the so-called 'Southern Part of Heaven.'

The following passages are per Steve Kelley's March 29, 1997 article that appeared in the Seattle Times:

The fight to integrate businesses was especially ugly in Chapel Hill in late 1963 and early 1964. In one incident, 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.

It would have been easy for Smith to hide in the gym. To pay lip service to the protesters while keeping a safe distance from the battles raging outside his offices.

But that's not the way he works. Smith understood the power of his position. He was the basketball coach at North Carolina, where the game itself was a religious experience. He knew he could make a difference.

"Dean became an active member of our church," Seymour said. "And those early years coincided with the full impact of the civil rights movement here in Chapel Hill. He was very much a part of that with us."

"In those days, the basketball team was all white. They had many of their evening meals in a very fine local restaurant called The Pines. The Pines was one of the restaurants that was rigid about not admitting blacks."

"When the federal government passed a public-accommodations act, Dean was willing to be a party to our congregation's effort to ensure that all the restaurants were complying. Dean and myself and a black student from the University of North Carolina went to The Pines.

We asked to be served and with Dean Smith at the door, they could not say no. That was the opening of the door of The Pines restaurant."

A year later Smith helped another African-American student, future Chapel Hill mayor and North Carolina State Senator Howard Lee, purchase a home in his all-white neighborhood a couple miles from Woollen Gymnasium, not too long after he had been famously hung in effigy outside Woollen following a 107-85 loss to Wake Forest January 7, 1965, the team's fourth straight loss amidst a 15-9 season.

But within a couple of years Smith had North Carolina heading towards the stratosphere of college basketball, a lofty perch among the sports' elite programs where it would sit for the better part of the next 35 years.

And as the Tar Heels were becoming contenders on the national stage with its run of three straight ACC regular season/Tournament titles and Final Four runs in 1967, 1968, and 1969, Smith again made history with the addition of Scott, who became the first black superstar in the league and opened a floodgate of talent into the conference that won't ever turn back.

Scott endured open racism at opposing ACC schools, including one particularly regrettable moment at South Carolina where a banana was thrown at him and he was called, 'A Black Baboon,' but he endured to become Carolina's second-leading all-time scorer (behind only Lennie Rosenbluth) at the time he graduated from UNC in 1970.

For Coach Smith, integration came honest. And natural.

As natural as his trapping defenses or his players' throwing a hand up during the heat of action to let him know they were tired and needed a rest.

As natural as pointing to the man who made the pass after scoring a basket.

As natural as the freshmen, no matter how decorated or accomplished they were as high schoolers, carrying the bags of the upperclassmen, as well as Smith's old film projector on road trips.

As natural as letting the Seniors start on Senior Day, even if it was Duke they were playing with the ACC title on the line, or even if there were six of them and it meant drawing a technical foul, as happened once, to avoid one of them having to sit out.

Smith's father, Alfred Smith, a legendary basketball coach in his own right in Kansas's high school ranks, help integrate that state's prep tournament in 1934 when he led Emporia High School to a state title.

It was in that backdrop, learning about equality and basic Baptist morality through two public school teacher parents, where Smith developed the core ideals that would carry him throughout life and his legendary career.

But while Smith was well-known for his compassion and empathy off the court, he was also known as a coach who would do most anything strategy-wise to win on it.

While he managed throughout his career to remain a squeaky-clean program from a recruiting standpoint, Smith drew the ire of opposing coaches and fans for his stall tactics in a 21-20 loss to Duke in the 1966 ACC Tournament, and later for implementing the 'Four Corners' offense as a way of milking the second half clock football-style in the days before college basketball had a shot clock.

Some said Smith wouldn't be able to win in the modern game but his teams actually became some of the highest-scoring in the nation, consistently shooting over 50 percent as a team while employing the same aggressive, shifting, trapping defense no matter who the players were on the court.

Though criticized for a time as a coach who 'couldn't win the Big One' after reaching six Final Fours from 1967 to 1981 without a national title, Smith finally got his vindication in 1982 in New Orleans, when freshman Michael Jordan sank a jumper along the left wing to finally bring the NCAA title back to Chapel Hill for the first time in a quarter-century.

But even in ultimate victory, Smith deflected attention away from himself and onto his players, while also expressing his thoughts about the all-too-American winner-take-all philosophy when it comes to sports.

"This team won it. I haven't won it. The team did. And sure, our coaching staff is happy. They don't have to ask you (anymore), 'Why haven't you won it?', but there's many coaches who haven't won it who I think are just fantastic coaches, and perhaps better coaches," Smith said.

"And consequently, I think there's probably too much attention to the national winner and maybe not to the second place team, the third place team, the fourth place team. But that's the way American society is."

Even after he finally got the monkey off his back and won a national championship, and then won another one eleven years later back in the New Orleans Superdome in 1993, Smith maintained his legendary down-to-Earth charm, a credit to his Baptist Midwestern upbringing.

Nobody was or is too small for Coach Smith.

He took particular pride in his glory days in remembering names and was particularly well-known for how well---and equally--- he treated everyone he came into contact with, from powerful men of industry and sport, to people who served him dinner.

"He was as good or better than anybody I know at dealing with those things," said longtime Smith assistant coach Bill Guthridge in a recent interview with Mike Lopresti of NCAA.com. "The last couple of years have been really bad. We were together for 33 years. He was so smart, he could remember everything."

For those of a certain age who grew up in the state of North Carolina, Dean Smith was way more than just a basketball coach.

He was a semi-God---a titan of a man whose looming presence on the UNC sidelines and the annual presence of the great teams he coached were rites of winter and early spring taken for granted every bit as much as the air people breathed.

He was, and still is for many people, a model of living. A philosophy of approaching the day-to-day grind of life with a sense of purpose and determination, with a little compassion sprinkled in.

Unlike a lot of great coaches in the history of sport, Dean Smith wasn't a tyrant. While he demanded a great deal from his players, he also treated them with a level of respect rarely seen anymore. He refused to publicly criticize his players, taking blame for losses no matter how poorly his players had performed.

He proved that a coach can win big and consistently over a very long period of time while also being a gentleman.

He had that rare human combination of supreme competitive fire and humility that endeared him to his fellow coaches, his players, and most everyone that ever came into contact with him or spent any time with him.

"Coach Smith, he's the best there ever was in my opinion on the court, and far better off the court. The things he did off the court meant so much more than the time he spent on the court, except for the relationships that he built on the court and how special that was to him," said Coach Williams, who first learned under Coach Smith watching UNC practices from the rafters inside Carmichael Auditorium in the early '70s before becoming a Smith assistant for approximately a decade.

"It's still a game, and it's about the individual. It's about the student-athletes, the young men you're able to work with," Williams continued.

"I ask myself all the time, 'What would Coach Smith do right now? Would Coach Smith be proud of the way I've handled some things?"

"His whole thing, his beliefs, it was more about the people involved. I'll never be as good as he was, and I don't think anybody ever will be," Williams added. "But I have tried, from the coaching part on the court and even more off the court, to try to do those things with the youngsters, and the loyalty, do those things with the youngsters that he would be proud of."

Today Coach Smith doesn't remember or couldn't tell you about all those wins, all those great players he coached and competed against, all those memories that have become indelible in the minds of UNC fans around the world, as the cruel, hateful grip of his affliction erodes his memory.

It's a sad reminder of how life, often cruelly, can take away those things we hold most precious and dear to our hearts.

But at the same time, Wednesday's ceremony is further proof that Dean Smith has forever sealed his legacy as one of the true Giants of his time.

Few, if any, will ever make a mark on college basketball, the town of Chapel Hill, and the state of North Carolina the way Coach Smith did.

Perhaps the best way Smith's legions of fans and supporters can honor him is not only by remembering the good times, but keeping in mind the struggle that he and so many other elderly people in our communities face with the day-to-day struggles of memory loss.

According to the North Carolina Division of Aging and Adult Services, approximately 170,000 natives of the Tar Heel State are currently suffering from some form of dementia and/or Alzheimer's Disease. And sometimes in our daily lives, it's easy to unknowingly turn a blind eye to the elderly and the challenges they face to live out their own lives with grace.

Many of them, who unlike Smith don't have the benefit of financial resources and a supportive, loving family, don't get the daily attention and stimulation that they need to live quality lives through their challenges.

Our elderly citizens, many of them members of the 'Greatest Generation' who fought World War II and survived growing up in the Great Depression, helped build the current foundation of the United States as the world's supreme power.

Without a doubt, many of those 170,000 dementia patients in North Carolina were and are huge fans of Coach Smith and the Tar Heels, and the debilitating issues they now share is further proof of the equalizing irony of life and death in the world.

In the end, we're all in this thing together, living in this world and trying to make a go of it.

That was one of Coach Smith's core beliefs, and it guided him as he emerged as a champion of basic human decency and athletic excellence.

And though he won't be there Wednesday when President Obama honors him for everything he's meant to UNC, Chapel Hill, and college basketball as a whole, those valuable lessons and nuggets of wisdom Coach Smith passed down won't be far from the minds of the many people he's touched throughout his remarkable life.


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