On a Sunday afternoon that radiated warmth after a week of ice and snow, around 10,000 fans and hundreds of former lettermen and friends of the Carolina basketball family came to bid a final farewell to Dean Smith at a memorial celebration in the building that bears his name on Sunday.
Chancellor Carol Folt welcomed the crowd and, as was the case for most of Smith's tenure at UNC, Woody Durham provided the soundtrack for the afternoon that featured tributes from former All-Americans to former JV players in a ceremony that was alternately light and poignant as memories of Smith were recounted.
Among those players representing a cross-section of eras throughout Smith's tenure offering their memories of their coach were Billy Cunningham, his first All-American; Mickey Bell, a former JV player who earned his way onto the varsity; Phil Ford, whose jersey is retired and played and coached for Smith; Brad Daugherty, ESPN broadcaster and all-American in the 1980s; Eric Montross, who played on the 1993 title team and is the current UNC basketball color analyst; and All-American Antawn Jamison, who played on Smith's last team in 1997.
After the players spoke, former UNC system president Erskine Bowles, current UNC coach Roy Williams, Smith's children Scott and Kristen, and Smith's pastor Robert Seymour also addressed the gathering.
Throughout the day, common themes emerged in the tributes to Smith, such as loyalty, humility, service, family, and social justice. Below are some of the highlights of the speakers in tweet form:
Cunningham: Showed me over and over again that one person can make a difference.— Doc Kennedy (@DocHeelfire) February 22, 2015
Bell: Why Mickey Bell? I wasn't All-American. Other speakers are legends. Roy reminded him Coach Smith treated all players with same regard— Doc Kennedy (@DocHeelfire) February 22, 2015
Bell: Smith coached you to be a player for 4 years. Coached you to be a man for a lifetime.— Doc Kennedy (@DocHeelfire) February 22, 2015
Bell: Simple gesture of pointing to the passer epitomized what Smith was all about.— Doc Kennedy (@DocHeelfire) February 22, 2015
Bell: If anyone asks what Coach Smith was like, simply reply "He was the best" Choked up when saying that.— Doc Kennedy (@DocHeelfire) February 22, 2015
Ford: If we need a model how to live our lives, look no further than Smith's life— Doc Kennedy (@DocHeelfire) February 22, 2015
Daugherty: The one word that describes him: loyalty. Doesn't matter what you've done, he was in your corner— Doc Kennedy (@DocHeelfire) February 22, 2015
"There was a recognition that basketball was not what should wholly define our lives..." _ Eric Montross— Aaron Beard (@aaronbeardap) February 22, 2015
Jamison: Didn't realize how privileged we were to be part of his last team. Maybe we would have cherished that time more.— Doc Kennedy (@DocHeelfire) February 22, 2015
Jamison: Things I preach to my own kids are things he taught and preached to us as players— Doc Kennedy (@DocHeelfire) February 22, 2015
Roy Williams took the stage to a standing ovation and mixed his comments with humor and emotion. Williams spoke of having given all credit and respect to Coach Smith but never telling him he loved him and regretted having never done that. Williams also said it was time to end the grieving and begin the celebration of Smith's life. Williams ended his remarks by asking everyone to point to the sky and thank Dean Smith for the assist.
Perhaps some of the most stirring remarks came from Seymour, who was Smith's pastor at Binkley Baptist Church for 30 years but was friends with Smith for 55 years. He acknowledged Smith's decline in health over the last 4-5 years by saying it had been a "long, long goodbye". He also noted that this event was not for Smith, it was for his friends and family and fans. "He didn't need this," said Seymour, "but you and I needed it."
And that, perhaps, was the day's best summary. I admit I had already written the lede for this piece while waiting for the event to begin. I wrote that Dean Smith probably wouldn't have cared for all this. He was never about the individual, preferring to put the team first. He would probably have bristled at the idea that Sunday's celebration took away from Roy Williams and Saturday's fantastic performance by the Tar Heels, one of their best so far. He likely would have hated that something for him was an inconvenience, that the arena was not available for the team to practice with a huge game coming up in just two days against NC State.
This sentiment was echoed among a number of the speakers, and was bookended by the first speaker (Cunningham) and the last speaker (Seymour) noting that such displays of attention were not Smith's thing. Erskine Bowles referenced the pointed discussions held between his father, the lead fundraiser for the Smith Center, and Smith on naming the building and that Smith was adamant the building not be named for him. "it was the only time I'm glad Coach Smith lost", Bowles remarked.
Perhaps the only drawback to the day was the building was expected to be full but a crowd of only 10-12 thousand showed up. A number of people on Twitter mentioned their fears of coming to town only to be turned away, while others noted the broad media coverage including radio and TV. Still, Smith probably wouldn't have been too concerned. Smith famously once said that there were millions of people in China who didn't care the first bit about the results of a basketball game, and he would probably feel the same about people coming out on a Sunday for him.
In the end, Rev. Seymour was right. Whether in person or participating via TV, radio, or the internet, this was for those who were touched, either directly or indirectly by Dean Smith. It was a celebration of a life well-lived and a model for the life others would hope to live.