It seems like everyone has a Dean Smith story.
I've got one though it's really not that impressive. I was 17 years old and by way of being acquainted with a UNC walk-on player during the 1992-93 season, I went to the Blue-White Game. After the game, I found myself in the UNC locker room. For a lifelong Tar Heel fan it was a dream come true. On our way out of the building we ascended a stairwell to leave the Dean Smith Center when the door above opened. Dean Smith came down the steps. He greeted us with a smile and I, a skinny teenager, stood their dumbfounded to be passing by the legendary coach on some poorly lit stairs.
Despite his prodigious memory it's unlikely Dean Smith would have recalled the brief encounter however across the internet today from rivals to celebrities, journalists to average fans the stories are told. Whether it was a letter to a first grade class in 1982 or autographing a book, the endless stream of anecdotes share one common thread: Dean Smith cared about the people he met.
Smith's generosity with his time and attention has manifest itself in grands ways on the public stage and through small gestures on the private one. In segregation era Chapel Hill, Smith took it upon himself to take a stand for racial justice not just on the basketball court but in the town. Smith took an African-American student to a segregated restaurant in Chapel Hill, forcing the establishment to change its policies. Later as head coach, Smith brought Charlie Scott into the program helping to shatter the walls of discrimination in the ACC and college basketball as a whole.
In all of these acts, whether it was taking a stand on a controversial social issue or going the extra mile in a letter to a stranger, Smith simply cared about people. The political stands he took, which no coach today would ever think about taking, weren't necessarily about advocating a position but helping people impacted by the issue. This was a man who took very seriously the precepts of his faith to "do unto the least of these" and "do unto others and you would have them do unto you."
That same faith also teaches our devotion to a righteous life is better told by our actions in private moments rather than what is displayed publicly. The public acts of Dean Smith, undertaken at times with risk and requiring great courage, in some ways pale to the endless stream of private moments briefly share with ordinary people. It is the acts no one expects, really see or would even think are necessary that measure the extent of who Smith was in his lifetime.
When it came to Tar Heel players, Smith's loyalty was limitless and his perceived duty to be teacher, coach and in some cases father figure was rarely matched. 99.9 The Fan's Joe Ovies pointed out during the station's special broadcast this morning that other programs talk about being a family but North Carolina under Dean Smith was the first and one that does it genuinely. Smith's players were more than just that to him because his investment was in the person first and foremost. He was as much concerned for how they handled the travails of life as he was an opposing team's man-to-man defense. As the day long testimonies have shown, Smith's best contribution to the lives of his players hasn't necessarily been their success on the court but how he sought to mold and shape them off of it.
The legacy of Dean Smith the coach is every member of his team was equal from the superstar to the walk-on. He believed the player who made the shot should give credit to the teammate who threw him the ball, that seniors should always start on Senior Day and he should talk about the team more than any one player. Winning was important but even in loss, if the Tar Heels played well, Dean Smith "could live with it." Smith was competitive and demanding but understood there were greater life lessons in hard work, preparation and playing your best than the actual result. In all of that, his teams reflected the truth that placing others ahead of yourself and sacrificing your own desires for a common goal.
The measure of a life is counted in any number of ways but especially by the ripple effect that goes out from its brief splash in the pond of history. The ripple effect of Dean Smith has touched countless lives, altered the way college basketball was played and helped change the course of society on issues like racism. While history and win loss records will tell the story of Dean Smith as a coach, his ultimate legacy is found in his interactions with people no matter how brief it was.
Everyone seems to have a Dean Smith story because Dean Smith seemed to care about everyone he met.