It was a trying time for the UNC community in January and February 2015.
On January 4, 2015, longtime ESPN broadcaster and UNC alum Stuart Scott passed away at the young age of 49. For eight years, he inspired others with his battle against cancer.
Just over a month later on February 7, 2015, the legendary former head coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels Dean Smith passed away at the age of 83 after fighting a progressive neurological disorder.
For each of these tremendous losses, the university and the basketball program were able to honor the memory of these men in ways that were touching and heartfelt.
And for sports fans, it was difficult to hold back the tears in each.
January 5, 2015 vs. Notre Dame
The day after Scott passed, the Tar Heels hosted no. 13 Notre Dame in a top 20 match up at the Smith Center.
Prior to the game, the Tar Heel community rallied to provide thoughtful remembrance to a member of the UNC family.
In the student section, signs were distributed and held that read “STU.”
These signs matched the memorial patch that the Tar Heels wore on their uniforms that evening.
Before tipoff, a moment of silence was held. Then, excerpts from Scott’s 2014 Jimmy V Award acceptance speech from six months prior was shown.
If you have not seen his speech, watch it now. And you have seen it, watch it again.
From Scott’s speech:
“That’s why all of this, why we’re here tonight, that’s why it’s so important. I also realized something else recently. You heard me kind of allude to it in the piece. I said ‘I’m not losing. I’m still here, I’m fighting. I’m not losing.’ But I’ve gotta amend that. When you die, that does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live. So, live. Live. Fight like hell. And when you get too tired to fight, then lay down and rest and let somebody else fight for you.That’s also very, very important.”
With heavy hearts that evening, the Tar Heels still had a game to play. And for those whose lives have been affected by cancer, a return to normalcy, even if it is just for 40 minutes on the hardwoods.
The student section added another special touch that game with a “boo-yah!” after each made three.
After a 11-point rally in the second half, the team seemed destined to finish the night with a win, but fell by a point to the Fighting Irish.
February 21, 2015 vs. Georgia Tech
The news of Smith’s passing reached current UNC head coach Roy Williams as the team was returning from 79-68 victory at Boston College.
Amid the remembrances and tributes, the team dropped two-straight on the road, including a heartbreaker in overtime to Duke.
When the team returned for a game in the arena named for the late coach, there were the same type of memorials that became all-too-familiar in 2015 with a moment of silence and video montages.
Wearing throwback uniforms and a “DES” patch that would adorn the team’s jerseys for the rest of the season, the first home game was another emotional experience for those in Chapel Hill and watching from home.
However, in the first possession of the game, an unexpected tribute to Smith became a timeless moment in the history of the Carolina program.
After UNC gained control of the basketball after the tip, Williams held four fingers to the sky. Guard Marcus Paige relayed the play call to the team, and the Tar Heels went into the famed Four Corners offense perfected by Smith.
With the retro uniforms on the court, the players connected generations of basketball fans in that moment. For many, that was the first time they saw the Four Corners offense executed live by the Tar Heels.
And in just how Smith drew the offense, Brice Johnson capped it off with a layup.
That moment, although lasting mere seconds, was the perfect on-court nod to Smith.
The Tar Heels cruised that evening and defeated the Yellow Jackets by 29 points.
With sports, you are bonded to others in ways that transcend the competition on the court. These moments are shared experienced. You share them with your family and friends, the stranger in the seat beside you, and with coaches, players, and broadcasters you will never meet.
As sports fans, we were connected to Scott and Smith, even as we did not know them. Their impact went beyond the Sportscenter anchor’s desk or UNC sidelines.
That is why on those particular evenings in 2015, it does not really matter that the Tar Heels lost to Notre Dame or beat Georgia Tech. What mattered were the moments that were borne from those games.
It mattered that these men were celebrated for their off-court contributions. Scott and Smith were models for perseverance, integrity, and joy. And that perspective lasts long after the final buzzer sounds.