Friday, February 13, 2015

Dean Smith: An American Hero

Dean Smith and MJ: how young they once were! Basketball icons, both. In the photo (below, right) Michael Jordan is just about to start arguably the greatest basketball career of all time -- a career that will certainly make him the biggest sports celebrity of all time. His coach, Dean Smith, chose a different route, quietly revolutionizing basketball but also pressing some of the most important civil rights issues in the past 70 years.

Earlier this week I woke up to the sad news that legendary North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith had died at the age of 83. As a sports fan my whole life, I've lived through many sad sports stories, witnessed the deaths of many sports heroes. But no sports figure has ever affected me as personally as the loss of "The Coach," "Michaelangelo," Dean Smith.

Michael Jordan and Dean Smith
I have no personal acquaintanceship with Coach Smith, but I first fell in love with Tar Heel basketball in 1976 -- long before Michael Jordan played for the Heels -- when the US team won gold at the Montreal Olympics. (That's why I originally wrote this post in light blue!) While most people know his astonishing record as a coach -- the two national titles, the eleven final fours, his (then record) 877 career wins -- Smith's record as a teacher and as a man and as an American citizen is even more impressive.

  • Smith was a star on his high school team, or I should say ONE of his teams since his school had a white team and a black team. In 1949, recognizing the injustice, Smith used his status as a star athlete to pressure the principal to integrate the school. One of the black players was Oliver BROWN -- as in the 1954 landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, KS. Slate's Jason Zengle" puts it this way: "To Smith, racial justice was about much more than winning and losing. It was simply the correct thing to do." Smith, he continues, "understood this far sooner than many other white Americans." As a teenager in Topeka, Kansas, he’d persuaded his high school principal—five years before the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education -- to integrate the school’s basketball team.
  • Nine years later, as a mere assistant basketball coach at UNC, he integrated Chapel Hill when he invited a black divinity student to eat at the town's finest restaurant, which was then still segregated. Since the Tar Heels ate many meals there, Smith gambled that the restaurant wouldn't want to lose their business, saying he would not eat there if they wouldn't serve people of color. They were promptly served and the restaurant ended its practice of segregation.
  • Shortly thereafter he integrated the ACC, recruiting its first black player, Charlie Scott (below, right). That it took three years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act for this southeastern conference to allow a black player on court speaks volumes about the kind of environment in which "The Coach" set up shop.
  • In an age where celebrities and ordinary citizens alike are often afraid to speak up since it might hurt their reputation, their "brand," Smith exercised his First Amendment rights, speaking out against the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, and capital punishment (starts at 2:40 on the video). Can you imagine another major basketball coach taking on the Prison-Industrial complex? At the state capitol, as the video relates, Smith pointed his finger at the governor and said, "if you support capital punishment you are a murderer." Then, since he was never holier than thou, he pointed at himself and said, "And I am a murderer. Capital punishment makes murderers of us all." Would John Calipari risk his "brand" by taking a political stand? No chance!

Dean Smith and Charlie Scott
None of these views was popular in his home state of North Carolina -- especially in the perilous times of the 1960's and 70's -- but Smith always exercised his First Amendment right of speaking out for what is right. As Smith put it: "Don't be proud of doing what's right. Just do what's right." To put it another way he didn't "just do it," he "just DID it."

For these reasons Smith gets my vote for being an American hero. Whom would you nominate and why?