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?


Anonymous said...

Although I believe that there are many American heroes that I could nominate, I would have to pick Harper Lee. Lee's beloved novel To Kill A Mockingbird is my favorite book and also served as a revolutionary American novel during a time of great racial prejudice in our nation. The book was revolutionary in that it featured a white man defending a man of color for a crime in which he allegedly raped a white woman. This crime as illustrated by the townspeople of Macomb would normally have resulted in Tom Robinson (the defendant) being lynched if it was not for Atticus Finch (his notably white lawyer). Lee made Americans truly think about racial and social injustices in her novel. Normally, the jury would have found Robinson guilty in a matter of seconds and sentenced him to death. However, in her story the jury deliberates for a great deal of time. Even though Robinson was ultimately found guilty, the idea of a white man willfully defending a black man was revolutionary back in the 1960s when it was published. Lee's progressive themes and plot yield her to be a truly inspiring American hero in my eyes.

Ellie L said...

This post was very informative, as I did not know about Dean Smith before. I can see why you picked him as your "American hero"- he just "did what's right!" It is amazing to me that as a high school student, he stood up for equality, something he would continue to do for the rest of his life. I will definitely have to read more about him! As for my "American hero," I would choose Rose Marcario, president and CEO of Patagonia. Marcario has lead her company on the right path- they are now completely environmentally friendly, advocate for factory workers to be paid appropriately, and invest in "like-minded" companies with strong environmental ethos. Marcario also oversees Patagonia Provisions, the company's new like of sustainable food. Marcario, although she is the CEO of a huge, VERY profitable company, sees the importance of equality, the environment, hard work, and much more. Of course, there are many, many other people who are also American heroes!

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Again, there are many people that I could choose, the likes of Reagan, FDR, MLK, Steinbeck, etc., but off of the top of my head, someone who hasn't been brought to the spotlight is Ben Rich. A legend in American aerospace, Rich led the way on the fringes of aerospace technology and further extended American air superiority. His stealth fighter broke barriers long thought impossible to break, one such barrier being Saddam Hussein's heavily defended city of Baghdad during Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf War. I'd compare Rich's stealth fighter to the atomic bomb in terms of impact on a global/political scale. He has also been a major part of the creation of famous planes such as the U-2 and SR-71. Rich's engineering has helped America win the Cold War and the Iraq (Gulf) War. Furthermore, his story embodies the American Dream, from a lowly engineer to head of a multi-billion dollar research and development team, his narrative arc follows (only partially, he was actually upperclass growing up) that dream that any American (Jewish in a not so tolerant time period) can rise up through the ranks by merit.
To me, Ben Rich represents American dominance in engineering and that's why I wouldn't hesitate to call him an American hero.

Anonymous said...

I really like how Smith put it: "Don't be proud of doing what's right. Just do what's right.” It seems that he never wanted attention for his contributions to society because he felt like we are all obligated to stand up against racial discrimination.
I would nominate Ernie Banks as an American hero for very similar reasons why you voted Dean Smith as an American hero. Banks recently passed away late January and like Dean Smith, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Banks is considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time. By most, he will remembered by hitting over 500 home runs, over 2,500 hits, and being a 14 time MLB All-Star, but his greatness was far more than being an incredible baseball player. It was being an incredible human. After all the racial discrimination he endured throughout his life, he never failed to share positivity and optimism to those around him. Just like Smith, he never sought to receive credit for doing what was right. Instead, he “Just DID it.”

Spencer James said...
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Spencer James said...

In keeping with the theme of legendary coaches, I would nominate Branch Rickey. Rickey was the Brooklyn Dodgers manager who, in 1947, signed the first African American baseball player onto a major league baseball team. The player's name was Jackie Robinson. Although Robinson gets all of the- still much deserved- fame for being the racially revolutionary player in baseball, he would have most likely never had that chance had it not been for Rickey's strong will. The coach had to ignore all of the hatred he received from fans, other teams, and even his own players and colleagues in order to change the game of baseball forever. Without Rickey, it may have taken decades longer for baseball to move away from being a white man's game and become a truly American sport.
In the same way that Dean Smith risked his own image to stand up for his beliefs, Rickey, a number of years earlier than Smith, stood up for his belief that the game of baseball should open to all players.

Calvin Montgomery said...

Also a progressive leader in college basketball, I would nominate Don Haskins. Haskins coached Texas Western basketball team which made history starting five black players against Kentucky in the 1966 National Championship game. They were able to upset the favored Kentucky and their Hall of Fame coach Adolf Rupp. Haskins and his players endured racism and severe opposition in a time that was not totally ready for change. It was later revealed he received tens of thousands of hate letters and threats were sent to him from around the country. While Texas Western is now University of Texas, El Paso, Haskin's legacy lives on in the College Basketball Hall of Fame as well as being the fifth winningest coach ever. He is credited for integrating the sport.

Anonymous said...

I think that Amelia Earhart is one of the many American Heroes. She was pioneer for women's rights during her life, holding an opinion contrary to the popular one--similar to Dean Smith. She was an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, and dedicated her time to help other women. Earhart played a major role in the formation of an organization for female pilots, and she counseled women on careers, inspiring others with her love for aviation. She carved a path for women's freedom in a society that continually fought her on it. But she did not give; she stood up for what she believed in.