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Dean Smith, beyond the medal

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comSeptember 11, 2013 

Frankly, some of us didn’t expect him to show. Dean Smith, then retired as the Hall of Fame basketball coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was to appear in November of 2003 at a dinner with the annual North Carolina Conference of Editorial Writers, opinion scribes from around the state. He and William Friday, president emeritus of the UNC system, were going to discuss college sports. But Friday had a conflict, so we figured Smith would likely cancel as well.

But when we got upstairs at Spanky’s restaurant, there was the coach, wearing a Carolina blue blazer and greeting the writers, most of whom were fans of the man if not the team. He made polite conversation with the grace of someone comfortable with fame.

But shortly before dinner began, I felt a hand on my elbow, and turned round.

“I want you to know,” Dean Smith said, “that I read the editorial page before I read the sports page.”

I was flattered for my colleagues and flabbergasted and despite having met a few celebrities in my time, maybe a little star struck. I wound up sitting with the coach at dinner.

He talked sports, but knowing his history with involvement with social causes, I asked him (figuring on a pat answer, to tell the truth), “Coach, where does your liberalism come from?”

Now, with Smith designated to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, later this year at the White House, it seems fitting to share a conversation that in hindsight was meaningful personally and in a larger sense proves Smith absolutely worthy of the honor. (He has, unfortunately, lost some of his memory as he has entered his 80s.)

“Well,” he said, “my parents were teachers in Kansas, so I guess a lot of how I feel comes because of them. That’s really where it started.”

In fact, young Smith tried to push for racial integration of his high school team, and his father was active in integrating amateur sports in the state.

And so he talked on about his folks. Then, he spoke about joining Binkley Baptist church in Chapel Hill and developing a lifelong friendship with the Rev. Bob Seymour, its beloved minister and a leader in the civil rights movement.

“Bob talked to me at one point,” he recalled, “and he said, ‘Dean, you’re someone who can do something.’ So I became more active after that.” More active included taking Seymour and a black student to one of Chapel Hill’s most exclusive restaurants, then segregated. But when Smith walked in, it was instantly integrated. And so, thereafter, was everywhere else in Chapel Hill.

He recruited the university’s first black scholarship athlete, a basketball player named Charles Scott, who said years later that one thing he liked about Smith was that he always showed him respect by calling him “Charles” instead of Charlie. And as with other players, Smith stayed in touch all through the years.

Along the way, with a booster constituency that leaned conservative, Smith lent his name to campaigns for integration and against the death penalty. He went to rallies. And he seemed to get more liberal as he got older.

“Bill Finlator was one of my heroes,” he said that night of the late legendary preacher from Raleigh’s Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, at that time himself a member of Binkley. “I love that guy. A great man.” Those are fighting words in some corners, but this was ... who it was. Many a prominent conservative called the coach a friend, but he didn’t hesitate to appear at campaign rallies for Democrats of a liberal persuasion, and never ran from the label himself.

And so Dean Smith, coach of coaches, is deserving of the latest high honor not just for wins and losses and high sportsmanship, but for being a man in full, a man of conviction and humanity, who didn’t just talk about freedom but fought for it.

A final memory of the night is simple, but still speaks to the fellow’s abiding character. Just before we left the dinner that night, I told him, “Well Coach, I’ll tell you a little story. Two weeks ago my father died, and your friend Finlator came and shed a few tears, and then Jesse Helms, who’d been in school with my Pop, came in, too. You strike me as a fellow who probably has friends of all views as well.”

He smiled, and held up his right hand. I didn’t know what he was doing. “Hey,” he said. “How about a high-five for your Dad?” It may be about the nicest thing that ever happened to me.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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