March Madness came early in North Carolina on Monday night, and arrived with perhaps the state’s most significant NCAA tournament defeat in history. And so the question became relevant when the reality set in: What would Dean do?
What would the late, great North Carolina coach Dean Smith do if he were here to experience this? How would he react to the madness of a different kind that has cost his beloved state the chance to host the NCAA tournament and six other NCAA championship events?
It was a question that came to mind again and again while covering the news on Monday that the NCAA had pulled seven championship events out of North Carolina. Smith, who died in February 2015, stood for equality and diversity.
He fought for civil rights. He helped integrate UNC, Chapel Hill and the ACC. He spoke out against the death penalty, and war, and gave hope to the hopeless when he took his teams inside of prisons for practices.
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Now imagine what Smith would have thought on Monday. Imagine his reaction to the news that the NCAA was pulling championships out of North Carolina because of its controversial House Bill 2, a state law that requires people to use public bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with the gender on their birth certificates.
It’s likely Smith never would have stood by without fighting HB2, the same way he didn’t stand for segregation or other social injustices. In far more volatile times, he took a stand against far more controversial, divisive issues. And he helped inspire important changes.
Local college athletics leaders have condemned HB2. The athletic directors at Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State all released statements on Monday night. Kevin White, the Duke athletic director, called the legislation “discriminatory, troubling and embarrassing.”
Later in the night, John Swofford, the ACC commissioner, called for the repeal of HB2.
They were strong statements, with strong words, reacting to damage that had already been done. HB2 would have had less of a chance to cause such misery, though, had leaders strongly admonished it from the beginning.
These days, many in power do their talking through official statements. They pick their moments. Their words arrive in email inboxes. The opportunity for dialogue is lost and, in some ways the power of the words diminished given they’re read in silence, off of a screen or piece of paper.
Smith, a quiet man by nature, was never afraid to lend his voice. He wasn’t afraid to speak out, when necessary, and had HB2 happened during his time there’s little doubt how he would have reacted to it.
About two weeks after Smith’s death, UNC held a public memorial at the Smith Center, the building Smith never wanted to be named after him. Some of his former players spoke. Woody Durham, who for 25 years was the play-by-play voice of Smith’s games, spoke. Roy Williams spoke.
One by one, the stories constructed a portrait of a man whose legacy spreads far beyond basketball. Robert Seymour, Smith’s longtime friend and pastor at Binkley Baptist Church, was the last to speak at that memorial. His words seem more poignant now, in this difficult week for this state.
“How do we honor him?” Seymour said, posing the question about Smith. “Dare we hold up our lives against this man’s life, as we see his virtues, his values, his goodness, his generosity, his kindness to everyone? My friends, we honor Dean Smith when we support the civil rights for every human being.”