They took their seats on the stage, an elite gathering of the most notable and accomplished people in the country called to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
These were the best Americans that America has to offer. Presidents. Entertainers. Politicians. Scientists. Astronauts. Journalists. Activists. And among the 16 whose arrivals were announced with due ceremony: “Mrs. Linnea Smith, accepting on behalf of her husband, Dean Smith.”
Of all the honors Smith has won, and they are many, the one he received in absentia Wednesday represented what really matters to him. Not basketball, but life. Not a game, but the lessons that game can teach. The North Carolina coach was a champion on the court and a leader in the community, a man for whom the fight in defense of equality was more important than any defense on the court.
“Dean Smith is one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history, but his successes go far beyond Xs and Os,” President Barack Obama said, and indeed they do.
It is an extremely cruel twist of fate that denied Smith the chance to enjoy this moment in person, as he so surely would have. The degenerative brain disorder that has robbed Smith of the extraordinary mind that made him such an extraordinary person also kept him from attending Wednesday’s ceremony.
Linnea Smith accepted the medal, cradled in a polished wooden box, from Obama as members of Smith’s family and former assistant coaches Bill Guthridge and Roy Williams looked on in the White House’s gilded East Room. The latter two men also succeeded Smith as North Carolina’s coach, their presence a testament to the loyalty Smith has always demonstrated to his players and coaches, and has always received from them in return.
Ethel Kennedy, the sister-in-law of the man who had the idea for these medals 50 years ago, was in the audience as well, and Obama pointed out that this class of recipients epitomized what former President John F. Kennedy “understood to be the essence of the American spirit.”
Smith was included Wednesday in a pantheon of medal-winning Americans that included former President Bill Clinton, entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey, baseball star Ernie Banks, singer Loretta Lynn, activist Gloria Steinem, journalist Ben Bradlee and eight others from the ranks of politics, journalism, science and entertainment. John Wooden is the only other college men’s basketball coach to receive the honor.
“These are the men and women who in their extraordinary lives remind us all of the beauty of the human spirit, the values that define us as Americans, the potential that lives in all of us,” Obama said.
Obama repeated the old joke about Smith being the only person who could hold Michael Jordan under 20 points but turned serious when talking first about Smith’s illness and then his contributions to civil rights.
“We also honor his courage in helping to change our country,” Obama said. “He recruited the first black scholarship athlete to North Carolina and helped integrate a restaurant and a neighborhood in Chapel Hill. That’s the kind of character he represented on and off the court.”
Never sought attention
Smith, 82, never sought this kind of attention. He has lived his life with the grace, vision, accomplishment and courage that unavoidably brought it upon him. That he could not enjoy this pinnacle is tragic, but his absence only underlines the tremendous void he has left since departing the public stage.
After giving Linnea Smith the medal, Obama hugged her, then escorted her back to her seat on the stage, her husband having taken his place among the finest citizens America chooses to acknowledge.
Presidents. Activists. Scientists. Artists. And a basketball coach who managed to win a few games here and there when he wasn’t busy changing the country.