Inside the Chapel Hill church where Dean Smith had a regular seat on the back row, family, friends and former players gathered privately Thursday to celebrate the coach whose fight, accomplishments and values transcended the bounds of a basketball court.
While a public memorial service for the longtime UNC coach is set for 2 p.m. Feb. 22 in the campus arena that bears his name, those closest to the native Kansan spent Thursday at Olin T. Binkley Baptist Church to say goodbye.
As a small group of media gathered outside the church, sidelined fans stood on the churchyard perimeter to get a glimpse of sports greats.
They did not want to intrude. But they did not want to miss a chance to get a glimpse of star athletes they had mostly seen through a TV screen.
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Michael Jordan and his mother were among those who paid their respects in the light and airy church that Smith attended for decades.
James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Eric Montross, Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, Jason Capel, Jeff McInnis, Donald Williams and King Rice also were there in dark suits — and more often than not sporting Carolina blue ties.
“It was a nice service,” said King Rice, a Tar Heel point guard from 1988 to 1991 who now is head coach at Monmouth University in New Jersey.
Roy Williams, a former Tar Heel player who now leads the program that Smith built into a national powerhouse, was unable to hold back tears, according to those who attended, as he offered recollections of his mentor.
Watching the current coach was Bill Guthridge, who took over as head coach in 1997 after Smith offered what many characterize as the ultimate assist to Guthridge – announcing his retirement within weeks of the season’s beginning to ensure that his longtime assistant would be his successor.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, a longtime sports rival who has expressed admiration for the life Smith lived, also was at the service.
So was former Georgetown coach John Thompson, whose Hoyas lost to the Tar Heels in the 1982 NCAA finals.
Marcus McFaul, listed as “intentional interim minister” at Binkley, offered remarks at a service that included scripture readings from 1 Corinthians 13 and Matthew 25:31-46 and hymns – “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” “In the Bulb There is a Flower,” “Now Thank We All Our God” and “Amazing Grace.”
Howard Lee, a former N.C. state senator and the first African-American mayor of Chapel Hill, was listed as a speaker, as were Smith’s son and daughter.
Warren Martin, a Chapel Hill middle school social studies teacher and the nearly 7-foot-tall former Tar Heel center who scored the first UNC basket in the 1986 inaugural Smith Center game, opened his church bulletin for curious onlookers as players filed out of the church.
But he would not part with the memento, saying he would face trouble at home if he did not keep it.
Players lingered in the church parking lot, catching up on old and new stories.
Since Smith’s death on Saturday at 83, there has been much talk about how Smith kept up with his players long after their playing days were over. He offered them counsel on jobs, finances and personal crises. He built what others called “the Carolina family,” and he did not seem to mind being the patriarch for the large group.
On Thursday, that one big family of many generations left a church, saying goodbye to a sportsman, a gentleman and a thinker who taught his followers to stand firm in their beliefs and acknowledge an assist from those who helped along the way.
John Coffey, a Chapel Hill resident and UNC alumnus, turned toward the funeral procession as it drove past the church after the service.
He pointed his finger toward the cloudy sky.
“Coach Smith always said the most important thing was to acknowledge an assist,” Coffey said. “I was pointing up to heaven, acknowledging.”