One of the most poignant moments in sports history occurred when Dean Smith won his first national championship.
But it was not a moment of jubilation. It was a moment of compassion.
Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels had just defeated the Georgetown Hoyas 63-62 for the 1982 NCAA title. Michael Jordan sank what turned out to be the game-winning shot — and ignited what would turn out to be the most dynamic career in basketball. Then, on the last possession, Georgetown’s Fred Brown made his famous gaffe, passing the ball to his opponent, the wide-open and surprised James Worthy, who dribbled out the clock.
Pandemonium ensued inside the New Orleans Superdome. But Smith was not jumping up and down. He was not even smiling. He immediately walked over to Georgetown coach John Thompson and gave him a hug. Smith’s head reached the towering Thompson’s chin. They exchanged a few words. Smith reacted not by celebrating his first triumph after six previous trips to the Final Four, but by consoling his rival and friend Thompson, who consoled Brown.
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I remember that moment like it happened yesterday. I was sports editor of the student-run Daily Tar Heel, in New Orleans to help cover the game. When I had first arrived in Chapel Hill as a freshman from Miami, I had no idea who Dean Smith was, or why he was adored. I learned. I learned about his renown as coach, motivator, innovator, tactician. And on that night in the Superdome, I learned about the essence of the man.
Empathy and humility: Those were the values Smith taught his players — and taught everyone through his example.
“I loved him,” Thompson said Sunday after hearing about Smith’s death at age 83.
Matt Doherty, who played for Smith on that championship team, said something similar the last time he saw Smith.
“I told him I loved him,” Doherty said.
Smith remembered names, and the names of people’s children and grandchildren. He was a prolific letter-writer. He constantly called former players, in their good times and bad, to check up on them and offer help or encouragement. In his final years, dementia robbed him of his marvelous memory.
Until the end, it was always about others, never about him. Smith, son of Kansas schoolteachers, considered himself a teacher first. He was a shy person who deflected attention. He did not want the “Dean Dome” named after him. When he broke Adolph Rupp’s record for wins, and the crowd went nuts, shouting “Dean! Dean!” he ran off the court, embarrassed. He purposely retired right before the start of practice for the 1997-98 season so there would be no farewell tour and UNC would have to hire his longtime assistant, Bill Guthridge. Loyalty was another of his pillars.
Smith’s legacy includes two titles, 11 Final Four appearances, a 97 percent graduation rate, an incredible list of protégés who went on to playing or coaching stardom, the Four Corners offense (which led to what he wanted — a shot clock), statistical analysis. But also the “point-to-the-passer” acknowledgment a scorer makes.
Smith was a force for integration in the 1960s; he took a black student to an all-white restaurant where the team ate. He made Charlie Scott the first black scholarship athlete at UNC, just as his father had put a black player on his all-white high school team. He spoke out against the death penalty, against nuclear proliferation and for gay rights.
“He took us to the Death Row prison in Raleigh to scrimmage and talk to the inmates,” said Doherty, who returns to Chapel Hill every summer to join alumni and current players in pickup games. “Each practice started with a thought of the day — on everything from Martin Luther King to education to leadership to grammar.”
Smith possessed a sarcastic wit. After games, holding a cigarette behind his back and sneaking a smoke, he’d make a subtle crack in his nasal voice. But he never cursed, and he admonished fans for taunting players or waving arms behind the free-throw line.
“The maddest he’d get in practice, he would clap twice and call you by your full first name, and he’d make you change jerseys with your backup and demote you to the second unit until you hustled your way back to earn the white jersey,” said Doherty, who took the UNC coaching job after Guthridge when Jordan implored him to “keep it in the family,” and sought Smith’s counsel when he was forced out to make way for Roy Williams. “I always told Coach Smith I was proud to play and proud to serve.”
Smith exemplified kindness, integrity, class. He listened to the 12th man and lowly student journalists.
“Read Kierkegaard,” he told me after asking about my studies.
Cliff Barnes, former Daily Tar Heel sports editor, recalled how Smith gave him a scoop on an unflattering story because he supported the student newspaper. He invited Barnes to attend some closed practices.
“He was a guarded, private person, but he cared about every person he met,” Barnes said.
When Smith won his second title in 1993, back in New Orleans, I covered the game and remember how, amid the euphoria and blaring pep band music, he had consoling words for Michigan's distraught Chris Webber, who called that nonexistent timeout with 11 seconds left, resulting in a technical foul. Pure Dean. A good man is hard to find.
Smith won 879 games. But his spirit of empathy and humility is the legacy of his “Carolina Way.”