Five years ago today, I teared up a little while walking down a Columbus, Ohio, street. I’d just read that my hero, the Greatest Man in the History of Organized Sport, was retiring. Dean Smith was (is!) a giant among men.
His athletic accomplishments were many — winning more games than any other college basketball coach in history for starters, along with two national championships. He produced great players at the University of North Carolina, led of course by Michael Jordan but others like Phil Ford, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Vince Carter, and many more. If my memory serves me correctly, the last 12 NBA championship teams have all had at least one of Dean’s former players on them.
But his greatness goes far beyond the court. When he was an assistant coach in the 1950s and his black friends weren’t allowed in certain restaurants, he’d bring them out to dinner and integrate the place himself. (What Chapel Hill restaurant would turn away Dean Smith?) He broke the color barrier for all of Southern sports by being the first to recruit black players. His players were the model of class, graceful and grateful because Dean required them to be. And unlike at so many basketball factories, his players graduated — more than 96 percent of them over his almost 40 years. He created the tradition — now used at schools nationwide — of Senior Day, where seniors start their last home game, even if they’re the worst of the benchwarmers, as a thank you for all they’ve done. Even little things: whenever you see a player score a basket then point at the passer who got him the ball in thanks, that’s because Dean invented it. Same with teammates huddling at the free-throw line during a break in play.
He’s a brilliant basketball mind — his technical basketball book is the best selling of all time — and was a constant innovator on the court. But on top of that, he’s just a brilliant, well-read man. (A former math major, at that.)
Dean, since I’m sure you’re a crabwalk.com reader: you the man.
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Joshua Benton is the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, among other things. Before that, he was a staff writer and columnist for The Dallas Morning News. (More.)
Any opinions expressed here are solely mine, and not those of my employer. In many cases, they may not even be mine.