In 1987 I was in search of a team to call “my team.” As a huge fan of basketball and particularly college basketball, there weren’t many options in Cleveland, Ohio. We had The Cleveland State Vikings, but with the exception of a Sweet 16 run against David Robinson’s Navy team, there wasn’t much to cheer for. Then one day I found a team from North Carolina. I also found a player named J.R. Reed who would become (and still is) one of my favorite players in their history. I loved the way they played the game. More than any player though, I liked their coach. Something about his leadership and his character was so appealing. From that day until this, I can still name you most every starting 5 and many of the players that came off of the bench. I’ve invested time, money and emotion into Carolina basketball. Although I wasn’t Tar Heel born, I am Tar Heel bred.
Today, Coach Dean Smith receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Don’t misunderstand, this isn’t a post about basketball, wins or losses. This is a quick introduction to a man that many of you may not know. Dean Smith is the author and director of “The Carolina Way.” This Carolina Way is what attracted me to cheer for UNC basketball.
The Carolina Way was and is a way of doing things the right way. You lived the right way. You were a student athlete the right way. You represented yourself and the University with honor and dignity. When a teammate fell down, the other four players ran to help them back up. When you make a basket, you acknowledge the man that gave you the assist. When a player leaves the game, the entire bench rises to acknowledge their contribution. The Carolina Way was disciplined on the court. There was no chest thumping and throat slashing motion. No player was bigger than the team in Dean Smith’s economy (see also Michael Jordan). Coach Smith once had a fit because his prized freshman J.R. Reid was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine. This broke one of his unwritten rules that Freshman should not receive this honor.
What people talk about as much, if not more than Coach Smith’s impact on the game, is his impact off the court. From current UNC Coach Roy Williams:
“Coach Smith was, you’ve heard me say this before, he’s the best there ever was, in my opinion, on the basketball court, and he was far better off the court,” Williams said recently. “And the things that he did off the court meant so much more than the time he spent on the court, except for the fact of the relationships he built on the court, and how special that was to him.” (Source)
From Coach Smith’s son Scott:
“Dad was someone who was as interested in the custodian at Carmichael Auditorium as he was the chancellor or the athletic director. He was just as concerned about that person’s family. The athletic director would come walking by, and Dad would tell the AD he’d be with him in a minute because he was talking to someone he just met.” (Source)
The web is filled with tributes, articles and stories about Dean Smith today. As well there should be. He’s earned every one of them. While The Carolina Way seems to be slipping in recent years (which is a post all it’s own), it’s author continues to receive the credit he’s earned. The saddest part of this story is that Coach Smith won’t be in attendance today. His health has declined to the point that he cannot attend. Yet Coach Smith probably would be completely uncomfortable at this ceremony anyway. His humble nature was never comfortable with accolades and awards.
I’m often asked why I love UNC so much, especially when I live in the shadows of The Ohio State University. You need look no further than the man that is receiving this prestigious honor today to answer that question. His leadership, his humility and his standard of excellence taught me far more about life than they did about basketball. Congratulations Coach Smith. Thank you for all you did for the game of basketball. Thank you more for what you did off the court.