This morning news came out that legendary University of North Carolina men’s basketball coach Dean Smith had passed away at the age of 83. Smith’s legacy in the world of college basketball is second to none, winning two national championships and an Olympic gold medal. All told, he racked up 879 wins as the head man for the Tar Heels, reaching 11 Final Fours. But as much of a legend as he was on the court, the man who created the four corners offense and coached Michael Jordan was equally impressive away from it.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t realize until I began reading more about Dean Smith what a tremendous impact he had on the Civil Rights movement in North Carolina. I don’t know if I’d simply missed it all, or if the media just decided it wasn’t as important as writing about the “only person who could hold Michael Jordan under 20 points,” as they liked to joke.
His impact on Civil Rights began when he was in high school in Topeka, Kansas, in 1948. That’s when he went to his coach and asked for Topeka High to merge both his varsity squad and the team of black students that was only marginally associated with the high school. He continued his work toward integration when he became the head coach at North Carolina, helping to break down barriers by recruiting black players as early as 1966.
But you can read all about that if you do a quick search on the man’s legacy, and I encourage you to do so, because people have written far more eloquently and knowledgeably than I can about what a lifetime of achievement Dean Smith leaves behind.
Smith had been battling illness over the last few years, and he and his family maintained a low profile, rarely emerging into the public spotlight. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s – a horrible, painful disease I’ve become all too familiar with, with both of my grandmothers becoming victims late in life – in 2011. In 2013, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, a well deserved recognition that was accepted on his behalf by his wife, Linnea.
I encourage anyone who has ever loved the game of basketball, or appreciated the people who have helped make this nation a better place through their tireless efforts fighting for equality, to seek out more information on a life exceptionally lived. Rest in peace, Dean Smith. You were one of the greatest human beings in the history of not just college basketball, but the world of sports.