|Group photo during 2009 UNC Basketball Alumni Game with Dean Smith in the center. | Photo: Chris White|
My grandma was a student at UNC when Smith was at the helm. My grandpa was entrenched in Tobacco Road, having lived a large chunk of his life in Durham. I say this because, even though my late grandparents never knew Smith on a personal basis, I’m sure they were ecstatic to see him. Smith had a very similar impact on all of us. It didn’t make a difference if you knew him personally or were even a UNC fan, odds are Smith had some kind of impact on you. It’s mind boggling how one person could have that strong an influence on others, but Smith did.
I’ve been a UNC fan all my life. Always will be. I was just five years old when Smith retired so most of my knowledge of him has come from reading and watching archive footage. But, when I woke on Sunday to the news of Smith’s passing, I felt like a piece of my heart had been ripped out. Like I’d lost a family member. It was really hard and it will be for the coming days and weeks. I knew it was going to be sad whenever Smith passed, but it seems even more saddening to know that he had a personal battle, more specifically, a form of dementia. Smith was known for having an extremely sharp mind. It’s tragic that he had to battle a horrible ailment in his final years. Smith continued living his life in spite of this. I guess you have to do that no matter what. As it’s widely known, he continued to have an office at the Smith Center long after his retirement.
But, beyond the on court achievements, Smith was known just as well for his off court achievements. One of the most notable being his work to desegregate Chapel Hill and UNC. He recruited the university’s first African-American scholarship basketball player, Charlie Scott, to the team. Smith helped Howard Lee, a graduate student at UNC who was African-American, purchase a home in an all-white neighborhood. In 2013, Pres. Obama awarded Smith with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor for a civilian.
Smith seemed to not relish in all the accolades that came his way. What he did do was always stay in contact with his players, coaches and others. I listened to the David Glenn Show today and a man called in to talk about how he stayed in contact with Smith during and after his time as a student manager on the UNC Basketball team. Heck, even rival coaches – such as Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski – have developed meaningful relationships with Smith over the years.
Coach Dean Smith impacted many people, rather they liked him or not or even knew him on a personal basis. I never knew Smith personally – oh, how I wished I had – but he’s had a tremendous impact on my life. My love for the Heels is rooted in Carolina Basketball and watching Smith’s teams. I’ve been to the Smith Center numerous times over the years, but I still get this tingly feeling every time I go. It’s rare to say that a coach had the success Smith had and did things the right way. But he did.
As I took a drive past Smith Center today, one of many I’ve taken over the years, it was coupled by a host of different emotions. Each of the previous drives reminded me of numerous joyous moments in my life that took place there. But as I traveled up to the front of the Smith Center, I saw quite a bit of media. It was surreal that the media were not there to cover a Carolina Basketball game.
“There is a point in every contest when sitting on the sidelines is not an option.”
– Dean Smith