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Dean Smith Personified Humility, Courage, College Basketball

The Paul Terry Classic was an annual high school basketball tournament in Emporia, Kan.

The tournament, which lasted 14 years until 2010, was named after the first African-American to play basketball at Emporia High School. The coach at Emporia High who put Terry in the starting lineup was a man by the name of Alfred Smith. That was 1932.

Smith’s son, Dean Smith, was 1 year old.

Long before the University of North Carolina men’s basketball coach tabbed Charlie Scott as the first African-American to play for the Tar Heels in 1967, long before Smith accompanied an African-American theology student at a Chapel Hill restaurant, the roots of civil justice in the Smith family sprung out of the Flint Hills of Kansas.

That was the first thought that came to mind after learning of Smith’s passing this weekend at the age of 83. He was a champion for human rights who just so happened to use a basketball court as his soapbox.

Smith’s roots are so entrenched in basketball that it only takes two degrees of separation to get to the origins of the game. After graduating from Topeka (Kan.) High, where Smith led the charge to integrating the school’s basketball teams which at the time were all-white and all-black, he played at Kansas for Phog Allen, who played at Kansas for Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of the game.

Smith embodied what the game of basketball was and should be still. He left college basketball as the all-time leader in wins (879), with two national championships, 11 Final Fours and a remarkable 27 consecutive seasons of 20 or more victories on his resume.

But what Smith did above all else was shape young men, mature players ready for the NBA and life. Before the one-and-done era, Smith’s players stayed four years and entered the NBA at 22 or 23 years of age. Only a handful of players, such as Michael Jordan and James Worthy, left the Tar Heel program after their junior seasons.

Smith didn’t just produce future NBA superstars such as Jordan, Worthy, Sam Perkins, Bob McAdoo and Vince Carter. If you played at North Carolina for Dean Smith, you knew how to play the game, and in some cases, coach the game. Larry Brown, Billy Cunningham, Doug Moe and George Karl all went on to long, successful NBA coaching careers under the tutelage of Dean Smith.

College basketball has become hard to watch this season. It’s not just the games that finish in the 50s. It’s the dribbling around, chucking it from 3 and driving to the hoop for a layup that doesn’t have a prayer of falling down. Passing and teamwork for a majority of teams have taken a backseat. The two most heralded teams in the NBA are known for their passing (the Atlanta Hawks) and their shooting (the Golden State Warriors). Dean Smith’s Tar Heel teams knew how to pass first, shoot second. That mentality is hit-and-miss and today’s college game.

Aside from a handful of players, be it Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and any number of Kentucky Wildcats, there are no household names in college basketball. Only the coaches remain top of mind: Krzyzewski, Calipari, Pitino, Boeheim, Izzo and Roy Williams, a Dean Smith disciple. Krzyzewski and Boeheim have their home courts named after them at Duke and Syracuse, respectively. Dean Smith had an entire building named after him. The Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center opened in 1986, and Smith coached there for 11 seasons.

We’re reminded of stories of Dean Smith the man—checking in on his players’ academics, how they spent their money, seeing how their family was doing. Smith knew the names of all his former players, their parents, anyone associated with the program. In 2010, we learned that Smith was suffering from a progressive neurocognitive disorder, and those names began to fade, leaving only a flicker of memory that still included every word of the North Carolina fight song and alma mater.

The memories now belong to Smith’s family and his extended North Carolina family.  The memories include Tar Heel practices in a Raleigh, N.C., prison against death row inmates. Smith was a staunch opponent against the death penalty and kept in contact with some of those prisoners.

Dean Smith treated people as human beings, even during their darkest times, even on their final night on Earth, when he’d give death row inmates a call, letting them know they would not be forgotten. Those are the moments that made Dean Smith the man. Those are the moments that helped Dean Smith shape other men.

And what became of Paul Terry, the young player who integrated Emporia High School more than 80 years ago? He stayed in Emporia, working in the dry cleaning business for 48 years. He served as president of the town’s recreation commission as well as the county community center board of directors. All the while, Paul Terry worked to promote civil rights.

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