College Basketball

Dean Smith tribute culminates with poignant challenge

Erskine Bowles, left, laughs with former North Carolina player Eric Montross, current North Carolina coach Roy Williams and former player Antawn Jamison while on stage at the Dean E. Smith Center during the public memorial service for Dean Smith on Sunday.
Erskine Bowles, left, laughs with former North Carolina player Eric Montross, current North Carolina coach Roy Williams and former player Antawn Jamison while on stage at the Dean E. Smith Center during the public memorial service for Dean Smith on Sunday. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Almost 53 years after the Rev. Robert Seymour and Dean Smith took a young black man to dinner and changed Chapel Hill forever, Seymour stood onstage at the Smith Center to attempt to assess Smith’s legacy.

Seymour, for decades Smith’s pastor at Binkley Baptist Church, was the final speaker at Sunday’s memorial service for Smith, who died Feb. 7 at 83, and was the most resonant among many touching, stirring remembrances.

In the summer of 1962, Smith helped Seymour integrate Chapel Hill’s most popular restaurant. And in the years that followed, Seymour worked hand-in-hand with Smith in the pursuit of social justice inside and outside Chapel Hill, which upon Smith’s passing was as much a source of reflection as any of his myriad accomplishments as a coach.

On Sunday, Seymour challenged the audience to live their lives in that same spirit of generosity and kindness. The success or failure of that challenge, one also powerfully issued by Smith’s daughter Kristen, will truly define Smith’s legacy.

“How do we honor him?” Seymour said. “Dare we hold up our lives against this man’s life, as we see his virtues, his values, his goodness, his generosity, his kindness to everyone? My friends, we honor Dean Smith when we support the civil rights for every human being. We honor his memory by never allowing athletics to eclipse academics.”

Seymour’s message was clear: For all that Smith accomplished in basketball, in life, the true measure of his greatness will be the strength of his message now that he is gone. Those who truly revere Smith can best honor him by passing all of that along to those who never knew him as a coach.

“We all have a tremendous challenge ahead,” former North Carolina player Brad Daugherty said, “to emulate him in our everyday lives.”

That process began in the days after his passing, as old tales were told for a new generation, and was in ready evidence Sunday.

More than 90 minutes before the ceremony, as the patient queues spilled down the steps of the Smith Center and onto Bowles Drive, Serge Zwikker stood outside taking pictures of the mourners with a large camera while the mourners snapped cellphone pictures of the former North Carolina center.

What was noticeable about the lines, even more than their length, was how multigenerational they were – so many parents who watched Smith’s teams, bringing children who weren’t yet born when Smith retired in 1997, to hear Smith’s former players and friends tell the tales of his legacy.

“This great, great man will always be the person we hold up to our children and to our grandchildren,” said former UNC system president Erskine Bowles, whose father Skipper fought so hard with Smith to put Smith’s name on the building they worked together to construct.

And then there was Mickey Bell, the least familiar name on the program. A walk-on who went on to run the shoe company Converse, his presence represented Smith’s equal treatment of all of his players, no matter their talent or accomplishments.

Bell, like all of Smith’s players, received a handwritten note from the coach upon the birth of his son. When Bell later asked Smith about it, the response was simple: “That’s what friends do.”

Smith may not have wanted this, but this is what friends do. As Eric Montross would say after seeing so many other members of the Carolina basketball family arrayed before him, in homage to the only man who could bring this many of them together at one time, “This just feels right.”

“If he could have anticipated this gathering today, I think there’s a good chance he might have said, ‘Don’t do it,’” Seymour said. “But this gathering was not for Dean. This gathering was for us. He didn’t need it, but we needed it. You and I needed it, whether we were close to him or knew him from a great distance. He touched the lives of millions of people, many of whom are watching on television at this moment.”

Those who knew Smith now have the responsibility to touch countless other lives by spreading his message, his story, his passion. Whatever Smith’s legacy is now, it has the chance to long outlive him.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com; Twitter: @LukeDeCock; 919-829-8947

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