Former college basketball All-Americans sat on a stage next to a business leader, a coach and a pastor, all there to honor a man they said would never have wanted such a spectacle, inside a building he didn’t want named after him.
About 10,000 people came to the Dean E. Smith Center on Sunday on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, where the university hosted a public memorial service in celebration of Smith, the longtime basketball coach who died on Feb. 7. He was 83, and had been afflicted in recent years by neurological disease.
The speakers at Smith’s memorial on Sunday reflected the diversity of those he influenced. Six former players spoke. So did UNC coach Roy Williams and Erskine Bowles, a UNC alum and politician who became the UNC system’s president. The Rev. Robert Seymour, Smith’s longtime pastor at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, was the final speaker of the ceremony, which lasted more than two hours.
“It was a long, long goodbye,” Seymour said, referring to the illness that robbed Smith of his memories in his later years.
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They came to remember him and celebrate him, all the while recognizing that a man known for his modesty, his humility, likely would have had no use for such an event. Several speakers touched on that – that Smith would have been uncomfortable with the attention Sunday.
“He never would accept or really understand” why thousands showed up in his honor, said Mickey Bell, who played for Smith from 1972 to 1975.
Among the six players who spoke – a group that included Billy Cunningham, Brad Daugherty, Phil Ford, Antawn Jamison and Eric Montross – Bell was the only one who wasn’t an All-American who went on to play basketball professionally. In some ways Bell personified Smith’s philosophy of caring equally about the All-Americans and the walk-ons at the end of the bench.
“He coached you to be a better basketball player for four years,” Bell said. “He coached you to be a man for a lifetime.”
That was a constant theme of the memorial: Smith’s influence beyond basketball. He won 879 games, led UNC to 11 Final Fours and two national championships, but the basketball highlights only constituted a small part of the remembrances.
“More impressive than those on-court achievements is his indelible mark he left on the community,” said Montross, who hleped lead UNC to the 1993 national championship.
Before the memorial service began, a slideshow played on the video boards inside the Smith Center. Pictures went by of Smith embracing his players, and his players embracing Smith. There he was, at one point, cutting down the nets after the 1993 national championship game.
But there were also images that depicted his work during the civil rights movement in Chapel Hill, where he stood for equality and helped integrate a restaurant. He recruited Charles Scott, who became UNC’s first black scholarship athlete.
Smith was known for opposing the Vietnam War and the death penalty. Speakers told stories about the times he took his team inside North Carolina prisons, where they’d practice and play, Montross said, “in front of some of the most forgotten individuals in our society.”
Beyond his work as a humanitarian, Smith was remembered for his loyalty and for his dedication to his players and colleagues. Several speakers described Smith as the most loyal person they’d ever known.
“He would call you at any time,” Daugherty said. “(We were) always getting those little handwritten notes. … When the smoke cleared the one man who was going to be standing there right beside you no matter what was coach Smith.”
“Coach Smith believed more in me than I did myself.”
Gov. Pat McCrory attended the memorial, as did Sen. Thom Tillis and other leaders in state politics and education. Some of Smith’s coaching rivals, including former N.C. State coach Les Robinson and former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, also attended.
Two of Smith’s children – his son Scott and daughter Kristen – spoke toward the end of the memorial. Smith’s family fiercely protected his privacy, especially in recent years while his health declined, but they thanked the public for their support and concern.
“Dad loved life and he lived it to the fullest,” Scott Smith said. “The stories you’ve heard today and over the past weeks tell you what type of person he was on and off the basketball court.
“What better way for everyone here and even the people that are not here to honor him going forward by helping people in need and treating everyone equally because it is the right thing to do.”
Bowles, whose father Skipper Bowles helped raise the money to build the Smith Center, recounted the story of how Smith adamantly opposed having the building named after him. Smith wanted it called the Student Activities Center, and he and the elder Bowles fought over it.
“It was the only time I was glad, overjoyed, to see coach lose,” Erskine Bowles said.
Bill Guthridge, Smith’s longtime assistant coach, watched the memorial from a wheelchair in the front row. Williams, during his remarks, acknowledged Guthridge, who then received a long standing ovation.
Williams, who became an assistant coach on Smith’s staff in 1978, thanked Smith for taking a chance on him, for believing in him. The greatest gift Smith gave him, he said, was his knowledge.
Williams lamented that he’d never told Smith he loved him. He’d honored Smith in other ways, by trying to follow his example, but he’d never said those words.
“I never really told him what he meant to me,” Williams said. “We should all spend time telling people what they truly mean to us.”
Toward the end of his remarks, Williams invoked one of Smith’s innovations – the acknowledgment of the assist man. Smith insisted that his players point to the teammate who had set up their chance to score.
“Let’s raise our hand,” Williams said, “point, and thank him for the assist.”