College Basketball

Former UNC coach Dean Smith gets praise at memorial he never sought

North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams gives the signal for "Four Corners" in honor of Dean Smith during a memorial service for the legendary coach Sunday at UNC Chapel Hill.
North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams gives the signal for "Four Corners" in honor of Dean Smith during a memorial service for the legendary coach Sunday at UNC Chapel Hill. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The Rev. Robert Seymour, who ministered to Dean Smith for decades, had an answer to those who worried Sunday’s celebration of North Carolina’s late basketball coach would have embarrassed him.

“This gathering is not for Dean,” Seymour told a crowd of about 10,000 gathered in the basketball arena at UNC Chapel Hill that bears Smith’s name. “It is for us. He didn’t need it. You and I needed it. Whether you were close to him or knew him only from a great distance.”

It was a final, public farewell to Smith, who died Feb. 7 at the age of 83. Along with the several thousand fans and students, scores of Smith’s former players attended, listening to tributes from a select few of their teammates, as well as Tar Heels coach Roy Williams.

The players sat in chairs together on the court where Smith once taught and coached. There were stars such as Kenny Smith, Mitch Kupchak and J.R. Reid, as well as the more ordinary, including Serge Zwikker and Bruce Buckley.

The current Tar Heels team – players who never played for Smith but who are the beneficiaries of Smith’s teachings – sat in the back corner of the floor.

“I know one person who wouldn’t have enjoyed this, having everything focused on him,” said Billy Cunningham, Smith’s first star player in the early 1960s. “That’s coach Smith.”

But, as Seymour would say, the ever-humble Smith’s impact was too significant, his legacy too important, for those he touched not to share their thoughts and feelings in such a large public setting. That legacy – a Hall of Fame coach whose 36 seasons at North Carolina produced 879 victories and two national championships – also includes a loyalty to his players (96 percent of whom graduated) that will always resonate. Smith’s socially conscious stands included speaking out for civil rights and opposing the death penalty.

“Humility, conviction, dedication, compassion, loyalty, bravery, love,” said Eric Montross, a center on Smith’s 1993 national championship team. “The first thing you think of with coach might be a magical comeback, a championship or a victory over a rival, but more than those, it’s an indelible mark he left on society.”

Montross and the other speakers spent much of their time telling stories.

Smith sometimes took his teams to practice at state prisons in Butner and Raleigh, where they could see “those forgotten in our society,” Montross said.

One year, Smith suggested the Tar Heels scrimmage a team of inmates and assigned then-assistant coach Williams as the referee.

“Do you think I was going to call a foul against those guys?” said Williams. “And I didn’t.”

Antawn Jamison, who grew up in Charlotte and played on Smith’s final team in 1996-97, recalled teammate Makhtar Ndiaye inducing Smith into a “raise the roof” dance move after Smith broke Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp’s record for career coaching victories in 1997.

Cunningham said he often played golf with Smith at an annual get-together involving former Tar Heel players and other basketball stars in Pinehurst. Cunningham’s group was playing behind a foursome one year that included Smith, former Tar Heels great Michael Jordan and NBA legends Julius Erving and Jerry West.

A golfer came up to Cunningham and asked: “Who are those guys with Dean?”

Mickey Bell, a player in the mid-1970s who saw limited playing time, said he once joked with Smith about allowing him to play point guard in Smith’s famed Four Corners offense instead of All-American Phil Ford.

“Do you know what he said?” said Bell. “No.”

Ford was one of the six former players to speak Sunday, along with Cunningham, Bell, Brad Daugherty, Montross and Jamison.

“I still want to have lunch with him,” said Ford. “And I still want to push him out to his van.”

That was the kind of sentiment that prevailed Sunday. Williams said he’s already learned a lesson from Smith’s passing.

“I tried to always give coach Smith credit anytime I did anything,” said Williams. “But I never told coach Smith, ‘I love you.’ I encourage all of you to tell people what they truly mean to you.”

Among the last to speak were two of Smith’s five children, Scott and Kristen Smith.

“What should we do going forward?” said Kristen. “The greatest way to honor his memory is by choosing something he stood for and doing something.”

But the final word came from Seymour, now the pastor emeritus of Chapel Hill’s Binkley Memorial Baptist Church, which Smith attended for decades.

“We honor Dean Smith when we support civil rights for every human being,” said Seymour. “We honor his memory by never allowing athletics to eclipse academics. And of course every time we enter this building, we will think of Dean Smith, where his remarkable skill and strategy with the game of basketball will never be forgotten.”

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