The angriest any of Dean Smith's players ever remember seeing him was after a big victory 46 years ago.
As North Carolina players celebrated a win at South Carolina, a frustrated Gamecocks fan followed Tar Heels standout Charles Scott off the floor and called the ACC's first black star "a big black baboon."
"Coach Smith got so upset about it that he had to be held back from going after the fan," said Scott, the first black scholarship athlete at North Carolina. "It's one of the very few times I ever saw Coach Smith become that angry and that volatile. It surprised me, but it also made me proud that he was my coach."
Stories like that one illustrate why Smith's legacy isn't merely building North Carolina into a perennial juggernaut or mentoring his players on the basketball court and away from it. In the wake of his death on Saturday night at age 83, Smith should also be remembered as an instigator for social change, a man who used his platform to fight for racial integration and to stand up for what he believed was right.
He exerted his influence to help a black graduate student buy a home in an all-white neighborhood. He did the same to integrate Chapel Hill restaurants notorious for turning away black customers. He also recruited Scott to North Carolina in 1966 at a time when most other top Southern programs were still resistant to bringing in black players, an instrumental moment in the desegregation of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"Through basketball, he was able to get his philosophy out there as far as fair and equal treatment for everybody, said former North Carolina center Lee Dedmon, the co-MVP of the 1971 ACC tournament. "The man was a master at relationships. He made you really strive to be a better person."
Smith's willingness to take a stand before it was popular or even acceptable was a trait ingrained in him at an early age.
His father, a teacher and coach at Emporia (Kan.) High School, put the first African-American player in school history on his basketball team in 1932. Two years later, Emporia became the first integrated team to win a state championship in Kansas.
"In 1934, he chose to play a black teenager, the son of a janitor who swept the floors at the local bank, whom he had known as a junior high school student," Smith wrote in his 1999 autobiography, "A Coach's Life." "What gave him the independence of mind to come to his beliefs and the courage to act on them? I can't fully answer the question because I was only three at the time, and I don't remember the involved discussions that must have taken place on the subject in our house. But I do know how we were raised."
Smith had his own chance to take a stand against segregation as a basketball player at Topeka High School in the late 1940s. Whereas most of the school's other sports were integrated, whites who played basketball for Topeka joined a team called the Trojans that held games on campus and blacks who played basketball at Topeka joined a team known as the Ramblers that held games at a nearby middle school.
To Smith, a multi-sport star at Topeka, segregated basketball teams seemed so illogical that he appealed to his high school principal to put an end to it. Smith threw touchdown passes to black receivers as a quarterback on the school's football team, so he wanted to know why he couldn't have the same possibilities on the basketball team too.
The principal turned down Smith's initial request because Topeka High held dances after basketball games and school administrators feared boys and girls of different races would mingle. Only after Smith graduated in 1950 did Topeka High finally eliminate the Ramblers and allow black players to try out for the Trojans.
"Being the kind of competitor that he was, Dean wanted to put the best we had out there on the court regardless of skin color," said Jack Alexander, a former Ramblers player and lifelong friend of Smith. "That's always the attitude I saw from him. He was not the kind of guy who was going to yell into a megaphone from the rooftops, but if he saw something he thought was wrong, he'd use the platform he had to try to fix it."
When North Carolina hired Smith as an assistant coach in 1958, the modern civil rights movement was just beginning and lingering prejudices were dying hard. Almost everything in Chapel Hill was still segregated, from schools, to restaurants, to swimming pools and water fountains.
Smith's interest in human rights issues was stoked by his involvement with a new Baptist church that encouraged its congregation to take an active role in pushing for social justice. Even though Smith's job was far from safe when he failed to win a league title or reach the NCAA tournament in his first five seasons as North Carolina's head coach, he didn't hesitate to champion unpopular causes, whether it was opposing the Vietnam War, calling for a ban on the death penalty, supporting gay and lesbian rights or fighting to end segregation.
"He was unlike any other coach I know in that he had courage in his convictions and did not mind speaking them publicly," said Robert Seymour, the pastor at Smith's church and a friend of the former North Carolina coach for more than five decades. "Many coaches would hesitate to get involved in controversial issues but Dean had no hesitation letting people know where he stood on these matters."
Smith and Seymour once invited a black theology student to dinner at an upscale Chapel Hill restaurant where the basketball team often ate. The goal was to send a message to the owners that they either had to comply with the newly passed Civil Rights Act of 1964 or risk losing the basketball program's business.
"Upon seeing that one of the three of us was Dean Smith, the door opened and we were served," Seymour said. "That was the beginning of this restaurant being open to everybody."
One of Seymour's suggestions for Smith once he became head coach in 1961 was to add a black player to North Carolina's previously all-white team. The Tar Heels coach found his ideal target after a few years in Scott, a talented New York City native who was finishing high school at Laurinburg Prep in North Carolina.
Smith gained Scott's trust during the recruiting process by treating him with the same respect he'd treat a white prospect. He impressed Scott by taking him to Seymour's fully integrated Baptist church and by taking the time to learn that Scott preferred to go by Charles even though most people called him Charlie.
Even though Scott became the ACC's first prominent black basketball star and led North Carolina to the Final Four in two of his three varsity seasons in Chapel Hill, he endured challenges that come with being a trailblazer.
Scott was widely regarded as the best player in the ACC his final two seasons, yet enough voters left him off their ballot entirely that he did not win the award either year. He also endured lonely nights even after some of his biggest wins because he seldom felt comfortable joining his teammates at fraternity parties or other campus gatherings.
"I was in the South, make no mistake about it," Scott said. "The fan base was very positive to me, but there were certain things socially that I couldn't do. If I went to fraternities, there were not going to be blacks allowed in the fraternity. There were parties that I could not go to with my teammates and parties my teammates probably wouldn't have felt comfortable going with me. That was part of the society we lived in at the time."
The heckling at South Carolina was the worst Scott experienced in his four years at North Carolina, but some good eventually emerged from that awful experience. When Smith wrote in his autobiography about the racial slurs directed at Scott that night, the South Carolina fan in question read the passage and wrote the North Carolina coach a heartfelt apology letter promising to raise his children to be more tolerant than he had been.
That night in South Carolina also provided Scott a firsthand example of Smith's loyalty to his players. Over time, the two grew so close that Scott viewed Smith as a second father.
When Scott's first son Shaun was born, he chose his dad's name as a middle name. When Scott's second son Shannon was born, he chose the middle name "Dean."
Dean Smith's former players remember the legendary coach:
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