- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

“The coach’s job is to be part servant in helping each player reach his goals within the team concept.” — Dean Smith

One of the greatest servants to his players that has ever been called coach passed away Saturday night at the age of 83.

Dean Smith was the gold standard for coaching. He made North Carolina a college basketball power for 36 years, won 879 games and two national championships.

Yet he was known for his compassion and courage as much as his coaching. He was known for his character as much as his championships.

It is the rare person who reaches the top of their profession for their accomplishments, yet is recognized for the person they are.

We are all poorer when a person like that leaves us.

Smith won four National Coach of the Year honors. But that’s not why he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 — only the second men’s college basketball coach to receive the prestigious award, with John Wooden being the other.

President Barack Obama said then that Smith’s accomplishments are a reminder of “the potential that lives within all of us.”

Smith, who had been suffering from a degenerative neurological disorder in his last years, was not able to attend the White House ceremony. He was represented by his wife, Linnea, and other family members and friends.

“While Coach Smith couldn’t join us today due to an illness that he’s facing with extraordinary courage, we also honor his courage in helping to change our country,” President Obama said. “He recruited the first black scholarship athlete to North Carolina. And helped integrate a restaurant and a neighborhood in Chapel Hill.

“That’s the kind of character he represented on and off the court.”

Another recipient at the ceremony that day? Ernie Banks, who just passed away two weeks ago — another man with a long list of accomplishments who was known more for being the man he was than what he did as an athlete.
Two men whose lives made the world a better place.

Who will replace people like Dean Smith and Ernie Banks? Who today will achieve the highest level of greatness in their respective arenas and stadiums, yet be beloved for what was in their hearts?

Smith was elected to five basketball halls of fame, yet what makes his life stand apart from others in his profession is his reputation for running a clean program and a high graduation rate for his players, with 96.6 percent receiving their degrees.

His life was more than basketball. He recruited the first African-American scholarship player, Charlie Scott, to North Carolina, and he supported causes to fight for equal treatment for African-Americans by local businesses.

Smith coached such great players James Worthy, Kenny Smith, Vince Carter, Bob McAdoo — and Michael Jordan, who, upon induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, said, “There’s no way you guys would have got a chance to see Michael Jordan play without Dean Smith.”

That might have been the only nice thing Jordan said about anyone in his speech.

Of course, when Smith was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983, he made it all about his players.

“I’m here only because of my players,” he told the crowd. “It’s a team game, and for me to be singled out is very much an honor. I am a little embarrassed because there are so many great teams and so many great coaches.

“I had 139 lettermen [at the time] who played for me, and I’m here to accept this on their behalf.”

Smith also singled out his father, Alfred, a former public school teacher and basketball coach at Emporia High School in Kansas. His father’s team won the 1934 Kansas state title. It also included the first African-American basketball player in Kansas tournament history.

“I want to thank my father and mother who are here,” Smith said. “He was a great coach in Kansas.”

The lessons that Alfred Smith taught his son Dean as a young boy led to the White House and one of this country’s highest honors.

“My father said, ‘Value each human being,” Smith wrote in his book, “A Coach’s Life.”

“Racial justice wasn’t preached around the house, but there was a fundamental understanding that you treated each person with dignity.”

That was how Dean Smith served not only his players, but humanity.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.


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