For the longest time, the only thing I knew about Dean Smith was his dreaded four corners offense, the system he popularized as the men’s basketball coach at North Carolina.
Invariably, whichever college team I was rooting for would be on the chasing end of that offense, and my team would inevitably fall behind as the Tar Heels’ slick guards made opposing players look ridiculous with their drives to the basket and backdoor cuts.
It turned out, though, that Smith was more than a great coach with an irksome system. People I respected began to tell me about Smith’s civil rights consciousness, and its deep roots.
John McLendon, the first African-American coach at a predominantly white university, said Smith was always on the correct side of civil-rights issues, with an opposition to discrimination that was mainly rooted in common decency and fairness.
Later, John Thompson Jr., Georgetown’s renowned coach, never failed to speak, publicly or privately, about how much he admired Smith as a friend, as a mentor and as an ally in battling to give young black athletes opportunities.
Two personal encounters with Smith, who died Saturday,showed me all I needed to know.
The first came in 1993, when North Carolina’s campus was embroiled in a controversy over the construction of a free-standing black culture center.
That year, in which the Tar Heels won the N.C.A.A. tournament, one of Smith’s players wanted to wear a patch on his uniform or his shoes as a sign of solidarity with the students demonstrating in favor of the culture center. I cannot remember whether the player, George Lynch, followed through and wore the patch; what I do remember is that Smith, out of respect for Lynch, told him that it was his decision — if Lynch felt that strongly about the issue, Smith would allow it.
Smith’s defining moment for me, however, came in March 1995, during the N.C.A.A. tournament.
North Carolina, along with Georgetown and Kentucky, was placed in the Southeast Region of the bracket, with games to be played in Birmingham, Ala. The arena was close to the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young black girls had been killed when the church was bombed in 1963.
Thompson, Georgetown’s coach, took his players to the church for a tour as soon as they arrived in Birmingham. Smith, after a North Carolina practice, asked me whether Thompson had taken his players there. Upon learning that he had, Smith said — mostly to himself — that he should have taken his players, too. We were struck by the symmetry: Three teams that in 1963 would not have even recruited black players were competing down the street from a symbol of racist intransigence.
The next morning I made copies of the eulogy that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered at the girls’ funeral and gave some to Smith and some to the sports information director at Kentucky, who I knew would pass them on to Coach Rick Pitino.
About a week later, after North Carolina had won its game, Rasheed Wallace, then a Tar Heel, walked over before practice. He said that Smith had passed out the copies and that the gesture was appreciated.
My respect for Smith deepened knowing that he had felt compelled to help players put place and time in context.
Many coaches are just coaches, concerning themselves with education only as far as maintaining their players’ eligibility. Smith was an educator.
He recruited Charlie Scott, the first African-American star in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and over the next three decades saw the number of black players grow. But he knew enough about race relations to know the importance of staying vigilant.
Many coaches might feel it is not their place to try to influence social consciousness. (I learned later, for instance, that Pitino did not share the eulogy with his team.) Smith, although part of a different era, was cut from a different cloth. President Obama, in a statement on Sunday, noted that Smith had helped integrate a restaurant and a neighborhood in Chapel Hill, N.C., and said, “Coach Smith showed us something that I’ve seen again and again on the court — that basketball can tell us a lot more about who you are than a jump shot alone ever could.”
Smith, who retired in 1997, felt that his players’ moral development was his moral responsibility. His absence signifies the end of an era in basketball and of a type of social awareness that I for one will sorely miss.
As McLendon and Thompson had said, Smith had the right instincts.
Yes, he was a great basketball coach. Just look at the numbers — 879 victories, two national championships — or the great players he cultivated, including Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest of them all.
But Smith was more than any sum, and that is why he will be missed so dearly.