“The most important reason for all the success of Carolina basketball, and nothing else is close, is Dean Smith: what he stood for, the way he handled himself, the way he treated the people he surrounded himself with as players, coaches, and secretaries, the stance he took on social issues. There isn’t anything else that comes a close second.”
So spoke Dean Smith’s long-time lieutenant Bill Guthridge in an interview back in 2001 for the book More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much to So Many. Nine years later, Smith made what was in effect his farewell to public life with his appearance at the celebration of the 100th year of Tar Heel basketball.
Since then, Smith’s deteriorating health has been a source of profound sadness for Carolina fans and many others, most especially close associates like Guthridge. Smith’s family has clearly expressed their wish to keep Smith’s health as private as possible, a wish that thankfully has been respected.
But Dean Smith’s 82nd birthday this week should be an occasion for not just sadness but profound gratitude and indeed gladness at the impact Smith’s life has had on so many people—from those who played for him to those who admired from afar. Many followers of Carolina basketball can testify to the ways Smith’s example, or Smith himself, impacted their lives in very tangible ways.
The following (slightly redacted) letter I sent to Dean Smith last year is one such testimony. Many Carolina fans will have their own testimonies which we encourage you to post on the forums the remainder of this week.
Dear Coach Smith,
Words cannot express my gratitude for your formative impact on my life (and on that of so many people as well). You were a great, great basketball coach, but what made you most special was that you stood for values and ideas much bigger than basketball. You truly used basketball not simply as an end in itself but as a way to educate the whole person and set a positive example of how to do things the right way.
I wanted to share with you two ways you continue to impact me to this day.
First, I now teach leadership and social justice at the University of Richmond. Many of the best leadership examples I share with students come from Carolina Basketball and from you in particular. And I often have cited your life as an example of how someone in any profession can be a strong advocate for social justice. Further, in my work with students I strive to follow the example of your passionate dedication to, and concern for, all your players. Your example helps me remember how important it is to always put the students’ needs first.
Second, I have been very involved in the community here in Richmond working on anti-poverty initiatives. As part of that work I help coach a basketball team of 9 and 10 year olds from inner city neighborhoods. Our team runs some of the concepts from Carolina basketball, but more important we continually stress simple values, have a “thought for the week,” and talk all the time about the importance of character, self-control, and education. We have had some success on the court we are very proud of (City runner-up last year) but we are most proud of how the kids in the program have grown and matured.
Every day I think of, and pray for, and ask for God’s blessing on you and your family. You have touched so many people so deeply and you are truly loved. Your life and example have moved people to do good and great things, and that is the most wonderful victory a man can have in this life.
With immense gratitude,
Thad is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.