What were your thoughts when you saw Dean Smith honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom?
It’s a big thrill for me. I think it’s something that he deserves as much as any American does. Coach Smith was not only a coach, not only a mentor, but he was someone that was more of a parental person to me than anyone I can think of in my life.
My father died when I was 15 years of age, so it was hard for me to really feel I had a father figure or someone who could give me the type of guidance that I, at the time I was growing up, needed and Coach Smith was there for me, but not only for me, I think he was there for every person who has played for him. I think that is what makes him unique. His caring was not just for the players that were the stars on the team; he cared as much for the 15th player as the No. 1 player and I think that is what makes him the most unique individual that people could come across in life.
When you were the first African American basketball player at UNC and helped to integrate the ACC you were a young kid, now maybe you look at it with a different perspective on what he did. What do you think your thoughts were then on what he did and what are your thoughts now, with more life experience behind you?
Of course the magnitude, the significance, at 18 I had no idea. I could not really at that time comprehend the enormous circumstance that Coach Smith understood a lot better than I did and the enormous result it would have on society.
I was a young man just thinking about going to school and knowing that at that time during the Civil Rights era that it would make a difference in Civil Rights. But in no way did I understand the enormity of what it would do not just in the state of North Carolina, but as I grow older and hear from people all over the South, what Coach Smith did had an impact on, I would say, everything below the Mason-Dixon line. Not just in North Carolina, but in South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and so many other places that never would have crossed my mind. But I think that he, himself, understood the importance of it because he had seen his father do the same thing in Kansas when his father integrated basketball in the early '30s and '40s, so I think Coach Smith’s understanding and perception of society was very keen and really he was a man of the time and really before his time.
Scott, Smith in 1968
I know that his health prevented him from making the trip to the White House, but when was the last time you talked to him and what did you guys talk about?
Well, Coach Smith’s health has been deteriorating for at least four or five years, but I talk to Coach Smith. I talk to him every year and last spring I did go down and spend some time with him and had the chance to be with him for a little while. And every once in a while there was a time of remembrance and that, to me, was very important. Just from the standpoint of my caring about him to know that I was something that, even in a glimmer of a moment, he can remember who I am and his caring for me is still somewhere deep in his mind and his heart. That, to me, was very important.
I don’t get a chance to talk to him much, but I have a son (Shaun) that just graduated from North Carolina this year and we made it a point that every week - he would at least go in there once a week to sit down with Coach Smith and have lunch with Coach Smith and then he would get back in touch with me and tell me how Coach was doing and, I mean, that bond was never broken and it never will be broken.
You have a couple of kids who have played college basketball. What do they know about the significance of your story?
Two of my children (Simone, Shaun) went to the University of North Carolina so of course they are aware and this is probably heightened in the introduction of who they are. I just feel like I have nothing but great appreciation and love for the way my kids have been treated by alumni of the school and the school itself. They have always been made aware of the circumstances of how people from the University of North Carolina felt about their father and that made them very proud and they have, I think, a great understanding of it.
My youngest son (Shannon) also, he has grown up in the same environment and they all knew Coach Smith very well. They understand as well as anyone. They’re not young kids so they have a great understanding of their father’s participation in the integration of the University of North Carolina and the athletic program at the University of North Carolina.
Charlie - you are one of the very lucky people to have had a personal, private relationship with Coach Smith. So many people appreciate the man and almost look at him as family even if they’ve never met him. What would you like those people to know that admire him but have never had a chance to meet Dean Smith?
What I would like people to know is that every single person that played for Coach Smith has had a personal relationship with Coach Smith. Also, a lot of people that have not played for him but have come in contact with him have had a personal relationship with Coach Smith.
I can name John Thompson as an example. I remember when Coach Smith first met him and I’ve seen the relationship they’ve had grow. I think that anyone that has ever come in contact with him and had the honor of getting to know him has had a personal relationship with Coach Smith. He has made that a point of his life that he has always taken people, that he has come in contact with, with seriousness and with a sincerity of knowing who and what they are about.
Scott, Smith in 1998
But, for those who have not had that opportunity, I can just say it is a privilege that I just feel sorry that they did not have a chance to have. Coach Smith is like a comet that comes along every 70- or 80,00 years. You’ll never get another opportunity to meet another individual like him. In my lifetime I have not met anyone that even comes close to being on the standard of where I put Coach Smith as an individual, as a person and really as a coach without a doubt. But looking back, what he gave to me as an individual and as a person were the most important things in life.
He’s a rare individual. People talk about, be it Abraham Lincoln or right now John F. Kennedy, I think if there was a Mount Rushmore and those faces were up there, I would put Coach Smith’s name up with those and Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King - great people who made a significant contribution to society.
Embedded photos by Hugh Morton and courtesy of the North Carolina Collection.