Which of this country's greatest sports legends is clenched-teeth
against the Iraq war and the death penalty and is for gay rights?
Bill Bradley? Jim Brown? Bill Walton? Try Dean Smith.
In today's scandal-dripping land of college basketball, couldn't
we all use a little Dean Smith? He wasn't just the winningest
coach in history, he was one of the cleanest. In 36 years at
North Carolina, he never had an NCAA violation. He was and is a
man who stands tall for what he believes--fans, talk show hosts
and his accountant be damned.
Smith is Abe Lincoln in a sports world of Stepford Jocks, where
speaking out on social issues is likened to a Class A felony,
where taking a stand is a good way to blow your car dealership
endorsement, where somebody pressed mute on the social
consciences of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.
Take the Toni Smith issue. She's the Manhattanville College guard
who turned her back to the flag to protest what she calls the
"inequalities that are embedded into the American system." Dean
Smith would fight to the death to protect her right to do it.
"I'm sure it took a lot of courage," says Smith, who won 879
games at UNC. "Just as it took a lot of courage for Tommie Smith
and John Carlos to [make their gloved-fist protest against racism
in the U.S.] at the '68 Olympics."
Would he have let Jordan turn his back on the flag as a Tar Heel?
"An individual has rights," says Smith. "You don't give them up
when you put on a basketball uniform."
Smith has always thrown snowballs at top hats that way. He helped
desegregate Chapel Hill restaurants in the early '60s by walking
into one with a black theology student and sitting down to eat.
He spoke out for a nuclear freeze in the early '80s. He allowed a
player to skip practice to protest against the UNC cafeteria
workers' low wages.
The son of a coach and a teacher, he always included a Thought of
the Day at his practices, in which he'd offer a quote from, say,
Martin Luther King Jr., and then start a discussion among the
players. Imagine that: a coach interested in the mind of an
athlete. No wonder Smith's program always had one of the highest
Division I graduation rates.
In a state that gave us Jesse Helms, Smith's is a rare voice
speaking out against the madness of a war in Iraq and the
hypocrisy of the death penalty. It's a spiritual thing for him.
"One doesn't kill," he once said. "I heard that in church."
Though he served in the Air Force, Smith was proud to see two of
his daughters march in Washington against this war. "This is not
a just war," he contends. "I certainly hope we don't go. This
would be horrible."
In a state that sends thousands of Marines to the Middle East,
that's a big target to paint on your shirt. But Smith has never
scared easily. Speaking out against the death penalty, he once
pointed at the governor of North Carolina and declared, "You're a
murderer. And I'm a murderer. The death penalty makes us all
This is a coach who took his players to prisons and had them meet
death-row inmates in their cells. He even phoned men on the eve
of their executions, reminding them that they weren't forgotten,
wishing them peace. One told him, "I'll be cheering for the Tar
Heels." Were his players taking all this in? Hard to say. But
when Jordan's father was murdered, his family didn't push
prosecutors to seek the death penalty. The two killers are
serving life sentences.
"It hit me the other day what we should do," says Smith, who
still lives in Chapel Hill. "People should get a letter in the
mail, like a jury duty notice, that says, 'You've been selected
to carry out the execution of so and so. You'll kill him at
noon.' That might wake some people up."
It's not something you'd expect out of the mouth of an old
basketball coach, but Smith doesn't really care what you expect.
He is more politically active than he's ever been. He wants to
ban gambling on college sports. He wants newspapers to stop
printing point spreads. And he wants college athletes to be paid
by the NCAA. "From 1952 until 1973 the NCAA gave athletes $15 a
month," he says. "Today, that would be about $250. Why not bring
that back, especially when you see the enormous size of the TV
What gives Smith's words power is his humility. Ashamed of his
smoking habit, he refused to be photographed holding a cigarette
and finally quit smoking 15 years ago. Careful not to overshadow
his successors, he doesn't attend televised North Carolina games
at the dome that bears his name, because he doesn't want the
cameras focusing on him and the commentators musing, "Gee, I
wonder what Coach Smith would do in this situation?" Despite
Carolina's miserable showing under Matt Doherty--8--20 last year
and 16--14 entering this week's ACC Tournament--Smith has not let
out so much as a sigh of discontent. Nowadays, Smith seems to
care more about saving lives than beating Duke.
When Dean Smith retired at 66, I never thought I'd meet a man I
Then I met Dean Smith at 72.
B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER
Dean Smith is Abe Lincoln in a world of Stepford Jocks, where
speaking out on social issues is likened to a Class A felony.