John Thompson Wins Dean Smith Award

Over 40 years after originally telling one of his high school players that he didn’t want him to go to North Carolina, John Thompson is the first recipient of the award that bares the name of his good friend Dean Smith.

The Dean Smith Award, was presented to him Tuesday night by the United States Basketball Writers Association.

“John Thompson was very much in the Dean Smith line of making an impact in his player’s lives off the court,” USBWA president Pat Forde said. “He just seemed like the perfect first winner of this award.”

Before Thompson coached Georgetown for 26 years and winning a national championship in 1984, he was a high school basketball coach in DC. He first met Dean Smith when Smith was recruiting one of his players, Donald Washington.

“We had a three vote system in (Washington’s) recruitment, my wife, (Washington) and myself,” Thompson said. “(Washington) and myself said no and my wife said yes.”

Washington played two seasons at UNC before playing professionally overseas and the in the NBA.

“I used to kid (Smith) all the time saying ‘you never got my vote,'” Thompson said.

Their friendship grew from there and Thompson said they became close after coaching together on the 1976 Olympic basketball team.

“Coach Smith used to tell me if the phone rang between 11 and 12 o’clock he knew it was Coach Thompson,” UNC basketball coach Roy Williams said. “I asked him ‘how about the other way’ and he said ‘yeah if it rings at his house he knows it’s me too.”

Thompson’s friendship with Smith was the reason he accepted the award. He said he would not have come if Dean Smith’s name was not involved.

“I would rather eat a bug than attend things like this,” he said. “But I think because of what he meant to me this is special.”

The idea for the award came from Washington Post sportswriter John Feinstein. He covered Thompson while he coached at Georgetown.

“I told him we had created this award and he was the first winner and there was a long pause,” Feinstein said. “And he said ‘you hit me in my heart with that one because I love Dean so much.”

The friendship between Thompson and Smith was tested when North Carolina defeated Georgetown in the 1982 national championship.

“John was a little nervous about competing against Dean for something so important,” Feinstein said.

North Carolina would end up winning the game 63-62.

After the game was over and Georgetown had lost, the first thing Smith did was run to Thompson and give him a hug, which is something Thompson said he remembers fondly.

“I always said ‘I wonder would I have done that,'” Thompson said. “If I had won would I have been running around the floor like a fool, happy and celebrating that I won, but that was reflective of Dean more than anything else.”

Dean Smith and Bill Thorpe Added to Social Justice Memorial

Under a perfectly Carolina blue sky on Sunday, the UNC Gospel Choir sang to a crowd of citizens, community leaders and local elected officials gathered at Peace and Justice Plaza where two new names were being added to the granite stone that celebrates local leaders for their work on social justice issues.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt alluded to some of the history of the location.

“With community support, we believed it was appropriate to honor some significant members of our community members in this space,” he says. “Members who have participated in the demonstrations and the speak outs, who have provided the energy, the intellect and the enthusiasm to support the great words and the fights that were brought to the ground right here.”

Those two names added were Town Council member Bill Thorpe and legendary UNC basketball coach Dean Smith.

Smith will long be remembered by college basketball fans for the work he did leading the Tar Heel program for three decades, winning two national championships and cultivating Carolina basketball into one of the most recognizable brands in the world.

But many who knew Smith on a more personal level remember him as someone dedicated to several social justice issues, one of which was integration.

William Thorpe, Bill Thorpe’s son, recalls some of the behind-the-scenes work orchestrated by Smith when recruiting Charlie Scott, who was the first African-American to attend North Carolina on an athletic scholarship. Thorpe says Smith asked Bobby Gersten if his son would be able to room with Scott because Gersten, who is Jewish, had seen some of the same marginalization in the past.

“This is the sensitivity of Dean Smith,” he says. “And, not only Charlie, could you have maybe Eddie Fogler and Jim Delany, could they kind of help ease the transition for Charlie and help him to adjust socially?”

The 95-year-old Gersten, UNC’s oldest living athlete, also spoke at the celebration. He says he remembers hearing from his son, who did end up rooming with Scott.

“I called my son Richard and said, ‘Richie, you know Charlie is in a unique situation, very difficult, and he’s going to need your help socially,’” Gersten recalls. “And Richie said to me, ‘Daddy, do me a favor, worry about me not him. He’s had a date every night, and I haven’t talked to a girl yet.’

“Charlie’s social life was tremendous from then on and everybody was crazy about him.”

Recruiting Charlie Scott was just one of the few examples of Smith’s mindset on social issues. Scott Smith, Dean’s Son, says Dean’s reach spilled over into local politics.

“I think he was also very proud that he helped Howard Lee get elected Mayor of Chapel Hill,” Smith says. “Those are the things that are important to him.”

Lee was the first African-American Mayor of Chapel Hill.

Bill Thorpe ran for Chapel Hill Town Council eight times, for the first time in 1975. He was elected to his first term in 1977. During his second term, Thorpe was a strong voice behind the movement for Chapel Hill to observe Martin Luther King Junior Day before it became a federal holiday.

Thorpe was also very influential in the renaming of Airport Boulevard to Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard, as well as the establishment of a paid internship program with the Town of Chapel Hill for UNC students.

Durham representative Larry Hall is the Democratic leader in the North Carolina House of Representatives. Hall and Thorpe were two members of what they called “The Breakfast Club,” which met up to discuss issues in local government. Hall calls Thorpe the architect of his career.

“[Thorpe] really believed that if you had a position, if you were elected, that you were there for a reason,” Hall says, “not to sit quietly, not to be an observer, but to be a very active participant and represent those principles that you were known for, that you campaigned on, that you assured people of.”

Bill Thorpe and Dean Smith. Two of the now 13 names forever inscribed and remembered for their work on social justice issues.

Stroman On Sports: Sports And Social Justice

This Sunday at 3 pm, the Town of Chapel Hill will hold a ceremony at Peace and Justice Plaza (in front of the post office on East Franklin Street) to add the names of Bill Thorpe and Dean Smith to a marker recognizing local figures who fought for social justice, equality, and civil rights.

Dean Smith’s work for social justice is well known, at least locally: among many other things, he played a major role in desegregating both the ACC and Chapel Hill. His example serves as a powerful testament to the ability of sports and athletics to make a difference for good in the world.

But how effectively are we using that ability? Where are the Dean Smiths of today? Are we using athletics as a force for good in the world, or are we squandering an opportunity?

Deborah Stroman is a sports analyst, an expert on analytics, and a professor at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. She spoke about that issue on Monday with Aaron Keck. (They also discussed UNC football’s recent success and how teams can manage – or fail to manage – chemistry issues.)

Art’s Angle: Does Honor Absolve Smith?

The U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) will be bestowing an annual award that honors the late Dean Smith given “to an individual in college basketball who embodies the spirit and values represented by Smith,” according to the official release Wednesday.

What a marvelous idea, akin to what has been proposed by various people since Smith retired in 1997. UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham told Media Relations Director Steve Kirschner two years ago that such an award should be initiated. Sports Information Director Emeritus Rick Brewer, perhaps the closest person to Smith outside his personal and basketball families, suggested it to sportswriter and former USBWA president John Feinstein at the 2015 ACC Tournament.

When brought up at the organization’s next meeting, it passed “in 30 seconds,” according to current President Pat Forde, who with Feinstein and columnist Dana O’Neil were in Chapel Hill Wednesday to make the announcement. The USBWA has since worked with Kirschner, Cunningham and the Smith family to frame out the parameters of the award that can go to a coach, non-coach, presumably a former player, “both male and female, from all divisions of the NCAA and NAIA.”

There was a lot of joy and sincere sentiment at the press conference, also attended by Smith’s widow Linnea and son Scott. There was also a touch of hypocrisy.

Apparently, any writer with a regular column in print or on-line who pays dues can join the USBWA, which has had hundreds of members since being  founded in 1956 and names an All-American Team each year and also gives out annual national awards for Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Courage.

The USBWA has no control over what its members write, and many of them have had UNC in their gun sights for years over the academic scandal. Some have refused to believe the scandal is an aberration of what was long hailed as a model athletic program, the problem started in the old African American Studies (AFAM) department and was taken advantage of by a relatively small percentage of Tar Heel athletes over an 18-year span.

Forde has been one of Carolina’s harshest critics, banging out columns with sweeping accusations and indictments, suggesting that UNC might before due process self-impose penalties like vacating a national title. He was the headline subject of one Tar Heel blog entitled, Pat Forde Can’t Stop Talking About North Carolina’s Academic Scandal. In that piece, Forde said of Marcus Paige, the Academic Player of the Year in college basketball:

“And the brainiac junior also is tasked with being the erudite face of a program that has become a national laughingstock because of an 18-year academic scandal that undercut the school’s previously strong reputation.”

At the time of Forde’s quote, “an 18-year scandal” went back to 1996-97, when Smith was still coaching the Tar Heels. So Forde was asked if getting behind the Dean Smith Award somehow exonerates the Hall of Fame coach from any involvement in the eyes of the USBWA.

“This is independent from the scandal,” Forde said. “It is everything Dean did away from basketball.”

Asked again if this particular honor absolves Smith and we may never see his name mentioned in another story about the scandal (after this one), Forde said, “We wouldn’t put Dean Smith’s name on an award if we did not feel his character deserved it.”

Frankly, the rush to judgment from the ABC posters is to be expected. But from an organization of the best basketball writers in the world, well, that speaks to the sometimes unhealthy competition of the 24-hour news cycle. And it isn’t likely to stop whether the NCAA throws the Tar Heels in jail or says it’s “all good” and let’s P.J. Hairston come back and play his last two years. Either way, the reactions will be strong.

What the scribes say about Carolina Basketball, good and bad, will always go back to Dean Smith because he took a team in rubbles when no one else wanted the job and created a paradigm that every other program in the country, including Duke, sought to emulate. And now it is coached by one of his deepest disciples, a man who credits everything he knows about life and college basketball to his mentor.

So while UNC and the Smith family should be thrilled about this off-the-court recognition, and its charitable association with their Opening Doors Fund, I am happy it is another step in restoring a reputation that Dean Smith helped build.

Legacy of Dean Smith to Live On Through Award

The University of North Carolina and the United States Basketball Writers Association announced a new award to honor Dean Smith on Wednesday.

USBWA President and Yahoo! Sports writer Pat Forde says that there was one overwhelming feeling he had when approached about the idea of the Dean Smith Award during the Final Four.

“My first thought though is, ‘what took us so long?’ he asked. “We should have done this 15 years ago probably, at least.”

Past Basketball Writers Association President and Washington Post Columnist John Feinstein says the award will have nothing to do with wins and losses.

“We’re going to search for a person each year who Dean would be proud to present the award to, if he were still here,” he says. “That’s our criteria.”

Current Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams says the fact the award will focus on off-the-court accomplishments is a perfect encapsulation of Coach Smith.

“Contributions that he made off the court are probably millions of times more significant than the games that were won, the championships that were won, or anything like that,” Williams says. “I do think that it’s very fitting.”

Scott Smith, Dean’s son, says that his dad would handle this with the same humility as always.

“Dad would not want an award named for him,” Smith says. “I think he would want people to be acknowledged for doing similar things.

“Doing the right thing and not just because you’re going to get something for it, but because you should.”

Smith coached 36 seasons at North Carolina, winning two national championships and an Olympic gold medal and appearing in 11 Final Fours. He retired in 1997 with 879 victories, which at the time were the most by any basketball coach in Division I history. But he is equally remembered for his work to integrate Chapel Hill and other social issues.

In 2013, Smith was honored by President Barack Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Smith passed away in February at age 83.

UNC Spokesperson Steve Kirschner says a banquet will be held later this year in Chapel Hill to honor the first recipient of the award.

Proceeds from the dinner will benefit the Dean E. Smith Opening Doors Fund, which assists students from low-income families in attending college and professionals in education and social work – two fields close to Coach Smith’s heart – in pursuing advanced degrees.

NC House Honors Dean Smith

The North Carolina House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution honoring the life of Dean Smith on Wednesday.

Coach Smith’s wife Linnea and daughter Kristen were at the legislature in Raleigh as several members of the House spoke about the lasting legacy of the legendary Tar Heel basketball coach, who passed away earlier this year.

The resolution honors the memory of Dean Smith and expresses the appreciation of the representatives for Coach Smith’s contributions to the state of North Carolina, public education, and social justice.

Local representatives Verla Insko and Graig Meyer are among the primary representatives of the resolution.

You can read the entire resolution here.

Final Farewell: Coach Smith Cherished, Celebrated By Those He Loved

The life and legacy of Dean Smith was publicly celebrated Sunday afternoon in the Carolina basketball showpiece that bears his name, the Dean E. Smith Center. There were few dry eyes in the house as former players, coaches and friends paid tribute to UNC’s priceless gem.

‘Amazing Grace’, sung to perfection by the UNC Clef Hangers, certainly didn’t help those watery eyes any either.

The song, one of Coach Smith’s favorites, was also accompanied by ‘There Will Never Be Another You’ performed by the UNC Department of Music Jazz Sextet. Coach Smith was always fond of jazz music.

The beautiful musical acts accented the poignant words of some of the people closest to the legendary UNC basketball coach.

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics

A full crowd Sunday in the Smith Center (UNC Athletics)

None may have been closer, though, than Coach Smith’s pastor and friend for over fifty years, the Reverend Dr. Robert Seymour.

“We knew the end of his life was approaching. It has been a long, long goodbye. I’m sure you will join with me in thanking the members of his family and all of those who gave him good loving care for such a long, long time,” Seymour said

Seymour was quick to remind the thousands in attendance that this coming Saturday, Feb. 28, is his friend’s birthday. Seymour shared the card he was planning to send to Coach Smith.

“Were he still in our midst, I have a birthday card I would have sent him. The message is this: Treasured and trusted with a heart that’s true, no wonder we celebrate that God gave us you,” Seymour said.

Coach Smith’s son, Scott Smith, took the time to thank everybody involved in making the memorial event for his father a success.

“We personally witnessed so much of the hard work that went on behind the scenes to make this such a wonderful event honoring a husband, our father and your Coach and friend,” Smith said.

Smith also expressed his father’s love for current UNC coach Roy Williams.

“Coach Williams, dad loved you. He believed in you. He often told us how proud he was of you and how happy he was that you were here at UNC. He knew the basketball program that he loved and developed would be in your great hands going forward, even after he was no longer here,” Smith said.

Roy Williams holding up four fingers for Coach Smith (UNC Athletics)

Roy Williams holding up four fingers for Coach Smith (UNC Athletics)

The Voice of the Tar Heels for over 30 years, Woody Durham, emceed the event and painted a beautiful portrait of Coach Smith’s relationship with Coach Williams that came full circle when he brought him back home to Chapel Hill.

“He was brought to his University by the man he wanted to be around to learn how to be a basketball coach. And then when the time came and the Coach thought it was right, he sent him to his alma mater, as the head coach of the University of Kansas. And then when it was the right time to bring him home, he did that too,” Durham said.

Coach Williams recalled a time he got a pretty significant phone call but wouldn’t let it interrupt a meeting with one of his players.

“I’ve got a player in the office, and she [secretary] opened the door and stuck her head in. I looked and said, ‘What?’ You just don’t do that. She said, ‘Former President Bush is on the phone.’ I said, ‘Would you please tell him we’ll call him back,'” Coach Williams said.

As it turned out, President Bush just wanted a couple tickets to the upcoming game. But the funny anecdote illustrates Coach Williams carrying on Coach Smith’s tradition of the Carolina family – an unwavering loyalty to his players and staff.

But that kindness and compassion stretched out further, as Coach Williams pointed out.

“Every day our lives will show something that Coach Smith gave us – the way we treat people, the way we treat people with respect and dignity, and the way we care. That’s what Coach Smith did,” Coach Williams said.

Thousands gathered to say goodbye to Coach Smith Sunday (UNC Athletics)

Thousands gathered to say goodbye to Coach Smith Sunday (UNC Athletics)

Coach Smith revolutionized the game of basketball in many ways – the Four Corners offense and pointing to the passer are just two of them.

In UNC’s win over Georgia Tech Saturday, Coach Williams paid tribute by running the iconic Four Corners offense that comforted Tar Heel fans and enraged opponents for years.

Fittingly, Coach Williams took another page out of his mentor’s playbook Sunday and called for the crowd in attendance to point skyward up at Coach Smith.

“I’m trying to speak on behalf of every one of us. Everybody has negatives. Everybody has plusses. Coach Smith had more plusses than anybody I’ve ever known. Let’s raise our hand, point and thank him for the assist. Thank you,” Coach Williams said.

WCHL’s own Freddie Kiger put together a touching video tribute to Coach Smith. It closed out the proceedings on an emotional day inside the Smith Center.

Coach Smith Transcends Rivalry

Wednesday night will be the first meeting between rivals UNC and Duke on the basketball court since the passing of legendary UNC men’s basketball coach Dean Smith.

In memory of Coach Smith, shirts have been made by Chapel Hill’s Thrill City that are dark blue with the letters DEAN replacing the standard DUKE.

via Thrill City

via Thrill City

Reports estimate more than 500 of the shirts have been sold prior to tip off, on Wednesday night.

Stories Continue to Honor Coach Smith

Thoughts, stories, and memories are still coming in honoring of the late legendary UNC basketball coach Dean Smith.

Listen below for a conversation with Smith’s longtime Pastor Bob Seymour:

Listen below for reflections from Barry Jacobs:

Listen below for a conversation with UNC Women’s Basketball Coach Sylvia Hatchell:

Listen below for memories from Director of Public Policy Polling, and avid UNC fan, Tom Jensen:

Listen below for a great story from Elizabeth Fritz, who scheduled the birth of a child around the 1982 National Championship game:

Listen below for the story of a monk with a weak spot for Tar Heel basketball, as told by local pastor Mark Acuff:

You can hear additional audio here.

And share your story with us.

Public Memorial For Dean Smith Sunday, February 22

Statement from UNC:

CHAPEL HILL – The University of North Carolina will celebrate the life of Coach Dean Smith during a public memorial service at 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 22, in the Dean E. Smith Center. More details will be announced at a later date. The public, fans and all who cared about Coach Smith are invited to attend this event.

The family will have a private church service on Thursday morning, Feb. 12. The University asks the public to respect the family’s wishes regarding Thursday’s private church service, as space will be limited. Members of the Smith family; Mr. Smith’s close personal friends; and Coach Smith’s basketball lettermen, coaches and team managers should RSVP as soon as possible to Kaye Chase at 919-962-7870 or All others are encouraged to attend the University’s celebration of Coach Smith’s life on Feb. 22.

“We are comforted by the countless gestures and words from people near and far offering their condolences,” the Smith family said in a statement issued Monday. “Although we are unable to respond to each individual, we deeply appreciate everyone reaching out to share how Coach Smith touched their lives. We will continue to celebrate his life and remember him, today and forever.”

The family has said that in lieu of flowers, individuals should feel free to make a memorial contribution to one of the following organizations:

– The Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, based in Chapel Hill. The organization lives out Smith’s values of caring for the poor and those in need. For more information, contact the IFC.

– The Dean E. Smith Opening Doors Fund will support talented undergraduate students who need significant financial assistance to attend Carolina. It will also provide financial support to graduate students in education and social work — two fields close to Smith’s heart. For more information on the fund, contact UNC Development.

– Individuals may also give to the charity of their choice to honor Coach Smith and the values he exemplified.