It is more than appropriate that Dean Smith received the Presidential Medal of Freedom two days before the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. It was President Kennedy who began bestowing the honor on what is now 550 American heroes but, more importantly and to use a little sports jargon, Smith was a huge fan and supporter of the 35th President and mourned deeply with the rest of the world when JFK was slain in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Smith had just been named to succeed Frank McGuire when Kennedy spoke at UNC on October 12, 1961, and the little-known basketball coach was three days from beginning his first official practice as the new head coach. Yet, the day Kennedy spoke in Kenan Stadium remains one of the highlights of his life, just as much as nervously joking with President Clinton 30 years later after bringing his team to the White House to celebrate the 1993 national championship.

Dean Smith was well on his way to a life that would be worthy of the Presidential Medal of Freedom before his first practice or game as a head basketball coach. He grew up in Kansas, where in the 1930s and ’40s most everyone was Republican, but his was a liberal and fair-minded household. His father, Alfred Smith, integrated high school basketball in the state by putting a black student named Paul Terry on the Emporia High School team – not because of his skin color, but because his ability and character were deserving of a spot.

And the original Coach Smith took his entire team to games all over the state, ignoring threats from opposing schools not to bring Terry with him and enduring bans from certain hotels and restaurants. Furious, Alfred Smith had to leave Terry in Emporia when they traveled to the state championships because the Kansas High School Athletic Association ruled his team would be disqualified if it played Terry in the tournament.

Young Dean Smith was a team mascot in those days, often traveling with the players to games and sitting on their laps in the back seat of cars and buses. Whether he understood all that was going on, the imprinting was taking place. As a high school student and athlete in Topeka, he approached the principal about an archaic policy of having two parties the night after a football game – one for white students and one for blacks. He always regretted not doing more, like organizing a protest of his teammates to boycott both parties.

That was the nature of the young assistant coach when he joined McGuire’s staff in 1958 in a Chapel Hill that was far more racist than people know or care to remember. He talked early to McGuire about signing a black player to the program, and McGuire revealed that he had recruited Wilt Chamberlain out of Overbrook High School in Philadelphia, but the Stilt did not make the 800 score on the culturally biased minimum the ACC had set for scholarship athletes at the time.

By now, Smith was a liberal Democrat, and long time disciple of the American Baptist Church, a congregation that did not exist in Chapel Hill when he arrived. The Chapel Hill Baptist Church was made up of all-white businessmen and their families as well as some university employees and students. Smith went to a few services there and decided this was not to be his church because it was not inclusive.

He abhorred the tag of “Southern Baptist” because it had a segregated, racial connotation. He learned of a new Baptist congregation that was meeting in Gerrard Hall on campus, and Smith and his young family were there on the Sunday morning when a new liberal First Pastor named Robert Seymour delivered his first sermon. Seymour knew nothing about basketball, but he and his wife Pearl, who played the organ at services, became great friends with Smith.

So many university faculty and their families gravitated toward this new congregation that the Chapel Hill Baptist Church called an emergency meeting and changed its name to the University Baptist Church, fearing Seymour’s congregation would adopt that name. They later chose the Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church (for the long-time Southern theologian), which is a Chapel Hill and university institution today. Their goal was to be inclusive and to force Chapel Hill to abide by the Federal Laws championed by the Kennedy Administration and, eventually, uphold the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Seymour, Smith and a young theology student went to dinner at the Old Pines and, despite some hesitation at first and long looks, they were served without incident to integrate one of the last hold-outs of the Public Accommodations Act among Chapel Hill restaurants. The old Brady’s on Franklin Street was another. Smith’s presence was important, because The Pines had long served the UNC Basketball team, and the owners obviously did not want to lose that business.

That was the singular act against segregation for which Dean Smith is best known, but he attended marches and rallies in Chapel Hill organized by his church. Despite its reputation as a liberal bastion and nicknamed The Southern Part of Heaven, our town was as slow to integrate schools and ban segregated restrooms and water fountains as any in the South. It remains a historical embarrassment and, Seymour believes, is one of the reasons there was not more support for the defunct Chapel Hill Museum.

The Binkley congregation had assignments for its members. It backed a candidate who would be the swing vote to integrate the Chapel Hill school system, and Smith’s “assignment” was to recruit a black player into his basketball program. Future stars like Lou Hudson didn’t have the SAT scores, and an economics student name Willie Cooper played on the freshman team but decided to concentrate on his studies. Thus, followed the heart-warming and heart-breaking story of Charlie Scott and all that the player and coach went through to make that a hard-fought success story.

Later, Smith supported the nuclear ban, opposed the death penalty and spoke to a Congressional sub-committee against beer advertising in sports. He rarely brought politics into his basketball program and never into his locker room, but his small group of close friends knew where he stood on issues. This list of his off-court battles is not as long as his 879 career victories, but that – and not his record as a coach – is the reason his wife and family, Roy Williams and Bill Guthridge were in Washington Wednesday to accept, in his honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Congratulations, and thank you, Coach Smith.