Dean Smith will be 82 on Thursday, which is February 28 and a neat juxtaposition of numbers wouldn’t you say?
Wait, there is more irony here. Smith won his first NCAA championship as a coach in ’82, which was 31 years ago. And The Dean was born in 1931.
Next season will be the 17th since Smith retired – that is the exact number of ACC regular-season championships he won, which was far more important to him than his 13 ACC Tournament titles. Consistency over time was the mathematician’s favorite formula. He would take three months over three days, easy.
Nevertheless, the 17 + 13 = 30 is the total years it took Smith to win all the aforementioned championships. By the way, he also signed 30 players who went on to be first- (26) or second-round (4) NBA draft choices.
And that does not include Charlie Scott, who is listed as a seventh-round pick by the Boston Celtics (where he eventually won an NBA championship) because Scott signed with the Virginia Squires of the old ABA long before the 1970 NBA draft. (Like he did with Larry Bird, Red Auerbach drafted Scott as a “future” star.)
Of course, Smith retired with 879 career victories, which is roughly the number of lettermen he coached (or claimed or wished they had been) in his storied career. Just like 40,000 people still insist they were in Carmichael Auditorium for the famous 8-points-in-17-seconds comeback win over Duke in 1974.
The beloved Smith, as we all know, is suffering with progressive dementia and may not recognize all of the people who plan to give him a small birthday party and cake on Thursday. But, clearly, he is still regarded as one of the giants of the game and great humanitarians in the history of all sports. Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, Arthur Ashe Award from ESPN, the list goes on.
A petition for Coach Smith to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honor in the United States – fell far short of the needed 100,000 signatures, but those who coached with, played for or just know the man believe he deserves such recognition for his work with racial integration and many other causes for the betterment of humanity and society.
After growing up watching his father, Coach Alfred Smith, put his job on the line by keeping black player Paul Terry on the Emporia High School team, Smith had as one of his goals when he arrived in Chapel Hill in 1958 to help head coach Frank McGuire integrate the Carolina basketball program. McGuire had recruited Wilt Chamberlain out of Overbrook High School in Philadelphia, but The Stilt did not meet the archaic ACC entrance requirements of the time and went to Kansas.
You know the irony of that story, as the 1957 Tar Heels shocked the Jayhawks in triple overtime in Kansas City to win the NCAA championship. McGuire later coached Chamberlain with the old Philadelphia Warriors during the 1962 season when Chamberlain scored 100 points against the New York Knicks in Hershey, PA., and they remained lifelong friends.
Smith continued the fight for racial freedom in UNC athletics when he took over as head coach. He had invited freshman Willie Cooper, an African-American walk-on from Greensboro, to join the varsity in 1965 because Cooper was good enough to earn a scholarship. But choosing economics as a major, Cooper decided he could not do both and dropped basketball. Cooper’s daughter later played for Sylvia Hatchell’s team here.
The ground-breaker was Charlie Scott, whom Smith “stole” from Lefty Driesell and Davidson after Scott and his coaches at Laurinburg Institute had been refused service at a restaurant in downtown Davidson. Smith learned of that incident and, for the only time he ever recruited a player who had verbally committed elsewhere, invited Scott for a visit to Chapel Hill.
Scott loved Driesell, even called him “Lefty” as a high school kid. “Lefty,” he said, “I would love to play for you, but I just think Chapel Hill is a better place for me.”
One of the legends about Smith was that he treated all of his players equally, which of course is not true. The best players got the minutes, and Scott got privileges that Smith had not previously granted others on his teams. Entering school in the fall of 1966, Scott had to succeed at UNC to pave the way for other black athletes to follow. So Scott got special time away with assistant coach John Lotz, his best friend who was eventually the best man at Scott’s wedding, and Smith allowed Scott to visit a girlfriend in Durham and sleep away from Avery Dorm when he needed to. Often on the couch of Howard and Lillian Lee.
Scott was the chosen one because he was, foremost, a great player who would elevate the Carolina program. But he was also an excellent student who would surely graduate and a New York native tough enough to stomach some of the guff he would encounter in places like Columbia and Clemson.
Scott was not spared the racism of the time, the biggest injustice coming in 1969 when five voters left him off the first-team All-ACC ballot. The graceful 6-6 Scott was unequivocally among the five best players in the ACC, the best most people thought. So with the urging of Smith and Lotz to prove those five racists wrong, Scott went out and tore up the 1969 ACC Tournament in Charlotte.
Remember those numbers? Twenty-eight points in the second half, 40 for the game, to rally the Tar Heels past Duke to their third straight ACC championship and, eventually, their third straight Final Four.
Scott’s famous 40 aren’t among Dean Smith’s numbers, but Smith was surely behind them, as he was so many other achievements that numbers don’t show.
Happy 82nd, Coach. We love you.