Two weeks after legendary North Carolina men’s basketball coach Dean Smith died, thousands gathered for a public memorial service in the Dean E. Smith Center — a building named in his honor, but one which he actually wanted to be called the Student Activities Center.
On a stage erected in front of the student section, several of his closest mentees returned to show their loyalty by sharing memories and stories about their mentor. Longtime voice of the Tar Heels Woody Durham introduced them one by one.
“You talk about loyalty, I’ve never seen a man on the face of the Earth more loyal than him,” said Phil Ford, who played for Smith in the 1970s, the staple of the coach’s trademark Four Corner offense. “If there’s a model of how we should live our lives, we should look no further than Coach’s life.”
Mickey Bell played with Ford in the 1970s. He recalled the only moment when Smith told him the word “no.” It happened when Bell jokingly asked the coach if he could take the reins from Ford in Four Corners.
Bell knew he could never say no to speaking at the service.
“Coach Smith never said no to any of the requests I said to him,” he said. “He coached you how to be a basketball player for four years. He coached you how to be a man for a lifetime.”
A private funeral was held Feb. 12, drawing dozens of Smith’s former players home.
“It was almost like he brought his family together at that one time,” said Billy Cunningham, an All-American under Smith in the 1960s. “They came from L.A., Germany, all over the world to be there. It’s like his children came to say goodbye.”
The lessons the coach instilled in his players during his 36-year tenure at the helm of UNC’s program are still ingrained in them today.
“I have four kids of my own, and the things that I preach to them, the things that I tell them, are the things he taught us,” said Antawn Jamison, a player from Smith’s final UNC team before he retired in 1997.
Eric Montross shared one of his favorite Smith sayings.
“You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love,” Montross said Smith would tell his players.
But perhaps the one man whose life was affected by Smith the most is the coach who now occupies the building.
“Coach Williams, Dad loved you,” said Scott Smith, Dean Smith’s son. “He believed in you ... He knew the basketball program he loved and developed would be in your great hands even after he was no longer here.”
During his speech, Williams paid special tribute to the man who affected him as much as the world of college basketball.
“Everybody has pluses. Everybody has negatives. Coach Smith had more pluses than anybody I’ve ever known,” Williams said. “Let’s raise our hands and point and thank him for the assist.”
Rev. Robert Seymour, who was Smith’s pastor for 30 years and friend for 55, closed the ceremony with a benediction. He reminded the crowd that Smith’s birthday is this week, Feb. 28, and said he had already picked out the card he was going to give Smith. Then, he gave the audience the one thing they needed: comfort.
“This gathering was not for Dean. This gathering was for us,” he said. “He didn’t need it, but we needed it. You and I needed it.”