None of the undergraduates who work for this newspaper are old enough to properly eulogize Dean E. Smith.
Most of us weren’t even 5 years old at the time of his 1997 retirement — scarcely old enough to remember a game of basketball, much less understand the weight Smith carried in so many circles of American life.
But even into his retirement and old age, the stories about Smith persisted. We named the biggest arena in town after our faith in what Smith stood for. When the Dean E. Smith Center’s namesake appears on the jumbotron to proclaim that “this is Carolina basketball,” there remains an understanding among us younger folks that without Smith, it wouldn’t be.
All the high schools in town hold their graduations in the Smith Center. For parents, there’s no more fitting symbol of hope for their children’s future than Smith’s ability to change the lives of young people for the better.
And so, as we remember Smith’s life and mourn his passing, it’s comforting to be surrounded by so many reminders of his legacy. But that legacy must not just be remembered: It must be acted upon.
Today, as the University attempts to reconcile its desire for successful sports programs with the real-world complications of academics, race and justice, it can look to Smith’s philosophy as one that embodied a desirable balance. He integrated himself into the fabric of the lives of his players and fans in a way that suggested he saw his status as a coach and local hero as a means to accomplishing something greater.
Smith is, in large part, responsible for the “Carolina Way,” at least as we conceive of it today. But rather than simply repeating the phrase in hopes that doing so might ward off what threatens it, we must act as Smith would have and involve ourselves in efforts to confront those threats honestly.
Participants in the world of athletics hear a familiar refrain when their commentary strays too far from the field or hardwood: “Stick to sports,” they’re told. No better argument against this mindset exists than the life of Smith, who aggressively taught his players to be conscious members of the world they inhabit. Honoring Smith would be to continue his constant concern for the justice of our actions.
It’s tempting to use sports as refuge from everything that makes life so complicated, but Smith knew as well as anyone that basketball could never be separated from the lives of its participants or spectators. His teams, UNC and Chapel Hill, were all better off for his refusal to “stick to sports.” Things were good when Smith was coach, but that was because he fought for them to be that way.
Despite the years of scandal this University has endured, the beauty of Smith’s vision has remained inspirational to those who wish to see UNC once again on the side of justice. It is because of him that UNC basketball still sits upon such a lofty pedestal in the hearts of millions.
These days, we might find ourselves cheering a Marcus Paige floater or a J.P. Tokoto jam instead of a Michael Jordan game-winner. But we know what brought them here, and we know what brought us. We look up into the rafters, down at the players on the court and at the people standing beside us. We remind ourselves: This is the house that Dean built.