When I was 4 years old, I thought Dean Smith was President of the United States.
I was attending Binkley Baptist Church with my sister and my parents. I dreaded going to the weekly service and was one of those kids who would scribble all over the guest forms located on the back of our wooden chairs with the red seats.
One day, as I was sulking and writing on one of those pieces of paper, Dean Smith walked past me, asking for me to move out of the way. It was a regular gesture, but I was a sensitive child and stewed about it for the rest of the service. I remember leaving that day and telling my parents, “I don’t care if he’s the President of the United States, I won’t shake his hand.”
I can’t tell you why I thought he was the President. But my dad had told me stories about Smith’s legacy as a head coach and my young, naive brain just put two and two together.
Over the next few years, I became an avid UNC basketball fan. I watched every game, even though the last two years of the Matt Doherty era were certainly not worth watching. But my favorite Tar Heel figure was the one I once thought was the President.
I absorbed all the information I could about Smith. I knew how many National Championships he had won and learned about some of his greatest players: Phil Ford, James Worthy and some guy named Mike Jordan, just to name a few.
Every time we returned to Binkley, the first thing I would do was seek out Smith to see if he was there. There he would be, seated near the back left corner, a smile on his face. Smith and his family never made a big scene, they just sat there quietly. If I hadn’t known any better I would have thought he was just some regular person. But he wasn’t.
I would always try to get my family to sit near him if possible – any chance to be able to shake his hand when saying “peace be with you” to those around me. I relished those moments, as a young, dorky kid with a huge smile on my face shaking the hand of one of my idols. I still remember them to this day.
It’s almost the end of February now, more than four years since Smith passed away at the age of 83. I remember I was at home when I heard the news. My dad and I talked about it at length, and I remember the whole Chapel Hill community being in mourning.
Two days after, I went to the old Daily Tar Heel building to get two copies of his obituary paper before they were gone. I had to hold on to one of those copies. It was a sense of closure from losing someone who felt like an older relative.
I know that’s how so many people felt about Smith. Every person has their own unique story, whether it be from meeting Smith personally, or from watching his actions on TV. Yes, he was a Hall of Fame coach, but he was also so much more. He was an integrationist, a civil rights leader, a man who stood for what he believed in even when he did not have the job security to back himself up.
But I like to think that my story is pretty unique. It’s one I have told a lot lately to people around the DTH office. And that’s why I’m telling you.
Maybe Dean Smith wasn’t the President, but he certainly was as impactful as one to me and to millions of others.
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