This week in North Philly Notes, Gregory Kaliss, author of Men’s College Athletics and the Politics of Racial Equality reflects on Dean Smith’s legacy of promoting racial integration.
With the death of Dean Smith on February 7, the world of college sports lost one of the giants in its history, a man who was the standard of consistent excellence during his thirty-six years as the head coach of men’s basketball at the University of North Carolina. With a career 879-254 record, thirty-five winning seasons, eleven Final Four appearances, two national championships, and one Olympic gold medal, Smith clearly excelled on the court.
But, as many have observed, the nation at large has lost someone much more important than just a basketball coach. For all of Smith’s innovations, from his early adoption of advanced statistical metrics to his creation of the point zone, the Four Corners offense, the huddle at the free throw line, and the tradition of pointing to the passer on a made basket, Smith’s legacy was defined by his contributions off the court.
This Black History Month, it is especially worthwhile to remember Smith’s courage in promoting racial integration in the South. As a little-known assistant coach in the late 1950s, Smith and his white minister brought a black friend to a popular segregated restaurant in Chapel Hill for lunch. They were served. In some ways, that act was as impressive as some of his later stands: with little clout and a tenuous position as an assistant, Smith challenged the racial mores of the community because of his sense of moral rightness.
When Smith became head coach at UNC in 1961, he followed through on his desire to bring black players to Chapel Hill and to the South in general. Although his first attempt to bring a black player onto the team did not work out when the player decided to focus on academics instead, Smith recruited Charles Scott, a tremendously-gifted athlete from New York who played his high school basketball in Laurinburg, North Carolina.
Not only was Scott the first black basketball player at UNC, he was also the first star-caliber black player in the Atlantic Coast Conference during his career from 1966 to 1970. Although the University of Maryland had signed black players prior to UNC, Scott’s stardom made him an iconic figure. In subsequent years, the other schools in the ACC followed suit.
But Smith did more than simply make use of Scott’s basketball skills. In later years, Scott effusively praised Smith for caring about him as a person and for helping him survive the years of racial abuse and social isolation he experienced. Smith also took a courageous stand in encouraging Scott’s political activism with the on-campus Black Student Movement. Many frowned on athletes getting involved in political activism, especially in relation to controversial subjects such as racial equality, but Smith told Scott to follow his beliefs and get involved, a remarkable decision given the turbulence of the 1960s and the still-fraught nature of race relations in Chapel Hill and the South at large.
In later years, Smith pursued a number of activist initiatives that alienated some supporters: from his opposition to pornography and to the sale of alcohol at college sporting events, to his protests against nuclear power and the death penalty. Through it all, he maintained the courage of his convictions and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
Let us remember, then, the death of a man who sought to make the world a better place according to his sense of justice—a man who just happened to be an excellent basketball coach as well.