“If you make every game a life and death proposition, you’re going to have problems. For one thing, you’ll be dead a lot.”
“I do believe in praising that which deserves to be praised.”
-Dean Edwards Smith, 1931-2015
Dreams are a tricky thing to put a finger on, a complex and intricate idea to nail down. Dreams are malleable. Dreams change. Dreams shift and contour and alter. Dreams deviate. Dreams pull an about face. One day you are dreaming about being a fireman or a fighter pilot or a crime halting mutant turtle. The next you are dreaming about a promotion from one cubicle to a slightly bigger one. The point is that our dreams eventually gain perspective. The point is that our dreams eventually gain point of view. The point is that our dreams do not, ever, stay the same.
This thought seems sad, or depressing, or unbearably pessimistic, but it’s not. It’s not meant to be. It’s realistic. It’s honest. It’s true. It’s the way the world works. You dream about doing something until you change, until how you see the world changes, until what you want to become changes, until it is taken away from you or deemed illogical or unimportant or besides the point. Until you realize that 5’7” guys who can’t jump more than 6 inches off the floor do not make it to the NBA, or that people who vomit at the slightest sight of blood do not make great surgeons, or that human beings are not capable of turning into spider like people who can shoot webs from their wrists and climb up walls, no matter what kind of radioactive material they have been exposed to. Until you understand what your life is and what it is supposed to be. Until you figure out the way things are. Until you recognize who you are. This is the way it is. When a dream ends accept it and move on. Another one will pop up in its place.
That does not mean however that if a dream goes unfilled it is wasted, it does not indicate that if a dream is never realized that you, the dreamer, have failed. Dreams can still motivate us. Dreams can still push us towards something. Dreams can still make us a better person. Dreams can still take us back into our past in an attempt to remember what was really important to us then, as we try to remember what truly mattered in our lives at a particular moment in time. Dreams can show us who we were. Dreams can make us recall the person that we always wanted to be. Dreams are important, almost as important as our real-life, because of the place they occupy in our hearts and minds; because of the identity we hope that they can create for us.
My 1st dream was to play basketball at the University of North Carolina. My 1st dream was to play basketball for Dean Edwards Smith. I am not sure how that dream came to exist. I am not sure why that dream ever developed. I have no clue what lead that possibility to the forefront of my desires. I just know that when I was 7-years-old I saw Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace dunking on people in powder blue uniforms and I knew that I wanted, that I needed, to be like them; that I wanted, that I needed, to be them. My reaction was visceral. My reaction was genuine. My reaction was real. My reaction was long lasting. North Carolina basketball took over my life. North Carolina basketball washed over my brain. North Carolina basketball transformed me in the most powerful of ways. North Carolina basketball showed me, for the first time in my life, what accomplishment was.
Front and center, at the core of North Carolina basketball—as with any great program in the cult that is college sports—was the coach. Dean Smith. Coach Smith. One of the most successful coaches in the history of sport, using won/loss record as a metric. One of the most successful men in the history of the planet using compassion as a measurement.
One of the most unique ambassadors for the ideas that exist in the world of competition and yet are so rarely put into practice that they have become some sort of putrid cliché, some type of hilariously ironic joke that fuels the fire up to a level of irrefutable cynicism; that sports are as much about making you a better person as they are about making you a better athlete; that the way you conduct yourself off the field or court is more important than your ability to produce on it; that, at the end of the day, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. Dean Smith, Coach Smith, stood for these principles. He lived them. He exuded them. He is one of the people that proved that they truly could exist. He is one of the people that proved that they do not have to be a punch line. He is one of the people that proved that all of these commonplace platitudes and banal adages and corny buzzwords are legitimate and substantive and undeniable. He carried that weight on his shoulders. He never dropped it. He never proved to be anything less than he portrayed himself to be; honest, hard working, humane. Equitable. Tender. Big-hearted. Virtuous. Sincere. Full of so much integrity that his conscious seemed to always point to the truest north.
Hero-worship is a dangerous game. Hero-worship is something that is so easy to indulge in, so easy to fall victim to, so easy to allow to influence the way we see the world around us. Hero-worship is everywhere around us in today’s world. It informs whose face is on our television screen. It informs whose endorsement is able to sell us our hamburgers, our cars, our face wash. It informs our culture. We see a family on a television show chronicling their lives and we wonder what they have done to earn our adoration. It used to be you were famous, our renowned, or venerated for doing something. Now a days it so often seems to work in reverse. The fame or the renown or the veneration is not a by-product of achievement. It precedes it. It is not the beneviolet side effect; it is the outcome. It is the goal. It is what the family on the television screen set out to achieve in the first place.
Hero-worship is what I am engaging in here. I never met Dean Smith, Coach Smith. I never shook in his hand. I never looked in his eyes. He never called me to check in, to see how I was doing. He never helped me to get drafted into the NBA. He is not a reference on my resume. I do not know who he is. I do not know who he is not. I only know what the media, what the fable, what the myth tells me about him. It's just that, in this instance, I choose to believe it. It's just that, in this instance, I choose to buy into what the man is supposed to be. It's just that, in this instance, I have decided that the subject of my worship is, in fact, a real-life hero. That the subject of my worship is my hero. That the subject of my worship deserves everything that is coming his way. Dean Smith, Coach Smith believed in praising that which deserved to be praised. Dean Smith, Coach Smith, believed that there are bonafide heroes in this world. He just wasn’t the kind of person who would ever admit that he was one of them.
I can repeat the stories I’ve heard in the past few days about Dean Smith, Coach Smith, to prove my point, to drive it into the ground and help you see the man the way that so many others see him. I can tell you about how Dean Smith, Coach Smith, not only spoke out, but acted out, against racial segregation when so many other powerful white men were content to either benefit from the system or let someone else figure out how to fix it. I can share the story of how Dean Smith, Coach Smith, sat in the Governor’s office and called the chief executive of the state of North Carolina, as well as all its citizens (himself included), a murderer for allowing the death penalty to exist in the place where they call home. I can reiterate a simple anecdote about how Dean Smith, Coach Smith, stopped a random homeless man on the street and gave him the money he needed to pay the security deposit on a new apartment.
I can regale you with tales about how Dean Smith, Coach Smith, took his team to visit a nearby prison and sat in the cells with the inmates so that he could show his players that he, and by extension them, was not above anyone. I can inform you about how Dean Smith, Coach Smith, stood up for striking cafeteria workers at his University and demanded that they receive the pay and benefits that they so rightfully deserved. I can reminisce about how Dean Smith, Coach Smith, would remind reporters after a big loss, or a big win, that there were a billion people in China who couldn’t care less about a Michael Jordan jump shot. About how he would remind himself. About how he would remind the world. No matter who you are, no matter who it is that you think you are, you are just a man. No matter what you do, no matter what it is that you think you do, there are a billion people in China who have no idea what happened. The vast majority of the world does not care what was accomplished. The vast majority of the world does not care what, if anything, was won.
Dean Smith, Coach Smith, had perspective, humility, point of view. He was just a basketball coach; a man who for years would refused to be paid a higher salary than $100 more than the highest paid assistant football coach; a man who for years threatened to quit the day he won his 875th game, the day he would become just one victory shy of matching Adolph Rupp’s record all-time coaching win total for college basketball, the day he would send a message to society that our obsession with wins and losses, our obsession with who is #1, can be unhealthy and counterproductive and, at the very least, over the top. Dean Smith, Coach Smith, did not resign at win 875 of course. He won Number 876. Number 877. Number 878. Number 879. He lost Number 254 to the future champions Arizona Wildcats in the 1997 Final Four. He called it quits. He may not have been obsessed with it, but he still won more than anybody else had before. He may not have cared at all, but when Dean Smith, Coach Smith, called it quits he was still #1.
Some call that kind of outlook false modesty, or bogus propriety, or deceitful reticence. Some call those kinds of comments a classic bait and switch, a way to distract from the underhanded tactics it takes to maintain control of one of our nation’s truly major athletic programs. Some have called Dean Smith, Coach Smith, “Saint Dean,” in an ironic and vinegary way, in a way that let’s you know the disdain they hold for a man who could never, has never, lived up to the image, to the illusion, of what he is supposed to be. Maybe they are right. In my mind they are almost certainly wrong. There is hero-worship and there is hero-backlash. Some people, probably many people, found Martin Luther King Jr. annoying or uppity from time to time. That doesn’t lessen the power of his message. That doesn’t lessen his impact on the world.
That doesn’t lessen the dreams of an 11-year-old boy who is sitting on his bed in his sky blue painted room and reading The Carolina Way. Play hard. Play smart. Play together. Point to the passer. Stay within your own abilities. Be a part of something bigger than yourself. Be a part of something bigger than yourself. Those words sound hollow and retreaded and overused in their present day context. Those words do not, cannot, mean anything. Those words do not, cannot, ring true. Those words, like the clichés spewed out earlier in this very piece of writing, have lost their content, their definition, their essence with the way that they’ve been used. Those words are the bygones of an era lost, of a mindset faded away. In modern culture, no one tries to be bigger than themselves. In modern culture the one thing that matters is your own bottom line.
That’s what makes Dean Smith, Coach Smith, a hero, whether he’s totally authentic, completely phony or some shade of gray in between. Dean Smith, Coach Smith, professed a belief in things that were bigger than himself, in pursuits that were bigger than his own, in the ways that life was unfair and unjust and just flat out wrongheaded, in what he could do to shift that thinking, in the small things he could achieve in order to alleviate just a small part of all of our pain. Dean Smith, Coach Smith, was not an emperor. Dean Smith, Coach Smith, was not a God. Dean Smith, Coach Smith, was not omniscient. He was flawed. He was imperfect. He couldn’t, due to the sheer practicality that is statistics, have practiced everything that he preached. But he preached them nonetheless. In a world where so many people throw up their hands and say “I’m just a basketball coach,” Dean Smith, Coach Smith, did the opposite. Dean Smith, Coach Smith, understood his place in the world.
Dean Smith, Coach Smith, helped others to do the same. Secretaries. Managers. Walk-ons. Role players. James Worthy, Vince Carter and Michael Jordan. The man is universally adored. The man is universally beloved. The man is universally lauded for his ability to change and inform other people’s lives.
I did not even know the man, but that didn’t stop him from changing and informing my life as well. My first dream was to play basketball at the University of North Carolina. My first dream was to play basketball for Dean Edwards Smith. When I was 7, 10, 12-years-old I was ready and willing to understand what that might mean. I was ready and willing to check my pretense at the door and be shaped and molded by a man whose only goal would have been to make me the best version of myself. I was conscious, at that age, of what it would have meant to become a part of something bigger than my own goals and ambitions. I was a child. My dream was not to be a star. My dream was to be a cog in the machine. My dream was to play basketball for a 66-year-old man who I had never, and would never, meet in my life.
My dream was to win. On the scoreboard yes, but, even if I didn’t realize it at the time, it was more important to me to win by association. People who played for Dean Smith, Coach Smith, were winners. People who played for Dean Smith, Coach Smith, had already won. I watched the teams play. I heard the man speak. I read his book. And I knew it was true. And I knew that Carolina basketball was the only club that I ever wanted to be a part of.
That dream did not come true. That was a club I was never going to be able to join. As I said earlier some things in life are not meant to be. But that dream still matters to me. That dream is still an important part of my identity. That dream still influences the way that I relate to everything around me. That dream was still the first time in my existence that I decided that being selfless, that giving up on some of my own aspirations for the greater good, was something worth endeavoring towards. I never met Dean Smith, Coach Smith, and yet Dean Smith, Coach Smith, was the first person to teach me that there was more to life than the things that benefited me; than the stuff that could give me my glory; than the accomplishments that could make me, and me alone, seem accomplished in the first place.
I never met Dean Smith, Coach Smith, and yet the man completely changed my outlook. Dean Smith, Coach Smith, was the reason my first dream was completely worthwhile, even if it was never realized. Dean Smith, Coach Smith, is the reason why, even though my first dream never came true, I am still stuck in moments of personal reflection wishing that it would have.
Dean Smith, Coach Smith, did not treat basketball as a life and death undertaking. He treated making the world a better place as one. That is why he died on Sunday, 18 years after stepping away from the sidelines, almost two decades after giving up the job that he used as a vehicle to voice his conscience, to make his beliefs known. That is why his death on Sunday was a loss. A loss for his family. A loss for his players and fellow coaches. A loss for people who never even came in contact with him; people whose lives he changed without even knowing how he had done so. A loss for our culture. A loss for our society. A loss for our planet. Our world is a little worse place now than it was before. Dean Smith, Coach Smith, made the world just a little bit better. Dean Smith, Coach Smith, did as much as he could.
Dean Smith, Coach Smith, lived his life exactly like he wanted his players to play the game. Hard. Smart. Together. That is how you build a basketball team. That is how you build good citizens of the world. That was the Carolina Way. That is the only way that Dean Smith, Coach Smith, knew how.
That is the reason that I am praising Dean Smith, Coach Smith, here today: because he deserves it. He always has. He always will. For as long as we all remember what he taught us. For as long as it takes to make the world the place that he hoped it could be.
For as long as there are young children sitting on their beds in sky blue painted rooms, reading the Carolina Way and dreaming that they could be a part of it, that they could adopt it as their own. That is Dean Smith, Coach Smith’s, legacy. That is just one of the ways in which Dean Smith, Coach Smith, has already won.
Even if winning was never his ultimate goal in the first place.
“If you make every game a life and death proposition, you’re going to have problems. For one thing, you’ll be dead a lot.”