The Right Thing: an homage to Dean Smith

By Thad Mumau

Brilliance is frequently linked to complexity, but Dean Smith was an exception. His genius was a study in simplicity.

From the time I knew who he was, I admired Smith for his creativity and competitive nature. Basketball stuff. Over the years, while writing three books about him and sharing countless conversations, I grew to admire him more. And that was being-a-good-person stuff.

Noted for taking a stand on civil rights, he was actually an everyday supporter of human rights. All of the people all of the time. His forum was a college basketball team on which everyone was treated equally every day. Stars, walk-ons and even the managers, the guys and gals who carried the bags and handed out towels.

He publicly called capital punishment “murder” and said a restaurant should serve a meal to all colors of customers. Because it needed to be done that way. Quietly, he showed youngsters for nearly four decades that they were all the same in his eyes.

Showed is the operative word here, rather than told, because he did not make an example of a third-stringer who had broken a rule. The example, instead, was a starter who sat out the first 10 minutes of a Final Four game after arriving 10 minutes late for the team bus.

As for those “rules,” well, they were guidelines more than anything else. For life, not just a game. He noted that everyone’s time is equally valuable, and that being late tells the group that one individual is more important. Which, of course, he is not.

Dean Smith was the best teacher of basketball ever. John Wooden said so, and no one is arguing. Taking that job much more seriously than the building of an impressive won-loss resume, this giant of a man taught his students how to get along.

Not just get along in the everyday arena we call life, but succeed. And not necessarily with a gaudy title or bank balance but in the manner Rudyard Kipling mapped out in his poetic journey called “If.”

As tributes to Smith poured in the day after his death, it quickly became apparent that former North Carolina players were grateful for having a coach who was like a parent. A very good parent. One who cared more about character than scoring average.

Ford, Stackhouse, Daugherty, Kuester and Montross were eloquent in sharing memories that painted the story of a beautiful man and his loyalty and commitment to them. Both lasting far beyond the final basket they sank.

Dean Smith always stuck by his players no matter what. For better or worse, to borrow an appropriately fitting phrase. “He has always been there for us,” is the universal Tar Heel testimonial.

Defining the right thing is not difficult. Doing it is. Except for the few like Dean Smith who possess unparalleled dedication, determination and moral fiber.

When applauded for such traits, he told us that no one should be proud of doing the right thing.

It just seemed to come naturally for him. As Mike Krzyzewski said, “Dean Smith always taught his players what it takes to be a good man. That was easy for him to do because he was a great man himself.”