Dean Smith, perhaps the most visible white anti-racist of the last half-century, died on Sunday at the age of 83. He also of course coached a little bit of basketball. In legendary fashion, Coach Smith led the University of North Carolina Tar Heels for thirty-six seasons, and retired with the most wins in college hoops history. His players spanned multiple eras, from Billy Cunningham to Michael Jordan to James Worthy to Vince Carter. They also all swore by him, loyal to the last. Jordan, by consensus the greatest player of all time, said in a statement released on his passing, “He was more than a coach—he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father. Coach was always there for me whenever I needed him and I loved him for it.”
When Coach Smith is remembered this week, we will see tributes to both his basketball acumen as well as his words and deeds against the Jim Crow laws that plagued North Carolina at the start of his career. This included his recruitment of Charlie Scott, the first black player to suit up for Tar Heels. Coach Smith endured threats to his job as well as his life and was undeterred.
But these are in many respects easy and palatable things to celebrate. After all, even Rand Paul realizes that opposing the Civil Rights Act is political suicide. It is worth remembering however, the parts of Dean Smith’s politics that were daring then and remain controversial today. As Jay Bilas—A Duke grad—said on ESPN, “Dean knew what was right and stood up for what was right no matter what the cost was professionally or personally.”
There is no issue where this rings truer than that of the death penalty. Current approval of the death penalty in the US is at its lowest level in forty years, but is still favored by 63 percent of the population. Dean Smith opposed capital punishment publicly his entire life, even when support for it nationally was over 80 percent and even in a state where the death penalty was a matter of bipartisan consensus. Smith often invoked his religious beliefs to explain his opposition to capital punishment, but he had to go beyond the realm of the religious to explain his opposition in North Carolina, where pro–death row politicians have never been shy about using the Bible as justification for the noose. Therefore, Dean Smith also spoke about the racism that infests death row cases. He spoke about his fears that the innocent could be killed. He spoke about the system of capital punishment being, in his words, “barbaric.” As he once said, “If it’s a deterrent, as some people say, why don’t they hold the execution in a shopping mall so everyone can attend?”
He also never hesitated speaking truth to power. This was never clearer than in 2003 when Coach Smith was part of a delegation visiting North Carolina’s governor Jim Hunt, pleading for the life of a mentally ill death row prisoner named John Noland. Smith had met Noland on one of his trips to “the row.” As reported by Bonnie DeSimone of the Chicago Tribune, Smith erupted at Hunt, saying, “You’re a murderer!” He then stuck out his finger at Hunt’s apparatchiks saying, “And you’re a murderer—and I’m a murderer. The death penalty makes us all murderers.”
Remarkably, this received very little publicity at the time, and one can’t help but wonder how social media would have dissected this man. Coach Smith did not only oppose the death penalty. He stood up to the war in Vietnam, opposed nuclear weapon proliferation and supported LGBT rights. Perhaps most controversially, he did not merely do this on his own time but engaged his players in dialogue and debate. He even took them to North Carolina’s death row and the notorious Angola Prison in Louisiana to actually interact with prisoners. He had a moral calling to leverage his legend to make change. It’s long been rumored that Dean Smith advised Michael Jordan and his family to not seek the death penalty against the two men who murdered Jordan’s father in 1993. Smith denied this, but the Jordan family did not in fact seek lethal injection for the killers and the currency of the story speaks volumes.
I contacted Reverend William Barber II, organizer of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina to ask about what it meant to have Dean Smith as a recognized abolitionist. He said,
“Dean Smith was clear in his opposition to the death penalty. He knew death did not solve death and that the sentencing was racially biased. He knew that like a fixed game the results were unfair. Right now in North Carolina, we have had over seven individuals, mostly black, in recent years exonerated from death row declared wrongfully charged and convicted who would have been executed. This is more than any other state in the country. Based on this reality we can surmise that through the death penalty and the faults of racial and class bias we have probably killed innocent black and poor white persons in our state. We should have and still need to listen to Coach Smith’s vocal opposition and abandon the death penalty.”
His legacy of fighting for the school’s African American Studies department and caring about the exploitation of college athletes also stands in sharp contrast to the current state of the Tar Heels basketball program. As UNC Professor Altha Cravey, a member of the school’s Progressive Faculty Network said to me, “Dean Smith taught courage, fairness and leadership. As I learn more about the way he lived his life—confronting white supremacy, opposing imperialist war— understand more what we have lost. It is ironic to note that the university’s so-called leaders—the ones celebrating his life today—have been engaged in five years of stonewalling, whitewashing and cover-up about misdeeds in UNC’s basketball program, the very program in which Dean Smith demonstrated that doing the right thing is always more important than winning or looking good.”
The state of UNC basketball and its grade-fixing scandals are, of course, not just a UNC problem but reflect the far deeper rot in the NCAA’s system of for-profit amateurism. It is difficult to think about Dean Smith and not feel like today’s mercenary, multi-millionaire coaches suffer dramatically in comparison. There was only one Dean Smith, but it would be the best possible tribute to his memory if more coaches—and more people—made the effort to emulate his character.