Legendary former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith died on Saturday at age 83. Among the winningest coaches in the history of the sport, and credited with numerous basketball innovations including the team-first habit of pointing to the player who passed you the ball after you score, Smith was a beloved figure for reasons that go far beyond the borders of a basketball court. He was an outspoken and active opponent of racial segregation both in sports and in private life, and leaves behind a legacy of activism on civil rights and other issues.
College basketball fans can thank Smith’s lead-holding stalling tactics for causing the NCAA to institute a shot clock. He is also credited with a variety of tactical innovations and techniques for fostering psychological unity among teammates. His 879 career wins as a head coach were the most of all time when he retired in 1997, and the number remains near the top of the all-time list to this day. Smith’s UNC teams went to the Final Four 11 times and won two national championships. Smith’s team won the classic 1982 national title game where James Worthy and freshman Michael Jordan led the Tarheels past Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas — all three of them future NBA Hall of Fame members.
But Dean Smith’s celebrity owes to his off-court demonstrations of character as well. As a high school basketball star in Topeka, KS, Smith urged his school to integrate its two racially segregated basketball teams. Even after desegregating football, track, and other sports, Topeka High School kept its basketball squads separate in part because basketball games were typically followed by school dances — a more difficult sell in 1940s Kansas than the prospect of winning championships.
The all-white Trojans and all-black Ramblers unified thanks in part to Smith’s pressure on the administration, though the Trojans didn’t field a varsity-level black player until after Smith graduated. Several black players from the pre-unification Topeka High teams went on to break barriers in other ways, ESPN’s Richard Lapchick noted in 2011. Topeka’s first African-American fire chief had been a Rambler, as had Oliver Brown, the plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education, and Charles Scott, an NAACP lawyer who helped win that vital school desegregation case at the United States Supreme Court.
Decades later, as head coach at UNC, Smith didn’t have to ask anyone else to desegregate the basketball community he was part of. He just did it. Smith recruited a different Charles Scott in 1966, an All-American guard who was the first black player in school history and the second to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). Scott averaged 22 points and 7 rebounds in his college career and went on to play professionally for most of a decade. On an early recruiting visit to Chapel Hill, Smith brought Scott with him to Sunday services at his mostly-white church. “The maddest anybody remembers seeing Dean was a night at South Carolina when a fan called Scott a ‘black baboon.’ Dean headed into the stands before a coach pulled him back,” ESPN the Magazine’s Tommy Tomlinson wrote in a heartbreaking profile of the coach’s late in life memory loss and illness.
Smith’s work to erode racial divides at and around UNC predates Scott, too, as “he used his position of influence to help integrate Chapel Hill by dining at a restaurant with an African-American theological student” and personally assisted a black grad student in buying a house in an all-white Chapel Hill neighborhood in 1965. And the causes Smith chose to exert himself on go beyond racial equality. Smith publicly supported efforts to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world and vocally opposed the death penalty, reportedly even taking players to visit prisons and death row inmates on some occasions to show them the injustices of the American prison system.
Dean Smith spent more than half of his 83 years coaching young basketball players, and his determination in the face of racism, segregation, and injustice left a mark on thousands of other lives in North Carolina and beyond. He was famous for staying in touch with and available to all his former players. When Charles Scott’s daughter Simone was born, Dean sent the infant a letter welcoming her to the planet and promising a pair of UNC Tarheels baby booties.
This post originally stated that Charles Scott was the first black player in the ACC when Dean Smith recruited him in 1966. But while Scott was UNC’s first black player, University of Maryland power forward Billy Jones broke the conference’s color barrier two years earlier. We regret the error.