Dean Smith: A remembrance

by Ken Sehested

        I once preached in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, church were legendary basketball coach Dean Smith was a member. Smith, who died this week, was not expected to be there that morning, since his University of Carolina team had a road game, far away, the night before. Then he and his wife slip in the back about the time I get up to read Scripture. I doubled-down on the text and tried not to make eye contact during the sermon.

        In my youth I played every sport that used a ball, of whatever shape or size, from dirt yard marbles to Boys Club ping pong to Division 1 college football. I loved the college campus recruiting visits, during high school, receiving a bit of “expense” money, prowling the game time sideline with the prospective team and a pre-arranged dance date after the game. Though I always felt bad about the unlucky coed assigned to this high schooler who, to add insult to injury, didn’t dance or drink, for reasons of evangelical piety. Though I’m not an active participant in the muckraking exposure of how major college athletics programs find themselves awash in cash, I applaud that exposure.

        The capitalizing of college sports, in particular, is tragic. For example, the legendary Hall of Fame football coach Woody Hayes of Ohio State was among college football’s royalty from the ‘50s through the ‘70s, making a bit over $40,000 in later years.  The new legendary coach at Ohio State makes $4,000,000. The Great Recession mostly exempted major college sports.

        Other examples are easy to find. In 2012 Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel won the coveted Heisman Trophy, college football’s highest honor, the first freshman so selected. Manziel is known for his distinctive victory dance after scoring touchdowns, rubbing his thumbs and forefingers together in the universal “show me the money” sign language. This past January, during the televised broadcast of a college football bowl game, an ESPN reporter gleefully described one standout player as having a “big heart and no conscience.”

        The comment has a gladiatorial quality—and nothing in common with the great psychologist Abraham Maslow’s view that “Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.”

        Given current brazen realities, it's particularly appropriate to remember Dean Smith, hall-of-fame basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, who died this week.

        Part of the news coverage of Coach Smith’s passing is this tribute from his pastor, Rev. Robert Seymour, retired pastor of Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill.

        “[Smith] was willing to take controversial stands on a number of things as a member of our church, being against the death penalty, affirming gays and lesbians, protesting nuclear proliferation. He was one who has been willing to speak out on issues that many might hesitate to take a stand on." He was among the first coaches in the South to recruit a black player, and he caught hell over it.

        Coach Smith’s character is testified to by his 96% graduation rate among players, many of whom he kept up with after their departure, including Hall of Famer Michael Jordan. Both his former players and coaching colleagues testify to what Smith taught them, not just about the game but also about people and about life.

        Smith has been credited with a number of tactical innovations in the game that remain, none more common—in collegiate as well as in pro basketball—of a successful shooter pointing to the teammate who passed him the ball. He took talented individual players and taught them to play as a team rather than as individual stars.

        Where I grew up, basketball was a distant second to football’s popularity. But every time I hear the round ball’s echo off a hardwood court, it makes me remember that my Mom taught me the game, she having been a high school all-state player and, for a season, a semi-pro player in one of the industrial leagues that formed during the 1940s. “I was a bit chubby then, particularly for a basketball player, and frequently got unkind remarks from the opposing team’s bench,” she once told me. “But when I kept scampering by their defenders, they shut up.”

        I suspect the ability to play and the ability to pray come from common sources. To do either well, you have to be all in, purposefully, but always prepared for surprising turns. Both invite a certain abandonment, the pursuit significantly influenced neither by desire to win nor fear of loss, the playing and the praying being their own sufficient goals. All awareness of the self as separate from the activity is eclipsed, the sheer delight overshadowing whatever difficulties accompany. A joyful freedom displaces fretful obsession.

        In the immortal words of Kris Kristofferson, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Which enables you, in the equally immortal words of Satchel Page, to “Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.”

©Ken Sehested @