Pointing to Coach Smith

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The Dean E. Smith Center, the banners hung within, and the wins and championships the arena was built upon were secondary on Sunday to the man the building was named for nearly 30 years ago.

Current and former players and coaches, friends and family, national and state leaders, and thousands of fans filed into the Smith Center on Sunday afternoon for Dean Smith’s public memorial service.

The multitude of banners that looked down upon the two-hour service provides a tangible road map to the success that Smith had on the basketball court. The various speeches given, beginning with Billy Cunningham and concluding with members of the Smith family, highlighted the reason why so many point to those achievements as an attempt to quantify Smith’s greatness.

Efforts to describe Smith’s significance in their lives were hard to put into a succinct string of words. The impact of a select few individuals extend beyond the strict boundaries of our daily language.

"Words can't express the loss that I feel in my life,” former UNC guard and assistant coach Phil Ford said.

Even so, the speakers tried to encompass Smith in a handful of sentences, something tangible to grasp and hold not unlike the banners that hung overhead.

"He coached you to be a better basketball player for four years," former walk-on Mickey Bell said. "He coached you to be a man for a lifetime."

The stories that were told – just like so many that have been shared over the past two weeks – folded together to sketch a lasting memory of a man much more than a basketball coach.

Cunningham told the crowd that more than 100 former players from all over the world attended Smith’s private service at Chapel Hill’s Binkley Baptist Church on Feb. 12.

"It was almost like he brought his family together," Cunningham said. "It was like his children coming to say goodbye."

For the thousands of fans in attendance and multiples of that quantity watching on television and streaming online, Smith’s lasting memory is also more than about the wins and losses and the trophies and championships. Smith hooked the UNC fan base with success on the court and expanded the base by instilling a passion that filters through the generations.

The love of the game is responsible for altering daily schedules and family functions, including such significant life events as weddings, to ensure that no tip is missed. That love, sometimes fresh due to its addictiveness, sometimes ingrained due to its generational legacy, is established at the individual level.

The bond of the game was Smith’s specialty. His ability to not only coach his players well, but also serve as a community’s moral compass, tied so many individual lives together over the course of 36 years as a head coach and for many more to come.

Those two aspects of Smith’s contributions merged together with ease on Sunday in the building named after him despite his pleas to have it named the Student Activities Center.

Basketball is simply a game. It’s an athletic offering that has transformed into a massive form of entertainment for the American public. Smith’s ability to use such a game to bridge racial divides, foster diversity and create a legitimate family environment out of a locker room setting speaks to his values, his wisdom and his heart.

And so Sunday marked the end of a two-week grieving period for a man that deserves to be celebrated for much longer.

“We’re finished with grieving, because it’s been hard,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “We’ve grieved a lot, and it’s been hard, but we are celebrating the life of Coach Dean Smith.”

Cunningham and Mickey Bell both shared their belief that Smith wouldn’t have cared much for the enormity of such a memorial service only because he didn’t like the spotlight turned his way.

“Dean was an extraordinarily humble man,” Robert Seymour, Smith’s pastor and friend, said. “He was known for his humility and giving other people the thanks and attention. If he could have anticipated this gathering today, I think there’s a good chance he might have said, ‘don’t do it.’

“This gathering was not for Dean. This gathering was for us. He didn't need it, but we needed it. You and I needed it."

As the speakers gave way from former players to Smith’s friends and family, the significance of Williams’s return to Chapel Hill became apparent, serving as a binding knot in the lineage of a legend’s life work and his disciple.

“Coach Williams, Dad loved you,” Scott Smith said. “He believed in you. He often told us how proud he was of you and how happy he was that you were here at UNC because he knew the basketball program that he loved and developed would be in your great hands going forward even after he was no longer here.”

Smith’s contributions to the game of basketball are innumerable, although one stands above the others for most: pointing at your assist man.

It was only fitting for Williams to conclude his remarks by asking the crowd to join him in pointing to the sky and thanking Smith for the assist.

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