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Editorial: It was more than a game

As the nationwide tributes poured in for Coach Dean Smith, the Tar Heel hoops titan who died Saturday at 83, there’s one person who would have been more than a little uncomfortable with all the adulation, however richly deserved. That would, of course, be Dean Smith himself.

For all his fierce competitiveness on the court and his unshakeable courage in improving lives outside the lines, Smith never sought recognition for himself, preferring instead to deflect attention and credit toward his players, his assistants and others around him. That wasn’t just a mark of humility. It was a matter of perspective — a sign of how he saw himself and his sport as fitting into the larger world. It was also a consequence of the generous spirit who knew that his players sometimes needed more than a coach; they needed a friend, a mentor, or, as Michael Jordan noted, a “second father.”

His wife, Dr. Linnea Smith, alluded to that quality  in a 2013 interview, when the coach was honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom award. He was too ill to attend the White House ceremony, which she described as a “pinnacle” of his illustrious career.

“He’s always struggled a little bit with recognition,” she said then. “He always felt a little bit uncomfortable being singled out for awards.”

Smith compiled amazing statistics at North Carolina — not the least of which was the fact that 97 percent of his players graduated, and under his guidance, the program never ran afoul of N.C.A.A. watchdogs. It’s not mere nostalgia that makes us cast a yearning eye toward that era.

Smith’s brilliance as a coach would have been enough to cement his place in the annals of sports history. Yet he contributed so much more — advocating for racial equality, working for integration, insisting that all human beings be accorded basic respect and dignity, urging his young charges to prepare themselves for life after basketball.

As President Obama said in his tribute on Smith’s passing, the coach “showed us something that I’ve seen again and again on the court — that basketball can tell us a lot more about who you are than a jumpshot alone ever could.”

However much he may have diverted attention and praise to others, Smith realized he was in a unique position to not only influence individual lives but change the society around him. Basketball, like other stick and ball sports, is ultimately a game of fundamentals — and Dean Smith had a true-north conviction for what those fundamental values should be, both on the basketball court and in the greater arena beyond it.

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