“John, you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.”
Dean Smith, quoted in an article by John Feinstein
With North Carolina alumni, college basketball fans, and people around the world, I join in mourning the death of Dean Smith. And I give thanks for his life and witness.
I am not a big fan of basketball. When living in Iowa, I attended the high school games because they played a key role in the life of the community. My wife follows Duke, her alma mater, faithfully; so I follow enough to talk with her intelligently. My sons follow the Cleveland Cavaliers, pretty faithfully; and again, I follow enough to hold my own in conversations.
I recognize Dean Smith’s amazing work as a basketball coach, even if I fail to understand the intricacies of his contributions.
Margaret Aymer preached at the Riverside Church today. What I took from her sermon is that Jesus came to bring healing. Healing. Not a cure. Healing of dis-ease. Healing by Jesus involved recovery from physical symptoms, but it also involved restoration to community and renewal for ministry working to transform systems of oppression, violation, and exploitation. Jesus frees, invites, challenges, dares those who would follow him to do likewise.
Dean Smith did. His work on a basketball court is legend. His work as a teacher helped see that his players graduated. His style built lasting relationships with athletes at North Carolina and coaches and athletes and supporters of opposing teams. As my wife posted, “Even though we still sing “to hell with Carolina,” Dean Smith deserves all respect. Condolences from a Blue Devil to all Tar Heels.”
That would have been enough. But there was more. Much, much more.
Dean Smith worked for healing as he challenged the systems that wounded and oppressed his sisters and brothers. He put himself on the line for racial integration and justice in basketball and society beginning when he was a student in high school. He opposed the war in Vietnam and Iraq and supported a nuclear freeze. He supported the rights of the LGBTQ community. And he opposed the death penalty.
As Rick Reilly wrote, twelve years ago:
In a state that gave us Jesse Helms, Smith’s is a rare voice speaking out against the madness of a war in Iraq and the hypocrisy of the death penalty. It’s a spiritual thing for him. “One doesn’t kill,” he once said. “I heard that in church.”
Though he served in the Air Force, Smith was proud to see two of his daughters march in Washington against this war. “This is not a just war,” he contends. “I certainly hope we don’t go. This would be horrible.”
In a state that sends thousands of Marines to the Middle East, that’s a big target to paint on your shirt. But Smith has never scared easily. Speaking out against the death penalty, he once pointed at the governor of North Carolina and declared, “You’re a murderer. And I’m a murderer. The death penalty makes us all murderers.”
Dean Smith was many things. Son. Teammate. Husband. Father. Coach. Teacher. Innovator. Opponent. Friend. I give thanks for all of these.
But mostly, I give thanks that Dean Smith was a healer.
See you along the Trail.