Lucas: An American Hero
Release: 11/20/2013

By Adam Lucas

Scott Smith knew exactly what would happen when his father received any of the various honors he was awarded during his legendary North Carolina coaching career.

First, the achievement would be announced, and Scott would hear about it through some second-hand source, because his father, Dean Smith, would never talk about it. Then, at some point, a package containing a trophy or a plaque or some other form of recognition would show up on the doorstep. The response from his father would be instant, and maybe a little embarrassed: "Put it in the attic."

There was (and is) no Smith family trophy case. When he passed Adolph Rupp and became the winningest all-time college basketball coach, he told his family--not the media, not for public consumption out of some false desire to appear humble, but his family--"Hopefully, someone will pass me soon."

When the Carolina Basketball Museum was being constructed, he happened to mention that there were some boxes of basketballs in a dark, locked Smith Center closet. Upon looking through those boxes, staffers found dozens of what might otherwise be considered priceless mementos: game balls from championships, personal win milestones from Smith's career, and more. Almost apologetically, he told a couple members of the museum committee, "I don't know why anyone would want to come see my awards in a museum, but you're welcome to come look if you want."

Expecting to walk into a mini-Hall of Fame, that committee was instead sent on a hunt across the house and through the attic. The Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year trophy--one of the highest honors in sports--posed a special problem. Coach Smith had to call Scott and ask if he had any idea where that particular trophy might be. It turned out to be in a corner, on top of a cabinet, apparently having not been touched in almost a decade.

When Carolina won the national championship in 1982, a welcome-home celebration was held at Kenan Stadium. It should have been the crowning moment of Smith's career. He'd just won the national title that had eluded him on six previous trips, and he'd just quieted what had become a persistent criticism--and, really, the only criticism--of his head coaching career.

One by one, players and coaches walked onto the Kenan turf, where they were greeted with roars from the fans who packed one complete side of the stadium stands. Only one person was absent: Dean Smith, who was at home with his kids, taking a walk with his-three-year-old daughter, Kristen. The celebration, he wrote in A Coach's Life, "should be for players, not coaches."

Virtually every living person in Chapel Hill was at Kenan Stadium celebrating what they would likely long remember as one of the crowning moments of their lives. The man responsible for it, meanwhile, was walking around the neighborhood with his daughter. 

The Presidential Medal of Freedom, however, is not the type of event that can be simply ignored. It is not conferred via a UPS delivery on the front porch. It can't be ushered to the attic with a quick glance to make sure none of the neighbors noticed.

"It is a once in a lifetime thing," Roy Williams said this week. "And it's a once in a lifetime thing for a very select group of people."

Today at 11 a.m., 16 Americans will receive the nation's highest civilian honor. Smith will not attend in person, but his wife and children will represent him, along with Williams and Bill Guthridge. They will join a collection of extraordinary talent, from a former President (Bill Clinton) to one of the world's most powerful women (Oprah Winfrey) to one of the greatest living jazz artists in the world (Arturo Sandoval).

Oh, and a basketball coach. Somewhere in America today, someone is looking at the list of Medal of Freedom recipients and saying, "What is a basketball coach doing on there? Didn't he just coach a game?"

No, he did not. That's why this matters. You name arenas after basketball coaches, and we've already done that. This is bigger. This is the biggest.

It's pleasant--and maybe it's a little heartbreaking, too--to imagine Smith at the White House with Bill and Oprah and his fellow winners. All those honors Smith shunned. All those awards he ignored. This one, perhaps, might be different.

Those he avoided because those were about basketball. Basketball was never, ever the way he saw himself. What was it he said at his retirement press conference?

"I think of myself as faculty."

That's much closer to accurate. And maybe, just maybe, he might have been willing to accept this particular honor, because this was designed to reward people who have done what they believe is right. The number of games Smith won was not part of the criteria. The number of lives he changed, however, carries significant weight.

If your dad was going to the ceremony today, Scott is asked, who do you think he would most enjoy meeting?

"Honestly," he says, "I think Dad would want to meet everybody, and know all of their stories and what they did. I don't think one would interest him over the other.

"Dad was someone who was as interested in the custodian at Carmichael Auditorium as he was the chancellor or the athletic director. He was just as concerned about that person's family. The athletic director would come walking by, and Dad would tell the AD he'd be with him in a minute because he was talking to someone he just met."

That custodian, most likely, would be personally thanked by Dean Smith in his Medal of Freedom acceptance speech. Picture him on the ladder every time Carolina won a championship and he had to--yes, "had to," because he made it plainly obvious he didn't want to--cut down a net.

He would climb to the top step, reach eye level with the rim, and then point at every member of the program standing around him. He would point at the players. Point at the coaches. All of you, he seemed to be saying, should be up here.

Given the right set of circumstances, perhaps we could have been. All of us have dreamed of being there at some point. Today, though? None of us could have done this. Nobody even dreams this. Fewer than 550 people in the last 50 years of the planet have done this, meaning you are more likely to meet someone who has been shot into space than to meet a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.

There's just no way around it: perhaps for the first time in the 30,216 days you have lived, Coach Smith, this day is about you. On November 20, 2013, the rest of the United States gets to see you as the rest of us--the lucky ones--already knew you were.

There's just one minor detail remaining. Part of Smith's legend is his incredible recollection of details. He could meet a camper at his basketball camp in June of 1980 and remember the names of that individual's parents, without prompting, when meeting him again at a Rams Club function in 1992.

So now, it seems like the right time to ask Scott Smith how his father did it. Was there some sort of mnemonic device? Did his dad carry an alphabetized notebook of acquaintances? Tell the rest of us, so we can at least adopt this one particular trick into our daily life. Tell us, and at least in this way, even without 879 career wins or a pioneer's stand on civil rights, we can be a little bit like Coach Smith.

It turns out, though, that this one simple thing can't be shoved in a wallet or practiced in front of a mirror. And it is why, in one simple sentence, Dean Smith will be honored at the White House today.

Scott laughs at some of your suggestions of how his father might have remembered all of those details about strangers. "It's not any of that other stuff," he says. "It's that he really, genuinely cared about people."

Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.


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