Khary K. McGhee’s first piece of sports commentary was published in March of 1994. For someone who would go on to have a moderately successful career as a sports journalist for the better part of a decade, this first foray into sports writing could not have been more disastrous.
The long and short of the piece, a short Letter to the Editor published in the University of North Carolina’s Daily Tar Heel school newspaper: Dean E. Smith doesn’t know how to coach.
My analysis was pure lunacy, not only lacking any semblance of reality or reasonable knowledge of the game, but reeking of that special early adulthood know-it-all-ness tainting almost every semi-serious thought a late-teen or 20-something deigns to express (and renders their opinions, inevitably, unworthy of actual consideration by real adults).
Dean Smith did not know how to coach defense.
That was my point. I arrived at this notion after watching the Tar Heels, the defending National Champions in what was then my freshman year at Carolina, be stunned in the second round of the NCAA tournament by Boston College, a huge underdog in the game. The Eagles hit 12 3-pointers as UNC stubbornly played zone defense for just about the whole contest.
As 36 points poured into the basket and over top of the Heels’ passive defense, 19-year-old me grew angry, baffled by what I was seeing. I mean, was Coach Smith watching the game I was watching? Could he not see what I was seeing, what everyone saw?
So I ripped him. I shot off like three paragraphs of the most banal, snottiest, entitled commentary ever concocted by an amateur wordsmith. The letter was published, and what initially started off as a proud entre into the world of sports journalism quickly turned into a nightmare. My letter was followed by several letters ripping my letter. And in what was likely one of the first real self-awareness moments in my life — your 20s are filled with a series of humbling, you-really-don’t-know-a-damn-thing moments — my folly became clear.
A college freshman who played his last competitive basketball in the eighth grade just wrote that a Hall of Famer with two national championships and nearly more college victories than any other coach in the history of the game doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Flash forward all these years later.
I had no room to criticize Coach Smith — though it probably would have made a bit of a difference had we gone man-to-man after, say, 3-pointer No. 8 or so. But if one were to be critical of the humble Kansan who built one of the model programs in all of collegiate athletics, those isolated incidents of tactical decisions gone wrong — moments every coach faces, sometimes several in a single game — might be the only facet of his life where criticism is valid.
Beyond being a great coach, teacher, mentor to hundreds of young men who viewed him as second father or, in some cases, the defining role model for manhood at a critical point in their lives, Coach Smith was a great person. Check that. Coach Smith was a great American. He helped integration efforts in still-segregated Chapel Hill in the 1960s. He brought UNC’s first black scholarship student-athlete, Charlie Scott, to campus in 1967. Coach Smith was an outspoken critic of the death penalty and nuclear proliferation, and a proponent for equal opportunity, human rights and education, the kinds of causes and ideas one doesn’t associate with a giant in the sports world.
But he saw his platform as one of the most admired figures in athletics as an opportunity. His words and actions carried weight because of what he’d built at Carolina: a program where players played, learned, and carried themselves as we hope all responsible young people would in that white-hot spotlight of college basketball.
Today, President Obama presented Coach Smith The Presidential Medal of Freedom, our country’s highest civilian award, because of his excellence in every facet of his life.
(The award was actually presented to members of Coach’s family as, sadly, a neurocognitive disorder has hampered him late in life and he was unable to attend today’s White House ceremony. Even more sad, his condition has robbed him of his memory, something anyone who ever encountered the man would say was one of his greatest assets.)
Perhaps the most excellent thing about Coach Smith is that his humility would not have allowed him to be too proud or self-important receiving such an honor. Odd for a man who coached in a building named after him, I know. But Dean E. Smith never appeared comfortable with personal accolades. He spent his nearly four decades in coaching making it about his players, his assistants, his support staff, the university and community he represented, his family. At times his deflection was off-putting to some, too purposeful to be sincere.
But I’d wager that you couldn’t find a soul who really knew the man that would tell you he was any different in private than he was in public. All of it taken together, the deeds and the humility with which he approached life, is why Coach Smith is an American hero. His life, like many who were honored with him today at the White House, are emblematic of ideals all Americans should aspire. It’s seeing life beyond accomplishments, beyond your occupation, beyond the noise that comes from busybody 19-year-olds who think their opinion matters.
It is understanding that in life, no matter what we accomplish singularly, we’re part of a whole, a community that needs our talents and efforts to lift all of us up.
Dean E. Smith, American hero, did just that.