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UNC Basketball Legend Dean Smith Dies At 83


Dean Smith, legendary former coach of the University of North Carolina basketball team, has died. He was 83 years old. Smith coached at UNC for 36 years, bringing the team 879 victories. And he trained a number of basketballs greatest players, including Michael Jordan. John Feinstein is a columnist for The Washington Post. He knew Coach Smith for many years. John, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: My pleasure, Arun.

RATH: Can you help us understand Dean Smith's huge number of accomplishments in basketball?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I think the best thing I can say, Arun, is that his 879 wins were only a small part of what he did within the game of basketball. He did so much more off the court. But he was an innovator. He changed the way the game was played. The delay offense he ran - the four corners - led to a shot clock in order to speed up the game.

He also invented the concept of senior day, in which seniors are honored before their last home game, which every college in America does now. Dean Smith was the first person to do that back in the 1960s. And there were times when if he had more than five seniors, he started them all, even though that meant his team received a technical foul, and the game began with the other team shooting free throws because he wanted his seniors to all be able to say they started their last home game. He was extraordinary in so many different ways.

RATH: And you mentioned his accomplishments outside of basketball. Can you talk about the issues that he abdicated for?

FEINSTEIN: Well, he was very outspoken on numerous issues. He was against the Vietnam War before it was popular to be against the Vietnam War. He marched in favor of nuclear freeze. He was outspoken against the death penalty. And perhaps most significantly, back in 1958, when he was still an assistant coach, before he was famous, he helped desegregate restaurants in Chapel Hill by walking into a segregated restaurant with a black member of his is church and essentially daring the management not to serve them, which was very risky for someone who was just an assistant coach at the time. But he did it, and he was always very outspoken on racial issues and instantly started recruiting African-American players when he became the head coach.

RATH: John, you covered Dean Smith for years, and you knew him. What was he like as a man?

FEINSTEIN: He was always the smartest guy in the room, even though he never felt the need to show off in that way, but he was. He was a math major in college. He was very spiritual, knew history better than almost anybody I knew, had his remarkable memory - never forgot a name. He would never, ever ask me how my children were. He would say how are Danny and Bridget? And he did that with everybody.

He was extraordinarily loyal to all of his players and coaches, but also to opponents. Bobby Hurley, who was a great point guard at Duke, told me once that after his career was over, he got a long letter from Dean Smith - his archrival, North Carolina - congratulating him on the career he had had at Duke and telling him how proud he was to have competed against him.

RATH: What kind of legacy do you think Coach Smith leaves behind, on and off the court?

FEINSTEIN: To me, his legacy is summed up in something that happened that I was involved in peripherally, years and years ago when I first learned about his involvement in desegregating the restaurants in Chapel Hill. And I asked him about it 'cause it was his minister who told me the story.

And he said, I wish Reverend Seymour hadn't told you that. And I said, Dean, why? Why would you want that? You should be proud of being involved in something like that. And he looked at me, and he said, John, you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.

And that's who Dean Smith was. He never wanted to take bows. In fact, when the people of North Carolina went to him and said, we want to name our new basketball arena after you, in 1985, he said don't do that. Name it after the players. Well, that would've been a little bit unwieldy, so it became the Dean E. Smith Center, even over his objection.

RATH: That's John Feinstein. He's a sports writer and columnist with The Washington Post. He joined us from Potomac, Maryland. John, thanks very much.

FEINSTEIN: My pleasure, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.