If Michael Jordan was the Thor of basketball then Dean Smith was its Odin, surveying a world of basketball wonder and possibility that was just beyond our capabilities until Thor touched down.
Mike changed the game once he reached the NBA but he wouldn’t have had any true understanding of the game without the guidance of coach Smith, who passed away late Saturday at the age of 83. Smith coached Jordan for three seasons at the University of North Carolina, winning a national championship off an MJ game-winner in 1982, but that was only a brief chapter in Smith’s decades-long run as a coach, educator, innovator and leader of men.
Smith was a direct descendant spiritually of the inventor of basketball, Dr. James Naismith, who taught the game to Phog Allen who at Kansas coached Dean Smith. After time spent as an assistant under Allen, Smith built his legacy at Chapel Hill and dozens of future coaches and players of renown would become his disciples — Larry Brown, Billy Cunningham, George Karl, Roy Williams, Jordan, James Worthy, Kenny Smith, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace among the many.
One of college sports’ Jackie Robinson figures — Charlie Scott, the first black basketball player to compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference — was recruited and coached by Smith, whose record as a progressive figure underscores his greatness due to his coming of coaching age in an era and in a area of the country that asked much less of him than that.
Coach Smith never accepted less, not from his players, not from his students and not from the world around him. With that in mind he did more than just about anyone in his position to better basketball and to make it more than a simple game in which to keep track. Under Dean Smith basketball became a 19th Century invention that we know will survive the 21st Century.
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