There was perhaps no issue more important to Smith than civil rights. Most famously, in 1966, he recruited Charlie Scott to Chapel Hill, making Scott the first black scholarship athlete in the University of North Carolina’s history and the first black basketball star in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But Smith wasn’t like other pioneering coaches, who broke college sports’ color barrier for purely pragmatic reasons. (Alabama football coach Bear Bryant famously started recruiting black players to Tuscaloosa only after the University of Southern California—and its fullback Sam Cunningham—had run over the Crimson Tide in a 1970 contest.) To Smith, racial justice was about much more than winning and losing. “It was simply the correct thing to do,” he wrote. Smith understood this far sooner than many other white Americans.
As a teenager in Topeka, Kansas, he’d persuaded his high school principal—five years before the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education—to integrate the school’s basketball team. Nine years later, as an assistant basketball coach at UNC, he took it upon himself to help integrate Chapel Hill when he and his pastor invited a black theology student with them to dinner at the town’s finest restaurant, which was then still segregated. Since the Tar Heels ate many team meals there, Smith was betting that the restaurant wouldn’t want to jeopardize that regular business by refusing to serve him and his guest. Still, back in 1958, it was a gamble. As Smith’s pastor later recalled for John Feinstein: “Back then, he wasn’t Dean Smith. He was an assistant coach. Nothing more.” Smith and his guests were served and a bastion of segregation reluctantly fell.
Even after Smith became a brand name—when many of his similarly accomplished colleagues began to shy away from doing or saying anything controversial for fear of damaging their own brands—he continued to act on his convictions. A staunch and unswerving liberal, Smith protested against the Vietnam War, campaigned in favor of a nuclear freeze, and supported gay rights. He was such an avowed opponent of capital punishment that he’d frequently take his teams to visit North Carolina’s death row at Central Prison in Raleigh and once told North Carolina’s governor, “You’re a murderer.”
Smith was similarly outspoken on behalf of his players: He was an early advocate for paying college athletes and he used to set aside a portion of his $300,000 annual salary from Nike—for putting the company’s sneakers on his players’ feet—to a fund that helped players who didn’t graduate pay for their degrees. (He also divided up half of that Nike paycheck between his assistant coaches and administrative staff.) Once, when Duke’s Cameron Crazies student section questioned the intelligence of UNC’s black star J.R. Reid with the sign “J.R. Can’t Read”—a sign that Smith and others considered racially motivated—Smith boasted to reporters that Reid and Scott Williams, another black UNC player, had higher combined SAT scores than two white Duke stars, Danny Ferry and Christian Laettner. All the while, Smith was a fervent booster of the university that employed him, frequently lamenting that it was a sign of society’s skewed values—“a Kierkegaardian ‘switching of price tags’ ”—that he received more praise and attention than UNC’s professors.I especially enjoyed the Duke story. God, how I hate Duke. I do remember Dean Smith speaking out to defend a women's college player's right to turn her back on the flag during the national anthem as an Iraq war protest, but I forgot about all the other things he did.