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Fanfare for an Uncommon Man: Dean Smith is SI's Sportsman of the Year

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 22, 1997 issue of Sports Illustrated.

He Became The Winningest College Basketball Coach Of All Time And Capped An Exemplary Career With A Graceful Retirement. For All Of That We Honor North Carolina's Dean Smith.

In 1968, shortly after North Carolina reached its first NCAA basketball final under Dean Smith, grateful boosters presented the Tar Heels' coach with a Carolina-blue Cadillac convertible. "I'm not the Cadillac type," he said. "I accept the gift because I'm certain you're really expressing appreciation for the fine play of our team."

That comment reeked of platitude, and it would never pass the cynic's smell test today. Yet in 1983, when fund-raisers wanted to name a new 21,000-seat arena after him, Smith protested again, agreeing to lend his name only when he was persuaded that nothing else would allow people to fully express appreciation for the fine play of his many teams.

So it was that several years ago, as Smith pushed closer to both retirement and the alltime record of 876 wins held by Kentucky's Adolph Rupp, those who had played for and coached under him knew just how to get him to stay on: Break the mark for us, they pleaded. He protested -- he said he just might quit one game short of the record, to flout what he regards as society's unhealthy obsession with who is No. 1 -- but ultimately he agreed. By then we had long since stopped doubting the sincerity of his protestations.

Dean Smith, legendary North Carolina basketball coach, dies at 83

The passage of time is the greatest of tests, and time has flattered Dean Smith. It has lent gravitas to the nasal voice and provided a grandfatherly setting for that jewel of a nose. It has also authenticated all those utterances over four decades that seemed hopelessly homiletic or falsely modest.

Time, too, has drawn for us a portrait of someone far more complex than the usual sideline screamer. Smith is a privacy freak who thrived gracefully in an intensely public line of work. He's a traditionalist who will rejigger anything if reason warrants. We marvel at how a man so stern summons such compassion, and a man so competitive summons such perspective; how he simultaneously tends to niggling detail and sees the big picture; and how he makes his wondrously jesuitical distinctions. (For the college hoops promotional ad currently airing on ESPN, he pulled a half-basketball over his head, but that's a stand-in waving the foam finger that says we're no. 1. Smith refused to shoot that scene.) Loyalty versus Integrity is the trade-off that college coaches have never gotten quite right (take Loyalty, give the points), but he has proved it's possible to abide by both.

Dean Smith is the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year because his teams won, his players graduated, the rules went unbroken. But we honor him as much as anything for his conscientiousness in pulling off that trifecta. He never forgot that the arena is but an outbuilding of the academy.

This may seem at first blush to be a sort of lifetime achievement award. But the year just past makes a case all on its own. It was during 1997 that Smith caught and passed Rupp. After January, which the Tar Heels began with three straight defeats, they didn't lose again until the Final Four, and their coach had much to do with that, abandoning a pressure defense when he realized its unsuitability to his players' talents. Then, after all the hoopla subsided, he took soundings of himself. What do I owe my players? Can I still give them their due? Above all, the sportsman is honest, especially with those who share a locker room with him. Dean Smith gave the signal that he was tired.

He would protest, again, that his story isn't worth telling. But if it is going to be told, he would surely prefer that it be told in the same spirit that he accepted that Cadillac, lent his name to that gym and broke Rupp's record--as a way of highlighting the many people who have transited his life. Here then is that story, with the coach in his rightful place, on the sideline.

Growing Up, 1931-49: "Mother called him Christopher Columbus"

Dean Edwards Smith was born on Feb. 28, 1931, in the east Kansas railroad town of Emporia, the only son of devout Baptist schoolteachers. His mother, Vesta, was an organized woman who would lay out the breakfast place settings the night before. His father, Alfred, was a forward-thinking coach at Emporia High whose Spartans won the 1934 state title with the first black basketball player in Kansas tournament history.

Over the summer of 1947, in time for Dean's junior year in high school, the Smiths moved to Topeka. In high school Dean always held down the coachly positions -- quarterback, catcher, point guard. But he was also a spirited boy and seemed unlikely to become a man who would stay on one campus for nearly 40 years.

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JOAN SMITH EWING, his older sister:

Dean wasn't mischievous so much as curious. When he was very small, he and the little girl next door took off and walked to the florist around the block. They were pretending they were Bill and Betty--Bill was a player on Dad's team, and Betty was his girlfriend. My parents were scared to death when they discovered them missing. When he was 10 or so, Dean and a neighbor friend went down a manhole at the end of our street and explored the sewers. Another time he climbed the tower at the teachers' college. Mother used to call him Christopher Columbus because he always wanted to explore.

BUD ROBERTS, high school classmate:

We'd play one-on-one in the alley, games to 20 by twos. He was very competitive, yet neither of us had any money, so he'd say, "Whoever loses has to tell the winner, 'You're a much better basketball player than I am.'" I was the one who always had to say it.


The summer before ninth grade he lost his best friend, Shad Woodruff, to polio. He and Shad had played baseball on the Fourth of July, and the next day Shad was dead of lumbar polio. All of us were devastated. But Dean's reaction was very positive. He made a scrapbook of Shad's accomplishments, awards and activities at school and gave it to Shad's mother and father. It was his way of working out his grief. He's never been one to linger over disappointments. He values what comes from the past but has always been ready to move forward, to do more exploring.

COLLEGE YEARS, 1949-53 "Everyone understood that he was going to be a coach"