Saturday, March 29, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Dean Smith Challenged Chapel Hill's Old Prejudices

INDIANAPOLIS - The North Carolina of the mid-1960s was a schizophrenic place caught in the middle of a country that was changing faster than the state wanted.

The Civil Rights Act had been signed. Segregation was outlawed, but old beliefs and prejudices were dying hard.

This was the North Carolina where Dean Smith worked. This was the North Carolina he helped change.

When Smith came to coach at Carolina, the Atlantic Coast Conference still was all white. When Smith came to Carolina, African Americans still weren't allowed in Chapel Hill's finest restaurants. When Smith came to Carolina, the 1960s still felt a lot like the 1860s.

We all know what Dean Smith has done on the basketball court. He has won more games than any college coach. And he has developed enough Hall of Fame players to have his own wing in Springfield - Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Phil Ford, Mitch Kupchak, Sam Perkins, Bobby Jones, Walter Davis, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, George Karl.A rich legacy

His contributions to the game are abundant. The four-corners offense. The secondary fast break. He has adapted as the game has changed. And he has kept winning. Today's game with Arizona marks the fourth time in the 1990s North Carolina has been to the Final Four.

Sometime in the next century, when he finally retires, his legacy will be as rich as anybody in basketball history. But when he retires, he should be remembered as much for the things he has done outside of his profession as inside it.

"I think he's one of the few coaches in the basketball world who knows there's something else besides basketball," Bob Seymour, one of the heroic figures of North Carolina's civil rights movement, said this week in a telephone interview from Chapel Hill. "And he knows it's just a game.

"More important than what's on the scoreboard is the care and well-being of his players. He keeps in touch with them and sort of shepherds them throughout their lives."

Love and concern

In the late 1950s, Smith joined Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill and began a lifelong friendship with its minister, Bob Seymour. For almost 40 years, they have shared a love of basketball and a concern for human rights.

The fight to integrate businesses was especially ugly in Chapel Hill in late 1963 and early 1964. In one incident, a restaurant owner's wife urinated on two demonstrators who had stretched out on the floor at the entrance to prevent customers from entering. Protesters were doused with ammonia at another business.

It would have been easy for Smith to hide in the gym. To pay lip service to the protesters while keeping a safe distance from the battles raging outside his offices.

But that's not the way he works. Smith understood the power of his position. He was the basketball coach at North Carolina, where the game itself was a religious experience. He knew he could make a difference.

"Dean became an active member of our church," Seymour said. "And those early years coincided with the full impact of the civil rights movement here in Chapel Hill. He was very much a part of that with us.

"In those days, the basketball team was all white. They had many of their evening meals in a very fine local restaurant called The Pines. The Pines was one of the restaurants that was rigid about not admitting blacks.

"When the federal government passed a public-accommodations act, Dean was willing to be a party to our congregation's effort to ensure that all the restaurants were complying. Dean and myself and a black student from the University of North Carolina went to The Pines. We asked to be served and with Dean Smith at the door, they could not say no. That was the opening of the door of The Pines restaurant."

A coach with integrity

Smith, 66, in his 36th season as North Carolina's head coach, is one of a rare breed who doesn't weigh the public-relations consequences of his beliefs. He is a liberal in a state that, every six years, elects the Neanderthal Jesse Helms to the U.S. Senate. He is a liberal in a very conservative profession.

But Smith doesn't worry about how his politics might affect his recruiting. He is a coach with integrity.

He fought for higher pay for domestic workers. He helped establish a settlement house in a low-income neighborhood. He brought his players into the neighborhood to play ball with the kids. And in 1966, he integrated the ACC with the arrival of Charlie Scott.

He preaches a selfless Three Musketeers attitude to his players and then he lives that philosophy. His basketball program makes millions and he shares that profit with the school's other athletic programs, men's and women's.

"Dean is a very quiet person," Seymour said. "But he isn't afraid to take a stand on the issues. Just recently, I was engaged in a project with the North Carolina Council of Churches to solicit the names of people who have influence in the state to go public in protesting the death penalty in North Carolina. Dean was the first person to reply saying, `I support this and you may use my name.' "

`Doesn't mind speaking the truth'

So many coaches are protective of their public images. So many coaches pay more attention to "SportsCenter" than "Nightline." Smith is different.

"Dean went public advocating a statewide program to provide medical insurance for children of low-income families," Seymour said. "During the Cold War he went public, protesting nuclear weapons and called for a nuclear freeze. He's a man who doesn't mind speaking the truth. A man of integrity."

Isn't it reassuring to know that the coach who has won the most games in college basketball history also is one of the most humane?

You can contact Steve Kelley by voice mail at 464-2176.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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