HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Dean Smith has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work and impact as the coach at the University of North Carolina. The NBA smiles and nods to that.
Smith’s closest actual connection with the league was as a member of USA Basketball committees during the early days of professional players in the Olympics, but his impact is unmistakable. He made a historical imprint on the NBA without ever setting foot in the NBA. Talk about a legacy.
Smith products carried the DNA when they left Chapel Hill. Michael Jordan, of course. And Billy Cunningham, James Worthy, Charlie Scott, Bobby Jones, Walter Davis, Kenny Smith along with Bob McAdoo, too. On and on.
That tree reached to the coaching ranks and front offices, too. Larry Brown, George Karl, Mitch Kupchak, Doug Moe, McAdoo, Jordan, John Kuester and Joe Wolf all came through Smith.
Dean Smith has absolutely been in the NBA.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor, the White House said in announcing the 16 newest recipients, and are presented “to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or peivate endeavors.” Indeed, in addition to underlining Smith’s two national championships and retiring in 1997 as the winningest coach in history, the announcement Thursday also noted his work as a civil-rights advocate and a 96-percent graduation rate at Carolina.
“I base my life on the things that coach Smith taught me and the direction and the insight that he gave me into the type of person I would want to be,” Scott, who faced severe racism playing in the South in the late-1960s, told the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. “What would make coach proud of me? [That’s] a question that I answer every day.”
Smith, 82 and suffering from what his family described in 2010 as a “progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory,” joins John Wooden as the only men’s college basketball coaches to be so honored. Other 2013 recipients include Ernie Banks, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.
How popular is Smith in his adopted home state? Though sometimes an outspoken opponent of many lightning-rod issues – the Vietnam war, the death penalty – Public Policy Polling found in February that 76 percent of both Republicans and Democrats in North Carolina thought he should receive the Medal of Freedom, a rare level of agreement. That’s nothing, though. Seventy-two percent of Duke fans were also in favor.
The awards will be presented at the White House this year at a date to be announced.