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Dean Smith fought for integration

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Dean Smith: Lasting Impact On, Off Court (3:34)

Journalist and author Bill Nack explores the legacy of Dean Smith, who was known as the best teacher in basketball and a strong advocate for social justice. (3:34)

On that March 1997 day he supplanted Adolph Rupp as the most prolific major college winner of them all, Dean Smith would not accept any credit for his role in integrating what had been a white man's domain. This was the coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels, after all. He always believed in passing the ball.

"I wasn't trying to make a legacy," Smith said. "I was just trying to do what I think is right."

In the wake of Smith's death at age 83, his contributions to the game should not be defined by the Four Corners offense and the development -- some would say a painfully slow development -- of a certain shooting guard who liked to wear his wristband closer to his elbow than most.

Michael Jordan? Way back when, the first thing Smith realized about the reed-thin teenager was that he had an aptitude for math.

"I was just hoping that intelligence would carry over to basketball," Smith told me once. "He was a 6-foot-3 athlete who couldn't dribble left. I had no idea what we were getting."

But as much as Jordan and the jumper to beat the Georgetown Hoyas of John Thompson and Patrick Ewing for the 1982 national title represent Smith's signature moment, Charles Scott was the recruit who explained more about the coach than a hundred Jordans could. In 1966, Scott became North Carolina's first African-American scholarship player and one of the first black athletes to sign at a major school south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Smith's father, Alfred, had integrated his Kansas high school team in the 1930s, and the Tar Heels coach was only following his old man's lead when he walked into a segregated Chapel Hill restaurant in the company of a black pastor and black student in the late 1950s to ensure they received service. Smith spoke up on behalf of black friends trying to cope with real estate agents who were steering them away from white neighborhoods, and four years before he signed Scott -- and right after he took the North Carolina job -- Smith tried to make Lou Hudson the first black player in the ACC. (Hudson reportedly didn't meet the school's academic requirements and enrolled at Minnesota.)

But the man who led North Carolina to 11 Final Four appearances and two national titles never thought he deserved a Gatorade bath or ticker-tape parade for supporting equal opportunity and showing a little common decency along the way.

"John Thompson and I were very close," Smith said after passing Rupp on the all-time victories list with No. 877, "and [Thompson] said he had no idea what my dad did [in Kansas] until somebody else told him."

North Carolina defeated a Colorado team coached by a black man, Ricardo Patton, on the record-breaking day in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to advance to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. I asked Patton that day if he felt the way Nolan Richardson felt about Rupp's place in history ("I'll sleep much better knowing Dean's the man," the Arkansas coach had said) and if he thought it was fitting a progressive thinker like Smith was the one to knock out the Kentucky coach who preferred to keep his sport as segregated as Old South water fountains and schools.

"Adolph Rupp was only the most famous of those guys," Patton responded. "There were a lot of coaches who felt like him back then."

Of course, Smith passed on the opportunities given him to criticize Rupp and the colleagues who shared his prehistoric beliefs; he was never one to revel in another man's flaws. Smith was a blind believer in the human spirit, moving his protégé, North Carolina coach Roy Williams, to say in a statement Sunday that his mentor's "concern for people will be the legacy I will remember most."

Jordan called him "my second father" in his statement, yet Smith's affection for Tar Heels who never rose to Jordan-esque heights notarized him as the ultimate players' coach. On the occasion of Smith's retirement in October 1997, Derrick Phelps, a good-but-not-great college player, said by phone that his coach forever tracked him down to offer a helping hand.

"I didn't become a star in the NBA and he still calls me all the time," Phelps said then. "When he does, my teammates in the CBA or Europe can't believe it. They're always like, 'I wish my college coach still cared about me.'"

It always seemed that Smith had more friends than Will Rogers could count. The night that the freshman, Jordan, made the shot in the Superdome, right before Georgetown guard Fred Brown threw a pass to North Carolina's James Worthy, Smith showed his dignity and grace like never before.

The Tar Heels coach had every reason to wildly celebrate his breakthrough; he had been to six previous Final Fours without winning a ring and had become a frequent target of critics wondering why his cherished system couldn't win the big one.

"And Dean's Smith's first reaction was to come down and console me," Thompson said years later. "I hope I would have been classy enough to have done that, because I probably would have been doing what [Jim] Valvano did [in 1983]. I probably would have been running around yelling and hollering, but his thoughts were to come to his friend because he knew how I felt."

Two years after losing to the Tar Heels in that final, Thompson became the first black coach to win the national championship. He had been an assistant for Smith with the United States team that won a gold medal at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, four years after the North Carolina coach helped him land the job at Georgetown.

"I loved him," Thompson said Sunday through a Georgetown spokesman, and the former Hoyas coach wanted to leave it at that.

So Smith helped changed the face of college basketball in more ways than one. It's a good thing he rejected the NBA offers he received over the years, including one from Madison Square Garden boss Sonny Werblin, who once met with Smith in George Steinbrenner's suite in an attempt to persuade him to save the New York Knicks.

Smith was much better off on his college campus, speaking out against war, encouraging his players to develop a voice on political and social issues, and moving those around him a few steps closer to the ideal of a colorblind society. He recruited Charles Scott to North Carolina, invited the player into his integrated church and defended him against racist fans.

That's called coaching, something Dean Edwards Smith was born to do.