It was a small gesture from Dean Smith. His wasn’t something that will reshape someone’s life in a striking way, because how much, considering the economics of our times, can $200 alter a person’s life?
But then you look at the reason for Smith’s small gesture, and you come away with a different understanding and a greater appreciation of what the $200 he left North Carolina players in his will meant.
Smith himself was more important than the gesture. For few men who had ever walked the sidelines of a college basketball game stood as tall as Smith, the legendary Tar Heels coach who, at 83, died last month. His death saddened anybody whose life had touched his.
Yet for scores of those people, Smith made one final gesture. He ordered his trust to give $200 to every player who earned a Tar Heel letter during his 36 seasons at the college.
Checks for $200 went out Monday to 180 former North Carolina players, and the money was Smith’s thanks to Michael Jordan, Charlie Scott, Vince Carter, Sam Perkins, James Worthy, Dante Calabria, Jeb Barlow, Brad Daugherty, Serge Zwikker and others for the life they helped him build. The coach asked each of his players to go to dinner on his benjamins.
“This was the kind of man that he was,” said Tim Breedlove, trustee for Smith’s trust, in an ESPN article. “It’s one more example of his thoughtfulness.”
People who ever told a story about Coach Smith told it with the kind of reverence that you rarely hear about someone as successful as he was. Often, his critics use their vitriol to tell stories about the slights they felt from the old coach, about how he didn’t do this or didn’t do that.
Yet we understand now, more than a month after his death, that Smith wasn’t an ordinary coach. He touched more lives than even his few critics might not want to admit, and did what few coaches of his time, aside from John Wooden, were able to do: win with style.
Smith matched Xs and Os with all the legends of his time and how successful he was at it has proved his endearing legacy – at least it was his legacy until this final, unexpected gesture.
None of this surprised people who knew him or people who met him. Smith was a coach who understood his role in a player’s life, and you can’t say that about every coach who has had a coach’s resume like his. He gave more than most coaches ever thought about giving – his time most of all.
“He liked sharing ideas over a good dinner at a good restaurant,” Sacramento Kings coach George Karl, a Smith disciple, told USA Today. “Fortunately I was blessed to have many of those opportunities with him. I’m tearing up a little bit, to be honest with you. That’s Coach Smith right there.”
Time after time, you heard stories like this about Coach Smith, and unlike what often happens, the stories were told before he died. No one had to revise their opinions of him in death, which we often see happen because no one wants to speak ill of the dead.
Smith was as genuine a man as anyone who ever coached, and his Carolina players went on to greatness – in basketball, business and in life. They all had lots to remember their coach for before his last gift – that final gesture of appreciation – to them: a $200 check for dinner.
“I don’t think I can cash this,” Zwikker told The Washington Post. “If anything, I will donate it to a good cause.”
How do you cash a thanks like this one?
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