Throwback Thursday: Tough for rivals to finally acknowledge greatness

Three years ago today a public memorial ceremony was held following the death of retired University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith. I took that occasion to write about growing up in a basketball-crazed area — North Carolina — and how it shapes misguided thinking, until it doesn’t and common sense takes over. Rivalries in ACC basketball country are heated, indeed. Almost like flying into the sun. I used to be right there among them. Then I grew out of it.

Dean Smith was a significant figure, not only in athletics but in social culture and life. He wasn’t always seen that way by the rivals of UNC — namely all but UNC fans. Here’s what I wrote back then, not long after the incredible joint tribute paid to Smith at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.

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Like many youngsters of my generation — those who grew up in the late 1960s and ’70s along “Tobacco Road,” we held one truth to be self-evident: Dean Smith is evil incarnate.

Yeah, seems weird, right? Even after Richard Nixon’s political tomfoolery, many of us were convinced beyond all reason that it was Smith, the legend-in-the-making coach of the University of North Carolina basketball team, who actually operated an evil empire capable of just about anything. The most frequently mentioned alleged transgressions included bribery … of referees; and outright theft … of victories.

Back then, folks could get real riled up about such things. I suppose they still do. In fact, I know it.

It’s just that I don’t.

Anyway, for the record, a vast majority of the state believed otherwise when it came to Dean Smith, strenuously so. They would be fans of the University of North Carolina basketball team, otherwise known as The Tar Heels. Rival fans fell into the other camp. They comprised anybody in the state who wasn’t a Tar Heels backer, a group generally known as rabid supporters of Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest. They had another name, ABC’ers — meaning not Alcohol Beverage Control but “Anybody But Carolina.” Often, though, control of alcohol and “Anybody But Carolina” vitriol seemed to be causally related.

The ABC crowd had acolytes, of course, people who supported the universities of Maryland and Virginia in particular. In fact, I clearly remember this from my one visit to the ACC Tournament, in 1985. A man sitting behind press row in the Maryland section stood and held a sign showing a fake National Enquirer front page. On it was a photo of the UNC coach with this bold headline: “I met Satan face to face. His name was Dean Smith.”

By this time in my life I had left the ABC stuff well behind. So when I saw the sign that day in 1985, it made me laugh out loud. I pointed it out to a Times-News photographer who then got a photo of it.

I wish I still had a copy of that picture for old times’ sake.

IT’S DIFFICULT to understand now how so many people could be utterly convinced of evildoing by such a singularly stellar figure as the now late coach Dean Smith, who will be memorialized today in what will be an emotionally charged event in the venue named for him. He mainly stood on the side of things that were good, decent and right throughout his incredibly successful coaching career. Yes, the man won a lot of basketball games. But he could’ve won more by cutting corners. He refused to do so. He built many more quality citizens through his example and his teaching. By saying and doing the right things in all walks of life, he managed to improve not only his corner of the world, but a rather large patch of it.

Then again, part of the nature of sports rivalries is this idea that the other team is an archenemy controlled by supervillains that make those in Marvel Comics look like inmates at the local jail. And let’s be honest, there’s some jealousy, too. A team that wins all the time gains first the envy of its rivals who bitterly believe that some otherworldly force is in play. The respect, if it comes, arrives later — sometimes too late.

These things became clear to me as I grew to manhood and embarked upon what I thought might be a career of writing about sports. Didn’t hurt that I left home to join the real world, outside the direct influence of my ABC’er dad, who just couldn’t stand it when Carolina beat his Demon Deacons. My mom, a UNC graduate whose J-School classmates included Charles Kuralt and some guy named Don Bolden, just took it.

And I had the additional benefit of interacting with high school coaches like Grady Stafford, Hoy Isaacs, Jerry Woodside, Tommy Cole, Lindsey Page and Tal Jobe, who taught me something about the game as I watched and covered their teams. I learned, for example, that good coaches don’t have to bribe the refs. They teach their talented players to be in the right place, in the correct position, and at the precise time to make plays efficiently. It’s not random. Luck has very little to do with it. Bribery is out of the question.

It’s talent, teaching and avoiding injuries.

Simple? Not really. Otherwise anybody could do it.

DEAN SMITH died on Feb. 7 as an icon not only in North Carolina, but in the larger world of athletics. As he grew older on the bench and into retirement, he moved from evil incarnate to revered figure. Oddly enough, this happens to politicians as well.

Ultimately, even the most vociferous ABC’er understood Smith’s greatness, impact on the game, and more importantly, the profound mark he left in terms of humanity. He got the respect and admiration so richly deserved for not only winning games, but reshaping society and operating a collegiate athletic program at the highest level without scandal or academic malfeasance. In death, Smith stands in contrast to so many things wrong in athletics today.

When word of Smith’s passing a age 83 began making the rounds on social media, fans of Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest offered hands in fellowship to their rivals at UNC. It was heartwarming and soul-affirming.

Then, Wednesday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium on the Duke campus, a gesture few ever expected to see occurred when the two bitterest rivals in the Atlantic Coast Conference met. As Burlington’s Trip Durham read over the loudspeaker, coaches and players for Duke and UNC knelt at midcourt, arms around each other’s shoulders in a tribute to Dean Smith. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, Smith’s heir in terms of success and that silly evil incarnate title from rival teams, was the leader — a revered figure in the making.

It’s about time.

joint tribute

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