In 1968, shortly after North Carolina reached its first NCAA basketball final under Dean Smith, grateful boosters presented the Tar Heels' coach with a Carolina-blue Cadillac convertible. "I'm not the Cadillac type," he said. "I accept the gift because I'm certain you're really expressing appreciation for the fine play of our team."
That comment reeked of platitude, and it would never pass the cynic's smell test today. Yet in 1983, when fund-raisers wanted to name a new 21,000-seat arena after him, Smith protested again, agreeing to lend his name only when he was persuaded that nothing else would allow people to fully express appreciation for the fine play of his many teams.
So it was that several years ago, as Smith pushed closer to both retirement and the alltime record of 876 wins held by Kentucky's Adolph Rupp, those who had played for and coached under him knew just how to get him to stay on: Break the mark for us, they pleaded. He protested—he said he just might quit one game short of the record, to flout what he regards as society's unhealthy obsession with who is No. 1—but ultimately he agreed. By then we had long since stopped doubting the sincerity of his protestations.
The passage of time is the greatest of tests, and time has flattered Dean Smith. It has lent gravitas to the nasal voice and provided a grandfatherly setting for that jewel of a nose. It has also authenticated all those utterances over four decades that seemed hopelessly homiletic or falsely modest.
Time, too, has drawn for us a portrait of someone far more complex than the usual sideline screamer. Smith is a privacy freak who thrived gracefully in an intensely public line of work. He's a traditionalist who will rejigger anything if reason warrants. We marvel at how a man so stern summons such compassion, and a man so competitive summons such perspective; how he simultaneously tends to niggling detail and sees the big picture; and how he makes his wondrously Jesuitical distinctions. (For the college hoops promotional ad currently airing on ESPN, he pulled a half-basketball over his head, but that's a stand-in waving the foam finger that says WE'RE NO. 1. Smith refused to shoot that scene.) Loyalty versus Integrity is the trade-off that college coaches have never gotten quite right (take Loyalty, give the points), but he has proved it's possible to abide by both.
Dean Smith is the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Sportsman of the Year because his teams won, his players graduated, the rules went unbroken. But we honor him as much as anything for his conscientiousness in pulling off that trifecta. He never forgot that the arena is but an outbuilding of the academy.
This may seem at first blush to be a sort of lifetime achievement award. But the year just past makes a case all on its own. It was during 1997 that Smith caught and passed Rupp. After January, which the Tar Heels began with three straight defeats, they didn't lose again until the Final Four, and their coach had much to do with that, abandoning a pressure defense when he realized its unsuitability to his players' talents. Then, after all the hoopla subsided, he took soundings of himself. What do I owe my players? Can I still give them their due? Above all, the sportsman is honest, especially with those who share a locker room with him. Dean Smith gave the signal that he was tired.
He would protest, again, that his story isn't worth telling. But if it is going to be told, he would surely prefer that it be told in the same spirit that he accepted that Cadillac, lent his name to that gym and broke Rupp's record—as a way of highlighting the many people who have transited his life. Here then is that story, with the coach in his rightful place, on the sideline.
GROWING UP, 1931-49
Mother called him Christopher Columbus
Dean Edwards Smith was born on Feb. 28, 1931, in the east Kansas railroad town of Emporia, the only son of devout Baptist schoolteachers. His mother, Vesta, was an organized woman who would lay out the breakfast place settings the night before. His father, Alfred, was a forward-thinking coach at Emporia High whose Spartans won the 1934 state title with the first black basketball player in Kansas tournament history.