THE BLOG
02/13/2015 10:57 am ET Updated Apr 15, 2015

Dean Smith: Amazing Grace

Collegiate Images via Getty Images

An early fellow Sojourner, Perk Perkins, reminded me this week that not long after we started Sojourners as a new Christian magazine for justice and peace, I came running into our little office one day and exclaimed, "Dean Smith is a Sojourners subscriber!"

Here were young Christians in Washington, D.C., saying our faith called us to racial and economic justice, opposing the nuclear arms race, ending the death penalty, and supporting the equality of women. And the greatest college basketball coach in the country was reading Sojourners?!

Dean Smith died on Saturday. He was 83 years old.

Monday's front-page New York Times story -- not just in the Sports section -- was titled, "A Giant of College Basketball and a Champion of Equality."

ESPN and everybody else ran the numbers: 36 seasons coaching the University of North Carolina Tar Heels basketball team, retiring with more wins than any coach in men's Division 1 history, 879-254 (.776 win pct.); 11 Final Four appearances; two national championships; 17 Atlantic Coast Conference regular season championships and 13 ACC tournament titles; eight years as ACC Coach of the Year; a stint as head coach of the gold-medal-winning USA men's Olympic team in 1976 (Montreal); and induction into basketball's Hall of Fame more than a decade before he left the bench.

But all the tributes and comments on the death of Dean Smith have quickly moved on from the numbers. Current UNC coach Roy Williams said his predecessor "was the greatest there ever was on the court but far, far better off the court with people."

Player after player who was coached by Dean Smith, ranging from those as famous as Michael Jordan to those who barely walked on to the team and hardly ever played, testified in the last few days to how much more than a coach he was to them -- their "mentor," "teacher," "second father," "role model," life-long inspiration and guide.

Under Dean Smith's leadership, the North Carolina basketball program had no NCAA violations, and close to 97 percent of his players graduated. Coach Smith was well known for keeping in contact with his players long after they left school -- not just the many that made the NBA but those in all the walks of life. His players say Dean Smith taught them "about life" and how to live it.

Carolina's greatest rival, Duke University's basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, said, "We have lost a man who cannot be replaced. ... While building an elite program at North Carolina, he was clearly ahead of his time in dealing with social issues."

Coach K went further:

His greatest gift was his unique ability to teach what it takes to become a good man. That was easy for him to do because he was a great man himself. All of his players benefited greatly from his basketball teachings, but even more from his ability to help mold men of integrity, honor and purpose. Those teachings, specifically, will live forever in those he touched.

Dean Smith clearly touched many individual lives, but he also affected the world in which he lived. In many ways that ran against the stream of the culture that surrounded him. In particular, he was especially committed to fighting racial discrimination in a North Carolina that was still very much a part of the segregated South. On "an assignment" from his pastor, Coach Smith recruited Charlie Scott for a scholarship at UNC in 1967, making Scott the first black scholarship athlete at UNC and one of the first black players in the South. Smith wasn't afraid to stand up and speak out against the nuclear arms race and in support of the nuclear weapons freeze campaign in the 1980s, and he publicly opposed the death penalty -- all issues that didn't have great support in his environment.

For Dean Smith, all of this was rooted in his understanding of Christian faith. In his book, A Coach's Life, Smith has a whole chapter on how his faith motivated and drove him to become involved and take clear stands on moral issues. At the heart of his faith was the foundational belief that "God loves all humans the same." In Chapter 11, titled, "I Could Be Wrong, But," Smith says, "It is enough for me to know we are all loved, forgiven, and accepted as we are. ... I believe the Christian faith is motivated by gratitude, which we can repay with ethical action to others."

Smith quotes Jesus in Mathew 25 as saying, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of these of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."

He writes, "Maybe it was that scripture that inspired us to take the UNC basketball teams to visit prisoners, including death row inmates, at the state prison in Raleigh."

Dean Smith visited Gov. Jim Hunt to plead for clemency in a capital punishment case. He writes, "I did discover that every good vocation can become a Christian vocation."

Dean Smith spoke warmly about his pastor for 30 years, Dr. Robert Seymour, and his church, Binkley Baptist Church, which he joined when he came to Chapel Hill. While writing this piece, I had the blessing to talk to Bob Seymour, who is now retired and almost 90 years old. He has many stories about his longtime congregant and "friend for half a century," Dean Smith.

"His legacy goes far beyond basketball," he said. "He was an extraordinary human being and a faithful churchman."

Pastor Seymour told me that right after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the Congress --  at the beginning of Smith's UNC career -- he, Smith, and a black theology student walked into the best restaurant in town, called The Pines, which had been adamantly segregated, and asked to be served.

"When they saw Dean, they realized they had no choice," Pastor Seymour said. The opening of a historically segregated restaurant signaled a significant change in the public accommodations history of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Veteran sports writer John Feinstein's favorite story about Dean Smith comes from an interview he did with the coach.

When I ... asked him to tell me more about that night, he shot me an angry look. "Who told you about that?" he asked.

"Reverend Seymour," I said.

"I wish he hadn't done that."

"Why? You should be proud of doing something like that."

He leaned forward in his chair and in a very quiet voice said something I've never forgotten: "You should never be proud of doing what's right. You should just do what's right."

Seymour said of his dear friend, "He was willing to take controversial stands on a number of things as a member of our church -- being against the death penalty, affirming gays and lesbians, protesting nuclear proliferation."

Seymour told me Dean Smith was willing to speak and act on moral issues "because of his faith."

In his book, Dean Smith laments the many negative expressions of faith and says, "Such Christianity has given Jesus a bad name. ... I may be wrong, but I think the primary focus of the Christian faith is love."

In his later years, Dean Smith suffered from a condition that made him lose memory. But a good friend of the family told me that Dean could always remember the first verse of "Amazing Grace" -- perhaps because that was the message and meaning of his life.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God's Side, is available now.