02/25/2015 05:56 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2015

Why Sport Matters

I attended Duke University. And I loved Dean Smith. Perhaps only those who have spent significant time on that storied stretch of Tobacco Road will know how remarkable a thing that is to say.

Since Dean Smith's passing at the age of 83 on Saturday, the testimonials and accolades have come in at an inspiring rate and with awe-inspiring praise bordering on adoration. We are, it would seem, in the presence of a secular saint.

Smith's great cross-town rival, Mike Krzyzewski, referred to his friend as one of the greatest coaches in any sport, ever, and as a man whose loss to us can never be compensated. Michael Jordan referred to him not just as a mentor, but as a second father.

We have also learned some remarkable things about this remarkable man's activities off of the basketball court. What is still more remarkable is how little of this was known before now. When Dean Smith arrived in Chapel Hill, N.C. in 1958, both the town and the state were racially segregated. This came as some surprise to the man from Kansas. A man who had grown up in the church, Smith consulted with his pastor and the two agreed that Smith and one of his fellow parishioners who was black would go together to a local lunch counter and essentially dare the establishment not to serve them.

They were served. And so began the de-segregation of Chapel Hill, to be followed by the far more public sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C. two years later. Smith was an entirely unknown assistant coach at the time; he could have been arrested, or fired, or worse.

It was a quiet determination of conscience that matched the quiet determination of his coaching. He was quiet about what he did, what he had done. When asked about these events many years later (it was 1981) by sportswriter and his close personal friend, John Feinstein, Smith expressed dismay that Feinstein even knew the story. When Feinstein told him that his pastor had relayed the story, Smith characteristically said that he wished he had not. "But this is something to be proud of," Feinstein pressed. "You should never be proud of doing the right thing," Smith answered, "you just should do the right thing." And that was that.

The University of North Carolina's mascot is the Carolina "Tar Heel." This refers to a nickname given by Robert E. Lee to a North Carolina regiment that refused to retreat or surrender and scolded fellow soldiers from other regiments who had been tempted to do so. "God bless the Tar Heel boys," the General quipped. The name, like their heels, stuck.

Dean Smith had landed in a part of the country where that history and that legacy were still very much alive. Over the course of the next 40 years, he was to transform that place as much as he would transform the game of basketball.

I would like to suggest that there is a closer connection between those two transformative practices, and that Dean Smith's formation in sport was at least as determinative as his formation in the church had been. Put more pointedly, the sports arena was itself a form of church.

To make good on that strange-sounding claim, I turn to one of the finest books ever written about sports, C LR James's Beyond a Boundary. The book was published in 1963, just one year after Trinidad had won its independence; given James' long involvement in the movement for West Indian independence, the book is a cautionary tale of sorts. Without the requisite virtues, James believed, no revolution could succeed for long.

The story told in Beyond a Boundary is the story of an ambitious and highly talented young man, a colonial subject, but one who thought himself and aspired to be British. They were two eminently British, and eminently imperial, institutions that radicalized the young CLR James: Victorian novels and the game of cricket.

James was addicted to the game, and since a cricket match can last for days, it takes real commitment to play and to spectate. James did both. He graduated in 1918, played for a league team from 1919 to 1932, then reported on the game from 1933 to 1938. He appreciated the subtle artistry of cricket, the choreography which pitted a bowler against a batsman, the way personality and character were intimately tied to success and failure.

When the West Indian team was scheduled to play a match in England, James was mystified to discover that the captain of the West Indian team had been selected and that its most gifted black batsman had been passed over for a less talented white player. "I adhere stubbornly to my juvenile ethics," James tells us, "that the captain should not be [a black or white] man but the best man" (135).

The stakes of such games are high: to beat the empire at its own game is a vast achievement. But the West Indian team seemed to care about looking more like the imperial center than the colonial periphery... and James's identity crisis was born in that moment.

In short, the practices of cricket and of close reading radicalized CLR James. He took the rules of the game seriously, off the pitch and on it. To fail to live up to the code of honor of the game was, to him, almost unthinkable. The British empire failed this test, and so too would some of his fellow revolutionaries.

James' radicalization through cricket first drew him to be a Marxist critic of economic injustice and later to be a post-colonial critic of imperialism. While the experience of the West Indian cricket team had made him aware of race, and of his own blackness, it was a 15-year sojourn in the United States, from 1938 to 1953, that made him aware of a more virulent form of segregate color-consciousness. He would not be consumed by this, but he never forgot it.

The time in the U.S. bore other lessons for James. He quickly came to see that he was far more similar to his British than to his American friends. Americans raged at the umpires of sporting events, something he had vowed never to do (James admitted that he'd cheated wildly in school as a child, but on the field of play, never). His American friends raged at racism, but in unproductive and vicious ways. Most of all, James felt that the Americans he met had no sense of loyalty to a team, or a school, or much of anything. And so when a cheating scandal broke out in college basketball, James broke with the whole show, and promptly returned to Trinidad... where he began working on West Indian independence, and on this book.

There was a close connection between the two.

James published his only other major book in 1938. This was The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, his landmark historical study of the rebellion of enslaved people on the island of Hispaniola that resulted in the birth of the independent state of Haiti. Clearly, his interest in Caribbean independence movements was lifelong. And just as clearly, James understood the strange confluence of race, religion and politics in any complex social movement.

He broke with Soviet-style Marxism in 1940 when Stalin made his pact with Hitler. He left the U.S. in 1953, just one year before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, and just five years before Dean Smith went to North Carolina.

More significant than Supreme Court decisions, to James, was the game of cricket. Virtue enacted on the field of play were enacted in the realm of politics too."'The Case for West Indian Self-Government' and 'It isn't cricket' had come together at last and together had won a signal victory" (241). James was to break with many of his independence-minded colleagues over questions of tactics and vicious compromises similar to the ones the Trotskyites had made. A revolution without virtue was no revolution, just a moral perpetuation, more of the same.

The whole thing hinges on a simple idea, but like most simple things the moral reach of a simple idea can be long. The rules matter. They matter whether you are oppressed or not; they matter whether you win or lose. To violate the rules in order to win would be to strip the victory of its value. That is as true for a revolutionary as it is for a cricketer. To cheat is quite literally to fail to understand the nature of the game and its value (or values). "Cricket had plunged me into politics long before I was aware of it" (65), James concludes.

Most of the book is a spirited catalogue of the greatest players James ever saw or studied: the great bowler George John, the great batsman George Headley, and Learie Constantine who excelled at both. Fully one quarter of the book is an encomium to one man, W.G. Grace, the Babe Ruth of British cricket. "Grasp the fact that a whole nation had prepared the way for [W.G. Grace]," James observes, "and you begin to see his stature as a national embodiment" (170). "Cricket was a religion and W.G. stood next to the Deity" (165).

We have heard similar encomia for Dean Smith this week; his stature is quite literally an embodiment of the game he loved.

James' reasons for writing in this way are complex. On the one hand, he was participating in the Renaissance and Humanist essayist's tradition of teaching through exemplary persons. A virtue is, only as it is displayed in action. James was also attempting to explain the unique thrill and moral passion that sports can inspire. He wishes, then, for us to understand how a game can produce forms of greatness.

James admired the Olympics just as he admired cricket was shocked to note that so few intellectuals took the Games seriously. Sport, James knew, is organized, ritualized, and subtly choreographed social activity. It's very much like religion, that way. The Olympic religious festivals in Greece were a magnet for everything else--the philosophy, the politics, even the art.

What the Olympics was to ancient Greece, cricket was to the British empire in the 19th century, and what the modern Olympics became in the twentieth. Athletes and umpires all swear a sacred oath; cheating is quite literally the blasphemy that would undo the game.

For many young men around the world, sport is as crucial a source of moral formation as it is physically liberating. CLR James thought nothing of cheating at school, but the cricket pitch was sacred to him. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, insisted that his revival had simply been one piece of a life-long work: education reform. Athletes learn discipline, learn to appreciate excellence--the excellence of a performance, and not just their own. Athletes learn how to lose. Athletes learn that winning is not valuable at all costs. Athletes learn how to recognize when a game, or a career, is over. These are not small things to learn.

And that is why Dean Smith matters so very much.

There is far more to Dean Smith's legacy than 879 basketball victories, an Olympic gold medal victory in 1976, two Division I National Championships and an astonishing 11 Final Four appearances. There is the far-from-simple virtue of a life well lived. Comprehending that fact--what it entails, and how such things are to be measured--is why sport matters. In the hands of a coach with the gifts of Dean Smith, sport is not just an arena for transcendent performance and the thrill of spectacle; it is quite literally a school of virtue.

Here is how James understood it:

"The aesthetics of cricket demand first that you master the game, and, preferably, have played it, if not well, at least in good company. And that is not the easy acquisition outsiders think it to be" (207n1).

In Dean Smith, then, we witnessed far more than mastery of a game. He was one of the most remarkable moral teachers this game has ever produced. And he produced it, always, by creating good company.

Louis A. Ruprecht Jr.
Georgia State University