Before there was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, there was … Dean Smith vs. Topeka High School, which was integrated in the late 1940s but persisted in having separate all-white (Trojans) and all-black (Ramblers) basketball teams.
Smith had been quarterback of the football team, which was integrated, and he was confused and upset by the division.
So he went to see principal E.B. Weaver about amending the injustice as part of what the Topeka High Historical Society called a “student action” for change.
And it came in 1950, a year after Smith graduated — and four years before the monumental ruling revolving around segregation of local elementary schools rendered “separate but equal” unconstitutional.
Before there was a Civil Rights Act of 1964, before there were the more-noted sit-ins at “whites only” Woolworth’s down the road in Greensboro, N.C., there was Dean Smith, the Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach of North Carolina who died Saturday night at age 83.
Before he became the Tar Heels’ head coach in 1961, Smith ate at a segregated Chapel Hill restaurant, the Pines, with a young black theology student.
Before there was Texas Western beating Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA men’s basketball championship game that many saw as pivotal to integration of the sport, there was Smith recruiting Charlie Scott to Carolina that fall as its first African-American basketball player.
Smith, a native of Emporia, Kan., and a member of Kansas’ 1952 NCAA championship team, died after years of battling a progressive neurocognitive disorder that ravaged his memory. But he will live vividly in the memories of tens of thousands of people for hundreds of reasons.
That includes, of course, that he retired in 1997 as the major-college coaching victory leader with 879 and the fact he was an innovator in a game passed down to him by KU coach Phog Allen — himself a disciple of basketball inventor James Naismith.
But Smith’s legacy is infinitely more substantial than his coaching ledger, which was part, but only part, of the reason he was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
As sprawling as Smith’s contributions were, maybe no one ever sizzled it all down with more eloquence than his KU roommate and former Topeka Mayor Bill Bunten.
In a 2012 interview with Bunten in his then-office as part of a day spent tracing Smith’s roots, the topic turned toward Smith’s civil rights stands.
“To his great credit, he saw the absolute unfairness of that and took a stand when a lot of us didn’t,” Bunten said. “At some point in time, you’re going to see something that isn’t right, and do you stand up and say it or do you not?”
And that’s just it, really.
Doing what’s right as a matter of conscience, not convenience, takes true courage and leadership.
It’s about staking out the higher ground even when few around you might be, even when it’s at risk of a career — as Smith also did by advocating against the Vietnam War before he was a fixture.
The answers aren’t just blowin’ in the wind … or blowing with the prevailing wind after taking the temperature and analyzing focus groups.
They come from reaching deep inside and taking a stand, or even a stance, before it’s trendy, or even acceptable.
Smith knew this and lived it even though he knew how unconventional and unpopular it might be to use his pulpit to speak to causes.
A lot of people don’t like politics with their diversions, of course, but to Smith it would have been unconscionable to shrink from that and stifle the influence he might have.
Of all the causes Smith became involved with, including against nuclear weapons and the death penalty, the quest for racial equality was virtually a lifelong thread.
Smith’s parents, Alfred and Vesta, touted fairness, valuing every human being and treating all with dignity more than they specifically spoke against racism. But Smith learned as much by their example as anything else.
His father, a teacher and a coach, paved the way for Paul Terry to become the first African-American basketball player at Emporia High, against pressure from the state association — which succeeded in keeping Terry out of the state championship game.
“In 1934, (Alfred Smith) chose to play a black teenager, the son of a janitor who swept the floors at the local bank, whom he had known as a junior high school student,” Smith wrote in his autobiography, “A Coach’s Life.” “What gave him the independence of mind to come to his beliefs and the courage to act on them?”
The same force of will and moral clarity that made Smith part of the solutions — and a giant whose own example stands as tall and might as anything he accomplished in basketball.
“Last night, America lost not just a coaching legend but a gentleman and a citizen …,” President Barack Obama said in a statement Sunday. “Coach Smith showed us something that I’ve seen again and again on the court — that basketball can tell us a lot more about who you are than a jumpshot alone ever could.”