The obituaries of legendary University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith have heralded his civil rights activism and team-above-self philosophy as much as his basketball legacy. President Barack Obama honored Smith with the Medal of Freedom in 2013 as a leader who transcended his sport. This week, I asked the motley crew at my middle-aged, co-ed basketball game, to pause in respect. I wore black socks and black headband to mourn, and a Carolina blue shirt to celebrate the life that shaped my values and ethics as much as any member of my biological family. For once in my life, I could stand at the three-point line and feel like Michael Jordan – who called Smith “more than a coach…a mentor, my teacher, my second father.” I raised my index finger and pointed downcourt, the way Smith taught players to thank teammates for an assist.
In my close extended family in the tobacco belt of North Carolina, Dean Smith was a deity. He echoed what they taught me about loyalty, humility and hard work. Coach –there was only one for my kin – connected me to my father who struggled with depression and alcoholism. None of that changed when I played for UNC rival Wake Forest in college. My junior year, in March, my father killed himself with a shotgun. For the rest of that season and many after, Coach Smith signaled from the sidelines all that my father wanted for me.
At 56, I’ve not got a lot of game left, but I still have a lot of Dean, on and off the court. Or at least I hope so.
Finding the Net
I could count on my father,
closed down, bed bound,
for Carolina basketball.
He would come out
for supper, snacks,
our Boys in Blue.
Dean Smith delivered.
Forty minutes of family,
triumph, selfless defense,
four corners of calm.
I seldom saw the bourbon
or pills. I watched perfect
pass after perfect pass
trounce the devils.
And my father fade.
I will find the open man.
In Third Grade My Father Loves Me Best When I
Watch hoops with him
I can stay up late if I nap after school. The nap is my idea.
I know why Coach Smith is the Dean of college basketball.
Open the 1957 scrapbook
When our Tarheels beat Wilt the Stilt for the National
Championship, the year before I was born.
I know the Constitution is a do-over of some Articles
Confederation. I can name the Supreme Court.
Ask about Washington, D.C.
The trip he shook hands with Sam Rayburn, the big boss
of a House, but not the White one.
How guards and tackles protect quarterbacks.
That safeties must save the day.
Laugh with him about playing God
of the Grapevine in Glendale. His younger cousins
were angels. Fetched grape juice, Ritz crackers.
(poems from a work in progress, For Opening the Mouth of the Dead)
Catherine Woodard helped return Poetry in Motion to NYC’s subways and is on the board of the Poetry Society of America. Her poems have appeared in CNN online, Painted Bride Quarterly, RHINO and other publications. She is a former journalist who lives and plays basketball in NYC.