Thank the passer – a legacy of Dean Smith

For those who follow basketball, the legendary basketball coach Dean Smith passed away this weekend. Smith coached the University of North Carolina Tar Heels for many years to great basketball success. He also coached the US Olympics basketball team to the Gold medal when we still used amateur players. A great many things are being said about Smith by his former players, fans and the media. They are all deserved. Last fall, his wife accepted the US Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

Smith did much to help young men grow into adults. He taught valuable lessons about basketball, but life as well. He also helped integrate the UNC team with its first African-American player, which is widely known. But, he also helped integrate the Town of Chapel Hill by eating in restaurants with African-Americans. He did not want fanfare over this, as he noted to author John Feinstein, who was told the story by someone else, “doing the right thing should not get publicity.”

Being a former basketball player, I also wanted to share a basketball and life lesson that Smith instilled in his players. This may sound trite at first, but please bear with me. Smith made his players who just scored a basket to acknowledge the person who passed him the ball as they ran back down the court. If you have played basketball, you know that the most fun thing to do is score. Yet, this is a team game, just like life. Someone else saw that you had a better chance to score and passed you the ball.

This sounds so simple, but at the end of the 1970s, the NBA had turned into a game of individual moves to score. This individualism promoted selfish play and the NBA was in trouble. In fact, TV ratings were so down, some of the Championship games were shown on tape delay at 11:30 pm. Think about that. It was not until Magic Johnson and Larry Bird joined the NBA in 1980, that the NBA started a come back. These two players were renowned for their passing ability and seeing a bigger court.

Smith knew this first hand, which is why he had his players acknowledge the passer. Just as in life, most success involves a team effort. Of course, there are stars, but Michael Jordan, who played for Smith, knew he needed a good team to win. So, as a former basketball player who took pride in passing, I admired this trait. It is a good one to take away from the court. I have made this point before about the best leaders – they tend to deflect credit to others. This is a great way to sum up Dean Smith, he deflected credit to others. But, they knew who passed them the ball and are pointing back at him.

Rest in peace Coach Smith.