President Barack Obama had high praise for former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith on Wednesday, honoring the Tar Heels coach for his courage off the court and his spectacular career with UNC.
Obama noted that Smith was the first coach to use multiple defenses in a game and the first to insist that players who scored to acknowledge the teammate who passed the ball.
Obama also pointed out that 96 percent of Smith's players graduated from UNC.
Obama had a few quips, too, especially when it came to Smith and former Tar Heels star Michael Jordan.
"With his first national title on the line, he did have the good sense to give the ball to a 19-year-old kid named Michael Jordan," said Obama, referring to Jordan's jump shot as a freshman that won the 1982 national title.
"Although they used to joke that the only person who could hold Michael Jordan under 20 was Dean Smith."
The joke about Jordan is an old one -- Smith insisted on a team-oriented attack rather than highlighting his stars. But Jordan actually averaged 20.0 points as a sophomore at Carolina in 1983.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom was awarded largely for Smith's achievements off the court. Smith pushed hard for integration and used his public position to support progressive measures in North Carolina.
"We honor his courage to help our country," Obama said. "That shows the character he represented on and off the court."
WNCN will air a half-hour special on Smith Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. from the Smith Center.
Smith himself was not at the White House to receive the award. His wife, Dr. Linnea Smith, told WNCN that the trip would be too much for a coach who faces a progressive neurocognitive disorder.
"For a while, we were trying to figure out any way we could to have Dean go to the presentation, but it's just really something beyond his ability right now. So that's our one bittersweet part of this, that he won't be able to attend," Linnea Smith told WNCN's Pam Saulsby before the event.
The fact that Smith won't attend adds a poignant but, in some ways, appropriate touch for a coach, who never wanted the conversation to be about him anyway.
"He's always struggled a little bit with recognition," Linnea Smith said. "He always felt a little bit uncomfortable being singled out for awards. He would use it as a time to call attention to those involved in the basketball program or those on the staff who worked with him.
"He felt like, as a public figure, it was easier to single him out for an award. But he appreciated and knew that other people contributed just as much to some of his achievements."
Those achievements, though, were enormous in an area with deep passions for college basketball.
Smith was an obscure assistant coach at UNC when he took over as head coach. Frank McGuire, who led the Tar Heels to the 1957 national title, left after the 1961 season to become a head coach in the NBA. UNC was on probation at the time, and Chancellor William B. Aycock hired Smith and told him having a clean program was the top priority.
Smith's Tar Heels finished the 1961-62 with an 8-9 record - his only losing season in Chapel Hill. But it wasn't the only bump for Smith, who was hanged in effigy on the Carolina campus in 1965 after the Tar Heels lost at Wake Forest.
Smith's baby blue teams became a dominant force in ACC basketball. Smith led Carolina to 879 wins over 36 years, claimed national titles in 1982 and 1993 and won an astounding 72.8 percent of their ACC games. The Heels won 13 ACC titles and reached the Final Four 11 times.
Smith emphasized his veterans. Freshmen had to carry the team projector and Smith refused to let freshman Michael Jordan appear on a famous Sports Illustrated preseason cover in 1981.
Smith was ferociously competitive, bringing an intensity to the bench that would spill over in arguments with ACC referees like Dick Paparo and Lenny Wirtz. Smith's teams wore a soft powder blue but played a ferocious brand of basketball that included relentless defense and a fast-paced attack. Carolina also played with a cool sense of preparedness that led to stunning last-second wins – and none bigger than Jordan's jump shot to win the 1982 national title.
But Smith and the Tar Heels had their detractors. Rivals smirked that Smith, with so much talent, should have won more national titles than he did. And opponents groaned that UNC teams got the benefit of the calls from officials, so much so that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in 1984 that there was a "double standard" in the ACC.
What wasn't questioned, though, was Smith's devotion to the game, deep understanding of it, and appreciation for the role he played as the head basketball coach at UNC.
And it was that element of his career that led to the Medal of Freedom.
"He used the platform he attained as a coach to have an influence on other areas of our society. That's what we should all do," said Duke's Krzyzewski, who became close friends with Smith.
Smith stepped forward as a proponent for equal rights in the region. Smith signed Charlie Scott, who became the first black scholarship basketball player on Tobacco Road.
Krzyzewski said Smith's stance on equality would force those who admired him to recognize issues they might otherwise oppose.
"Some people who were against that [social equality], weren't against him. So, it made those people look at it because they wouldn't challenge him," Krzyzewski said.
The Duke coach said the game of basketball has helped people of different walks of life come together.
"He was one of the leaders of that right from the start," Krzyzewski said.
Current UNC coach Roy Williams, a former assistant for Smith, has continued much of what Smith began at Carolina and attended the event Wednesday.
And Williams had high praise for the impact of Smith beyond the game.
"[Smith] was the best guy who has ever been on a basketball court and far, far, far better off the court," Williams said in an interview before the event.
"There's never been anyone like him."
Linnea Smith said her husband was well aware of how closely his actions were viewed.
"He did things that he thought were important to impact change or educate the public," she said.
If he saw injustice, she said, "It made him determined. It would fortify his determination to do what he could to bring about change."
2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom Award winners
Smith joins a list that includes former President Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.
"I know Dean would have been real excited to re-connect with Bill Clinton and some of the others," Linnea Smith said. "I'm looking forward to saying hi to Oprah and some of the others."
Clinton, who served as Arkansas' governor before being elected the 42nd president, will be recognized also for his humanitarian work through the Clinton Foundation.
Winfrey's career as an American broadcaster, actress and activist has spanned decades, with The Oprah Winfrey Show becoming the highest rated talk show in America for 25 years.
Others who will receive the medal:
-Daniel Inouye, former senator from Hawaii, World War II veteran and the first Japanese American in Congress. Inouye will receive the award posthumously.
-Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post who oversaw the newspaper's coverage of Watergate.
-Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space. Ride will receive the award posthumously.
-Richard Lugar, former senator from Indiana who worked to reduce the global nuclear threat.
-Gloria Steinem, writer and prominent women's rights activist.
-Ernie Banks, baseball player who hit more than 500 home runs and played 19 seasons with the Chicago Cubs.
-Bayard Rustin, civil and gay rights activist and adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin will receive the award posthumously.
-Daniel Kahneman, psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics.
-Loretta Lynn, country music singer.
-Maria Molina, chemist and environmental scientist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
-Arturo Sandoval, Grammy-winning jazz musician who was born in Cuba and defected to the U.S.
-Patricia Wald, first woman appointed to U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and became the court's chief judge.
-C.T. Vivian, civil rights leader and minister.