Dean Smith and the Nuclear Freeze

I have a story to share about Dean Smith, the legendary basketball coach who passed away this week.

I met Coach Smith in early 1983, the year following North Carolina’s national basketball championship. This was the time of the nuclear freeze movement, which was sweeping across the United States like a proverbial prairie fire.

As executive director of SANE, I was working with our North Carolina chapter on a statewide radio advertising campaign. We were debating who would be the right person to narrate the messages. We wanted someone with breakthrough appeal—someone “who walks on water in this state,” as one of the chapter leaders put it.  We all agreed. Dean Smith was the one.

But why would the prestigious Coach stick his neck out on an issue like the nuclear freeze? Someone recalled that Smith had been among the first major college coaches to desegregate his teams. “He’s a man of dignity,” another said, “I’ll bet he’s for the freeze as well.” We decided to give it a try.

I was asked to write to the Coach and ask if he would be our spokesperson. Two weeks later came the prompt reply, “Coach Smith will be glad to participate in your campaign. Please call to arrange a time to visit.” We were ecstatic.

A couple weeks later we were there, entering Carmichael Auditorium, the scene of Tar Heels basketball heroics. We stared in awe at the many championship banners hanging from the ceiling and the dozens of trophies and plaques bearing witness to the rich traditions of North Carolina basketball. At the coach’s office we exchanged pleasantries with his assistants and were ushered into the inner sanctum, speechless in the presence of the great coach.

Smith was warm and amiable, rising from his desk in an unassuming manner to greet us and urging that we make ourselves at home. We brought with us some draft scripts. He sat down at his desk, looked them over, scribbled changes here and there, and then addressed the microphone.

Hello, this is Coach Dean Smith. Winning the national championship was a great thrill. But there is one contest nobody wins – the international arms race. We all lose in a nuclear war, and the risk grows greater every day unless we do something about it. A majority of Americans support the bilateral nuclear freeze. But it won’t happen unless you take action. … Add your voice to the growing demand for a nuclear freeze.

In another script he made a self-deprecating reference to his controversial practice of freezing the game, instructing his players to keep passing the ball rather than shoot. This was before the introduction of the shot clock in basketball. Chuckling lightly he read:

We can debate the merits of a freeze in a basketball game, but there is one freeze we can all support, the bilateral nuclear weapons freeze.

After a couple of flawless takes, Smith was finished. He smiled and thanked us for coming. We were thrilled at having met the Coach but more importantly in gaining his support for our campaign.

SANE’s radio spots hit the airwaves the following week: nearly 300 spots on dozens of stations throughout the state. News of Coach Smith’s support for the freeze was everywhere, on the front pages and in the sports section. Articles on his involvement appeared in every major newspaper in the state and on all the major television and radio stations. The widespread news coverage and the hundreds of ad placements meant that Smith’s appeal to end the arms race saturated the North Carolina market and reached millions of people.

It was a major boost for North Carolina SANE and for our efforts to build public support for the nuclear freeze. Smith was not only a great basketball coach but a person of social conscience and moral courage.

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