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March Madness: Dean Smith Visits an RA Banquet

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Royal Ambassadors (RA) is a Baptist ministry for grade-school boys that seeks to blend scouting-type activities with a call to missions.

Lawndale Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I grew up in the 1960s, had an extremely active and engaging chapter of this uniquely Baptist endeavor.

Our group was so robust that I actually quit Cub Scouts because my RA chapter was markedly more active and fulfilling.

We had a perfect storm for success that began with interested and energetic men who were dynamic leaders and believers.

They were blessed with a large crowd of young boys who were high achievers and willing to go full bore at almost anything.

We didn’t know better and thought church was intended to be fun and entertaining. This young group of boys later became a youth group to remember.

One of the great memories was the year they convinced a 6-foot-10, 15-year-old named Danny Manning to go along to youth week at our state Baptist camp and play on our church basketball team against the legendary “staff team.”

Fort Caswell, where the North Carolina Baptist Assembly summer camp was located, has never seen such a beat-down put on a group of college guys by a high school youth group.

To this day, these boys-now-men are an impressive group of leaders and high achievers.

It all began in grade school, with these men and boys coming together to engender faith, build character, go camping, play ball, fish, hike, build and race little wooden cars, and play just about any kind of sport.

We even commandeered a small house on an outlying parcel of church property and dubbed it “The RA House.”

It was like a clubhouse to us, and we flocked to it. The lessons learned in those weekly meetings have reverberated through my life ever since.

The 1964 annual RA banquet was a big deal. Many pins, badges, ribbons, trophies and awards were handed out for our hard work across the year.

There was usually a boring preacher-speaker, which we endured for the joy of the hardware collected.

One year, one of the counselors had a better idea. Gene Warren, whose son, “Rock,” was one of us, was a sports writer at the Greensboro Daily News.

An amazing Sunday school teacher, Gene was also a well-known and highly respected journalist.

On this occasion, he volunteered to ask the new, young basketball coach at the University of North Carolina (UNC) to come speak to our annual RA banquet.

Dean Smith was trying to fill the huge shoes of his previous boss, Frank McGuire, who had led UNC to a handful of ACC championships, two final four appearances and a national title.

His early years at UNC were not easy, but he was able to establish the Tar Heels as a perennial presence and power during the annual March Madness of the NCAA tournament.

I suppose, at the time, he was looking for any feasible way to connect to constituents and cultivate the fan base. For whatever reason, he agreed to this glamorous opportunity.

Later, of course, I found out that Dean Smith was more than just a basketball coach. An active layman at his Baptist church, he took his faith very seriously.

He embodied the teachings of Jesus and quietly lived a life that shunned the limelight and deferred attention to others. His convictions about racial equality and equal rights helped shape the deep South.

None of that mattered to us that night. All we knew was there was going to be a chance to meet Dean Smith.

Several of us hatched a plan to have him come out and watch us play a quick basketball game in the church parking lot in the hopes of being recruited. Sadly, the adults squashed our scheme.

Instead, we were limited to an after-dinner pep talk and some photo ops. I’ve searched in vain for my photo. I think my Duke friend stole it.

I wish I could tell you that what Coach Smith said that night changed my life. Instead, I have to admit that I cannot remember a thing about his comments.

What I do remember is his smiling face, his enduring patience, his warm encouragement and his showing up for an RA banquet in a dingy church basement.

I’ve met my share of famous athletes across the years. Some of these folks have impressed me more than others.

None of them, however, showed up at an RA banquet to encourage a group of young boys to let their faith and their lives be a unified whole.

Dean Smith’s death is an appropriate time to remind ourselves that integrating faith and vocation is at the heart of a well-lived life. Coach Smith’s integrity and faith is a powerful and inspiring witness.

I believe healthy churches produce men and women who deliberately blur the lines between private faith and public life.

Healthy churches invite us to integrate humility, service and love into our weekday endeavors and not just our Sunday mornings.

Dean Smith came to an RA banquet, not because of the big paycheck, but because he made a habit of showing up as a Christian, no matter what his job was.

Thanks, coach, we all needed that.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. You can follow him on Twitter @BillWilson1028 and the center @ChurchHealthy.