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A young black theology student was visiting that summer, and Seymour asked Smith to join the two of them in trying to eat a meal at a segregated restaurant in town. Smith was crucial to the action, for this restaurant served many training meals to Carolina athletic teams. Smith was only an assistant, just 28 years old, largely unknown, but, as Seymour understood, "He was bread and butter for this one restaurant." And so the three men, two white and one black, entered and took a table. If the waitress and the shocked customers didn't know Smith, the manager did. He nodded at the waitress, and she handed out the menus, and the day was carried.
Smith was the ultimate assistant back then, loyally subordinating himself to McGuire. No one can remember Smith's ever asserting himself before. It's revealing what he chose to do the first time he acted independently in Chapel Hill.
The 1963-64 season, Smith's third, was a dismal disappointment, and as spring wore on, there were no eye-opening recruiting accomplishments. School let out, and in June Smith was using Woollen Gymnasium for his basketball camp. It was a sultry Sunday evening when the kids first congregated, and Smith was making his welcoming address when somebody told him he had a phone call. Smith, peeved, said he was obviously busy. The messenger persisted, saying it was Larry Miller from Catasauqua, P-A on the line. Smith went to his office and picked up the receiver, and Miller said he had thought it over and he'd like for Smith to come to his high school graduation.
Even now, in the basketball office at Chapel Hill, there are only two teams singled out for display. There is, of course, the 1981-82 club, the one that won the big one; the names of all the players are printed on a large, fancy stein. And the other is the 1966-67 team, the one starring Lewis and Miller, which was the first Smith team to make the Final Four. It's celebrated larger than the other squad: Up on the wall there's a huge, dark, hideous painting that features all the players' signatures.
How close Smith came to not being the coach of that team—and thereby missing all the success that followed—isn't certain. But it was close. Even after he got Miller, but before Miller reached the varsity, Smith was wrestling with himself about whether he should get out of big-time sports. And anyway, after the 1964-65 season, if things hadn't improved, he wouldn't have had any choice, no matter what he decided. The hue and cry to fire him was rising. Shaffer, in law school by then, recalls walking along with Smith after a defeat over in Raleigh and being appalled at the things people called Smith right to his face. Shaffer says, "I thought, 'My God, how can he stand this? This is a heckuva way to make a living.' " Cunningham, the senior, the captain, led the players in worrying that they were going to have blood on their hands, that they were going to get their coach fired. "You could see the strain on him," Cunningham says. "It was horrible."
And then they came back from Wake that night, having been routed by 22, and there was the effigy. Lewis, only a sophomore, remembers that he was too appalled to move. He ducked his head. No one dared even to look at Smith. But there they were at the gym, and that was the end of the line. Across the road, in Winston Dorm, the students had thrown their windows wide open to the chilly January air so they could lean out and watch the fun.
Suddenly, Cunningham shot up from his seat. He only remembers thinking, "How could they do this to this man?" Before he knew it, he was tearing down the bus steps and running and grabbing the effigy, yanking it down and kicking it aside. Then the rest of the team filed off, giving the effigy a wide berth and stealing away into the night.
The main question now had gone past "Will Smith leave?" The only speculation was, who would replace him?
In these depths, Smith began reading a book by Catherine Marshall entitled Beyond Our Selves, which his sister, Joan Ewing, had given him. Joan is his only sibling, and they are particularly close. Smith focused on a chapter entitled "The Power Of Helplessness." He began to see how little control he, a man of control, really had. "Crisis brings us face to face with our inadequacy and our inadequacy in turn leads us to the inexhaustible sufficiency of God," he read. And: "No sinner is hopeless; no situation is irretrievable. No cause is past redeeming." And: "Helplessness is actually one of the greatest assets a human being can have...the crucible out of which victory could rise."
Yes, just so. Before the next game, a few days later, over at Durham, five minutes from heaven, Smith gave a fiery pep talk. He never does that. And Carolina beat Duke 65-62. Duke at Duke. There was a crowd waiting when the team got back to Woollen Gym, and they cheered for Smith to speak. "Billy," he said to the captain, "you step up there and greet 'em. My throat's still sore from the other night."