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Living by example

Hubert Davis never cashed the $200 check Dean Smith left him at his death. Instead, he framed it on his wall so he could tell people how Smith influenced his life.

Hubert Davis
(Image courtesy of UNC Athletics)

After he was named head coach of Carolina’s men’s basketball team, Hubert Davis received thousands of text messages. His phone went off constantly. Keeping up with his voicemail was an impossible task.

This is one of the negatives of being such an incredibly nice person. Everyone thinks you are their very good friend, and everyone has no qualms about reaching out to you.

Through the torrent of calls and texts, Davis knew exactly where he wanted to be. And so he stole away to the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, where a low stone wall surrounds one of the 1,700 graves. The headstone is shaped like an open book, and from here you can see Carmichael Auditorium.

This is where Dean Smith is buried. This is where Roy Williams would occasionally journey on his lunchtime walks with Clint Gwaltney. And this is, with his world changing rapidly around him, with his entire future in question, where Hubert Davis wanted to be for a few precious moments of clarity.

“I just wanted to spend time with him at his gravesite,” Davis said on the Tuesday he was introduced as the next head coach at the University of North Carolina. “I just wanted to listen to him, talk to him and tell him thank you for believing in me and giving me a chance and an opportunity. I wanted to thank him for the example he set for me. There is nothing I do in my life that isn’t filtered through, What would Coach Smith and Coach Guthridge do?’ And I would love to give them a hug today.”

Of course he would. If we learned anything from Davis’ opening day as Carolina’s head coach, it’s that he can be emotional. And impassioned. And funny. Sometimes all within the span of a couple minutes.

This is someone who sparked cheers from the lettermen in attendance when he proclaimed, “That’s what this program is going to be about. North Carolina is going to show up every day, every second, every possession. North Carolina will be there.”

This is not all that different from Roy Williams’ frequent talk about buying in. But it was phrased just differently enough, delivered with just the right inflection, to feel fresh. The only frustrating thing about the statement is that we have to wait seven months to see a Davis-led Carolina team on the court.

And about Williams. You likely realized he shared a close relationship with Davis. But we may have underestimated just how close it was. Williams sat with Davis’ wife, children and father on Tuesday. And the way Williams beamed after every Davis comment, the way he nodded listening to the new head coach talk about Carolina Basketball, the way he teared up at all the emotional moments, it was hard to tell whether he or Hubert Davis Sr. was the father of the man at the podium. And the reverse is also true; it’s clear that Davis feels every bit about Williams the way that Williams does about Dean Smith.

Allow the author to provide this insight into Hubert Davis. He played for the Tar Heels during Lucas’ prime autograph chasing days. Young Tar Heel fan Lucas staked out the player version of Davis all over the United States, from the sidewalk outside the Dean E. Smith Center basketball office to the Park Hotel in Charlotte to the team hotel in Indianapolis at the 1991 Final Four.

He doesn’t remember those interactions (which is fortunate for Lucas, because he was almost certainly wearing stonewashed jeans and a turtleneck under his sweatshirt). But he remembers every moment of them, because Davis was unfailingly the most polite Tar Heel, the most patient Tar Heel and the most willing to pose for yet another picture.

He was, in other words, the exact same person as he was today, when he was handing out handshakes and hugs — the pandemic year of Davis’ life without hugs must have been like a year without oxygen — on the floor of the Dean E. Smith Center. A dozen years in the NBA haven’t changed him. Three kids haven’t changed him. Being a college basketball celebrity on national television hasn’t changed him.

So it’s a pretty safe bet that even being the head coach won’t change him.

Nothing you saw on that recent Tuesday was fake. There will be lots of other days about Hubert Davis the coach. This day was about Hubert Davis the person, the teammate, the friend. It was about the Hubert Davis who last week at this time might have been taken for granted in the Carolina universe, and today is the centerpiece of that world — and looked every bit capable of carrying the responsibility.

Davis knows that it’s entirely possible that Tuesday, April 6, might mark his day with the highest approval rating of his entire coaching career. In the months and years to come, he’ll call too few or too many timeouts to suit everyone. He’ll pick the wrong defense or call the wrong play or miss out on a recruit. These things happen even to Hall of Famers. They will happen to Hubert Davis. When those things happen, maybe we could all remember he’s still the exact same person we saw on April 6. None of these eventual basketball miscues have any impact on his character, because he’s been following the exact same principles for decades.

Maybe you don’t have time to walk over to the cemetery. Life gets busy and you have to pick up the kids and there’s just so much to do. That’s okay. If you stop in the office of Hubert Davis, the head coach of the University of North Carolina basketball team, he’s going to remind you about Dean Smith. Right there on the wall is the $200 check Smith gifted all his lettermen upon his death, instructing them to take their loved ones out for one last meal on him.

Davis never cashed his check. Couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he framed it and put it in a place of prominence on his wall, where visitors would frequently ask him about it. He wants to answer their questions, wants to tell them about Dean Smith. It’s been that important an influence in his life. There’s his faith, his family, and there’s Dean Smith and Carolina Basketball. That’s what made Hubert Davis, and those are perhaps the three topics on which he lights up the most when he speaks.

Smith was missed on Tuesday, even as the gathering could not possibly have happened without him. He would have enjoyed seeing everyone together, would have appreciated that Tar Heel players who were never even teammates with each other greeted one another with a hug. He would have liked that on this day, Serge Zwikker was just as important as Mitch Kupchak, who was just as important as George Lynch, who was just as important as Dave Hanners. He would have found a way to stay out of the spotlight, of course, just as Davis was doing everything he could to make sure all his mentors — Smith and Bill Guthridge and Roy Williams and, yes, Hubert Davis Sr. — were getting as much attention as possible.

We can’t know everything Smith would have thought of the events that Tuesday in Chapel Hill. Not for certain. But we do know this. His gravestone bears two inscriptions. The first is from the sixth chapter of Micah, the prophet after whom the Davises named their youngest son: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

The second was picked by Smith’s family. “Reflect gratefully on those who went before you, embrace those loved ones among you and honor those who contribute to a better future for those who follow.”

So maybe we don’t know everything. But we know that Hubert Davis is the new head coach of the Tar Heels, and that Davis saw those words a few days ago when he visited Smith, just to talk and to listen. And that if April 6 was his first day of living that example for everyone else to see, it will be very difficult to ever do it any better.

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