It may have been a whisper, or even an exclamation. Maybe he said it when he called his wife to tell her the news, or possibly the word leapt out of his mouth in immediate reaction.
But however or whenever he said it, you have to imagine that when Roy Williams was told that UNC would be dedicating the basketball court inside the Dean E. Smith Center with his name, he let a “Dadgum” slip out.
The news comes just a day after Williams’ 68th birthday. Forty years since he joined the Tar Heels basketball staff as an assistant coach under Dean Smith.
If there’s one thing that’s certain about this move, it’s that Williams will attribute the court naming dedication to what he learned under Coach Smith. Even in the news press release, he couldn’t help but end his thanks on Smith’s legacy, "Coach Smith did so much, he was so good for people. He would be proud of what we've done on the court, but Coach was always able to do so much more for the players off the court. I'm glad his name is on the building. It's going to be hard to think of my name on the floor in his building.”
Williams’s now 15-year tenure as head coach of the Heels has always had a hint of Dean Smith in everything. Whether it be how he treats his players or just in how he wins, Coach Smith’s handprint can be found all over his protégé’s career. In a joint interview between the two coaches in 2007, Williams made Smith’s influence clear, “I'm not being humble, I'm just being truthful. Coach Smith taught me that the players are the most important thing and I think I've continued to show that today.”
Roy made his own dedication to Coach Smith in 2015, when he held up four fingers on his right hand to commence the Heels’ first possession against Georgia Tech. Everyone in the arena held up four fingers in unison as Marcus Paige ran Smith’s game-changing four corners play and threw a backdoor pass to Brice Johnson for a layup.
It was just two weeks after Coach Smith’s death. The play still worked and the court was still his.
Since that moment in time, Roy has coached a national runner-up and a national championship winning team. Eight of his players have gone on to play for NBA teams and one of his former players, Sean May, has come back to coach for him.
Since that day in 2015, he has thrown jackets. He has thrown a t-shirt into the crowd before every home game. He has weathered the storm of NCAA allegations. He has cried when speaking about graduating players on senior nights and cried again when they talked about him.
He has been the foundation of Carolina Basketball and now that is solidified in writing.
Don’t ever let his success fool you though, it did not come overnight and was certainly not easily. In his time as Kansas’ head coach, he brought through players who would go onto be NBA greats, like Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison, and Paul Pierce, made it to four Final Fours and two national championship games. None of them were ultimately fruitful.
In 2005, Roy got that elusive championship he had been seeking with a Tar Heels squad that were unstoppable at times. That same team one year prior had only won only 19 games and held an 8-8 record in conference play in Williams’ first season as head coach at UNC.
The 2009 team, known for its historic title run, perennial Carolina legend Tyler Hansbrough and an 18-point win in the national championship game, was dominated in the 2008 Final Four by Kansas. In the first half of that Kansas game, the Heels were down by as much 28.
2017 saw Williams’ third national championship that will be forever remembered as a redemption title, after having their championship spoiled the previous year by a Villanova shot at the buzzer.
Dean Smith knew that Roy was great throughout everything he faced. When prompted about Roy being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007, he went on to say, “I'm amazed it took this long, he could have been elected before and we thought he would be. He has it all… He has the total package of a college basketball coach, and most coaches you know would agree."
A decade later and we all think it’s amazing that it took this long for the floor to gain this new paint.
So when Roy walks onto the court for the first home game of the season against Stanford, he can know that it’s his court. The walls and the ceiling might be Dean’s, but the foundation and floor are were assembled by his own hands. When the Carolina legacy took a faltering step upon a few especially disappointing seasons, Roy and his players lifted it to even greater heights. A legacy like Carolina’s can’t stand without solid ground.
When a fan or student walks through the doors to watch the Heels play, they are met by the name Dean E. Smith. It is an unspoken rule that to cheer for the team in the prettier blue, you have to know why that name is important. From now on, when one looks down on the basketball court, they’ll be met by three freshly painted words, “Roy Williams’ Court. A name that has a right to be placed there, just as the first one did.
“As it should be,” tweeted Kenny Williams, now a rising senior guard and already deeply ingrained in Carolina legacy, when the news broke on social media.
He’s right, this is the way it should be. And it feels dadgum right.