The wife of former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith called Smith's Presidential Medal of Freedom award "a pinnacle" of his career, but said Smith would not attend the ceremony at the White House Nov. 20.
"For a while, we were trying to figure out any way we could to have Dean go to the presentation, but it's just really something beyond his ability right now. So that's our one bittersweet part of this, that he won't be able to attend," Dr. Linnea Smith said Wednesday.
Travel, she said, is hard for the former coach. His family revealed in 2010 that he is suffering from a "progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory."
Dr. Linnea Smith kept a low profile throughout Smith's long career as the coach of the Tar Heels, and Dean Smith often kept his family out of the public spotlight.
But with the award approaching, she sat down with WNCN anchor Pam Saulsby at the Smith's Chapel Hill home, close to the UNC campus.
Inside, the house offers only a few clues that it is the home of one of college basketball's great coaches. There are ram statues and mementoes but, Linnea Smith said, the coach gave most of his memorabilia to the school.
Smith won multiple awards during his tenure with the Tar Heels, including multiple national and ACC coach of the year awards. He joined the Basketball Hall of Fame, the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame.
But Linnea Smith said of the Presidential award, "I'm sure it's a pinnacle. He's always struggled a little bit with recognition. He always felt a little bit uncomfortable being singled out for awards. He would use it as a time to call attention to those involved in the basketball program or those on the staff who worked with him.
"He felt like, as a public figure, it was easier to single him out for an award. But he appreciated and knew that other people contributed just as much to some of his achievements."
Representing Coach Smith at the awards ceremony will be Linnea Smith, three of his five children, UNC coach Roy Williams and former UNC coach Bill Guthridge, Smith's longtime assistant.
Coach Smith is being honored for his service that went beyond the basketball court. Smith played a key role in helping integrate the Chapel Hill community. In 1966, for example, he brought in basketball star Charlie Scott, the first black scholarship athlete at Carolina.
"The basketball gave him a position as a public figure and he took that very seriously," Linnea Smith said. "He did things that he thought were important to impact change or educate the public."
If he saw injustice, she said, "It made him determined. It would fortify his determination to do what he could to bring about change."
Smith will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom Nov. 20. WNCN will air a half-hour special on Smith and his career at 7:30 p.m. The special includes exclusive interviews from key Carolina people who were close to Smith, like coach Roy Williams, former coach Bill Guthridge and former announcer Woody Durham. Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski also spoke with WNCN about his relationship with Smith.
Smith led the Tar Heels to 879 wins in his storied career but it also was his role off the court that his friends loved him for.
Smith's crucial role in the civil rights movement is just one of many reasons he's being awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy created the medal - the highest honor the U.S. bestows on civilians – by signing an executive order. In the five decades since, more than 500 people have been recognized for contributions to society of all stripes.
"This year's honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world," Obama said in a statement.
Smith joins a list that includes former President Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.
"I know Dean would have been real excited to re-connect with Bill Clinton and some of the others," Linnea Smith said. "I'm looking forward to saying hi to Oprah and some of the others."
Clinton, who served as Arkansas' governor before being elected the 42nd president, will be recognized also for his humanitarian work through the Clinton Foundation.
Winfrey's career as an American broadcaster, actress and activist has spanned decades, with The Oprah Winfrey Show becoming the highest rated talk show in America for 25 years.
Others who will receive the medal:
-Daniel Inouye, former senator from Hawaii, World War II veteran and the first Japanese American in Congress. Inouye will receive the award posthumously.
-Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post who oversaw the newspaper's coverage of Watergate.
-Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space. Ride will receive the award posthumously.
-Richard Lugar, former senator from Indiana who worked to reduce the global nuclear threat.
-Gloria Steinem, writer and prominent women's rights activist.
-Ernie Banks, baseball player who hit more than 500 home runs and played 19 seasons with the Chicago Cubs.
-Bayard Rustin, civil and gay rights activist and adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin will receive the award posthumously.
-Daniel Kahneman, psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics.
-Loretta Lynn, country music singer.
-Maria Molina, chemist and environmental scientist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
-Arturo Sandoval, Grammy-winning jazz musician who was born in Cuba and defected to the U.S.
-Patricia Wald, first woman appointed to U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and became the court's chief judge.
-C.T. Vivian, civil rights leader and minister.