For decades, the brand, name, respectability and success of North Carolina basketball has been associated largely with one legendary man: Dean Smith. Coach Smith not only brought the Tar Heels enormous accomplishments on the court (two National Championships and 11 Final Fours), but he also contributed in numerous ways off of it.
He deeply cared about the lives and futures of his players, supported the Civil Rights movement earlier than any of his peers and did so much more than simply teach basketball. He was and is Carolina basketball, and his dedication to academic and athletic achievement is something that the Heels continue to aspire towards.
Roughly a year and a half ago, Smith passed away, leaving a storied legacy behind him. His passing, too, meant that North Carolina no longer had their icon. Even as his health deteriorated and his public appearances stopped, Smith was still everywhere in Chapel Hill. His words, his players, his disciples and, of course, his face were all over the campus and the arena he built, the Dean Dome.
Smith and what he means to North Carolina will live on as long as the Heels play basketball, and no one will ever truly replace him as the face of UNC basketball. But, as time has passed, one of his former players has slowly reentered the spotlight in Chapel Hill.
Despite everything he accomplished in three years in a UNC jersey, Michael Jordan never overly associated with the university in the thirty-odd years since. Yes, he did appear occasionally in the “I am a Tar Heel” video played at home games, but he was nowhere near as noticeable as former athletes like Vince Carter, Rasheed Wallace, and others. While other players seemed to flock to home games and Final Fours whenever they could, Jordan, for whatever reason, stayed away from the cameras and from Chapel Hill.
Maybe he was too busy with the Charlotte Hornets organization or any of his other business ventures. Perhaps he didn’t want to be mobbed just trying to watch a game. Some of it could just be a general apprehension on Jordan’s part to appear in the public too much; after all, he was converted into arguably the most well-known meme ever. Regardless, Jordan’s absence was evident, the most famous student in the school’s history all but removed from anything in its present.
Now, it appears as though Jordan is becoming the face of Carolina basketball. Although the previously mentioned “I am a Tar Heel” video has changed many times over the years, it was nonetheless jarring to see Jordan seemingly take his place as the last speaker in the video, something long afforded to Smith. I’ve been to many games in the Dean Dome where Jordan didn’t even appear, a strange notion, while Kenny Smith, Tyler Hansbrough, and more remained constant in their love and pride of being a Tar Heel. Jordan’s casual “I am a Tar Heel” now seems destined to be at the end of every video for the time being.
Most noticeably, however, was Jordan’s presence at North Carolina’s recent National Championship game against Villanova. Whereas Carter, Antawn Jamison, Julius Peppers and Maktar Ndiaye famously held up a “Where’s Dook” sign against Michigan State in 2009, Jordan had been invisible when it comes to Tar Heel games. He might’ve been there in the past, yet no one knew about it for sure. But, he was there in Houston to see Villanova defeat the Heels with a shot that will live on forever and, more importantly, Jordan actually spoke to the team afterwards.
As Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and company shed tears, Jordan comforted them with words about his own personal obstacles and how you can use this kind of defeat to make you stronger. Certainly, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Coach Smith consoling the group of guys after and, this time, Jordan took it upon himself to be that man, mentor, and role model.
Watching the Heels play now is almost akin to watching the most exciting Jordan brand commercial possible. That famous Jordan logo is everywhere, from the uniforms the players wear to the officially licensed gear the fans in the stands don. His image is linked with the Carolina blue and white and, while obviously part of a calculated business relationship, seeing the Tar Heels play with that logo just feels so right.
What remains to be seen is just how active and public Jordan is going to be in regards to UNC. Will he actually go to a few home games and cheer on the team? Or was his appearance at the National Championship game an anomaly? Did Jordan simply understand that after such a trying time (Smith’s passing, an embarrassing academic scandal, watching Duke and Kentucky take over), fans, alumni and students needed to see the best player of all-time supporting their school?
Jordan has the respect, determination and magnetic aura needed to represent North Carolina basketball, and he’s had it for years. Brice Johnson’s words could sum up how most of us feel about seeing Jordan in Carolina colors: “It’s an honor to be able to say I’m a Tar Heel along with him.”