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UNC Basketball: The history of Tar Heels meeting in the NBA Finals

With Cam Johnson and Justin Jackson on opposite sides of this year’s Finals, let’s look back at the other instances where Heels have been on opposite sides of the championship series.

M Jordan V LAL Photo byAndrew D. Bernstein/ NBAE/ Getty Images

As written about earlier this week here at Tar Heel Blog, this year’s NBA Finals has a Tar Heel on either side of the matchup. On one side is Justin Jackson of the Bucks who, unfortunately, probably won’t see a ton on action. On the other hand, Cameron Johnson will get plenty of run as a regular member of the Suns’ rotation.

While this is far from the first time that Carolina players are matched up on the other side of the NBA Finals, it’s also not a yearly occurrences, despite UNC’s status in the college ranks. Ahead of Game Two tonight, let’s look at the other times two Tar Heels have gone head-to-head for a championship in the pros.

The last time this happened was 2015, although it was a bit of a similar situation to this year.

On one side was Harrison Barnes and James Michael McAdoo on the Warriors as they began their dynastic run. Barnes was a starter and part of the Warriors’ original “death lineup,” while McAdoo didn’t see much action as the franchise won their first NBA championship since the 1970s. In doing so they defeated Brendan Haywood and the Cavaliers.

While Haywood had himself a nice, long NBA career, he was very much at the end of it when he joined Cleveland. He didn’t end up seeing the floor at any point during the Finals.

In term of a Tar Heel-heavy series with Carolina alumns playing important roles on both teams, it’s hard to beat 1991.

After a rare, for that era, absence from the NBA Finals, the Lakers returned in 1991 with James Worthy as one of the leaders. He was joined by another UNC player and teammate from the 1982 title team, as Sam Perkins had by added by the team in free agency in the prior offseason.

Their opponents were the Bulls, who had another of their Carolina teammates, some guy named Michael Jordan, who had finally broken through and made the finals after years of coming up short. In addition to him, the Bulls had Scott Williams, who wasn’t old enough to be on the ‘82 team, but did have a nice career at UNC after that.

Other than Williams, who didn’t get much time, all three Tar Heels had good series, but Jordan and the Bulls came out on top, as they would a few times after that as well.

That’s wouldn’t be the last time Jordan and Perkins had teams face off in the Finals. Five years later, Perkins was now a member of the Seattle SuperSonics, who advanced to the Finals to play the Bulls and Jordan, who had returned from retirement a little more than a year prior. Jordan again came out on top, winning Finals MVP, capping off Chicago’s 72-win season.

The 1991 Finals may be the most Tar Heel heavy, but the 1982 and ‘83 matchups between the Lakers and 76ers.

Worthy wasn’t in LA yet for the 1982 series, as he would be selected by them in the draft just a few weeks later. However, the Lakers did have Bob McAdoo and Mitch Kupchak though. Kupchak didn’t see in action in the series as he had gotten hurt earlier in the season, but McAddo finished as one of the Lakers’ highest scorers as they won in six games.

In doing so, they beat Bobby Jones’ Sixers. Jones started all six games in a losing effort. There was also a bonus Tar Heel in Philadelphia’s coach Billy Cunningham.

All those players were still around the following year, with the addition of Worthy on the Lakers. However, the script was flipped as the 76ers got revenge in a sweep.

The other time it happened in back-to-back years was in 2000 and 2001.

Rick Fox’s Lakers won the first of their three-straight championships, beating the Pacers and, making his third appearance on this list, Sam Perkins. The next year, Fox and the Lakers repeated, this time beating George Lynch and the 76ers.

Fox and the Lakers teams from that era actually have a third entry on this list in 2004. However that year they lost, falling to Rasheed Wallace and the Pistons.

In 1994, new UNC head coach Hubert Davis was on the Knicks as they fell to Kenny Smith and the Rockets in seven games.

Technically, the first time it ever happened was in 1979 as Kupchak, then a member of the Washington Bullets, fell in five games to the Sonics and Tom LaGarde. However, neither player actually got onto the court in the five games.

No matter what happens over the rest of the series, a Tar Heel will be going home with their first NBA ring, and that’s pretty cool.