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UNC Basketball History: The time the Tar Heels won an international tournament

In 1971, the Tar Heels went global.

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North Carolina v Maryland Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

When we think about North Carolina men’s basketball participating in mid-season tournaments nowadays, there’s a couple that typically come to mind. The Maui Invitation and the Battle 4 Atlantis are the normal ones in the rotation. There’s been a couple trips up to Portland, Oregon for Nike’s PK80/85 tournaments, and then there’s a couple other appearances in the Preseason NIT or other such tourneys.

However back in the day, there was an even wider swath of tournaments. The most famous was probably the “Dixie Classic” which was held annually in Raleigh, featuring the four ACC teams in North Carolina plus guest teams. It was renowned enough that there were books written about the event.

Thanks to the UNC basketball media guide, we have a full list of the tournaments that the Heels have participated in over the years. On the list are a bunch of the ones you might expect: the Mauis, the Atlantises, the Great Alaska Shootouts. Besides those they are a couple weirder ones. In 1990, they played in the “Red Lobster Classic” in Orlando. In 1981 in Santa Clara, California, just months before winning the national title, Dean Smith, Michael Jordan, and company took part in the “Cable Car Classic.”

However even among the odder, no longer existing tournaments, there was one that stood out above the rest of those. UNC is listed as having played in what the media guide calls the “Madrid International Tournament” in 1971 in Madrid, Spain.

That felt like some sort of mistake. Surely, there wouldn’t be a college basketball tournament being played in Spain of all places in the ‘70s. Sure enough, that’s correct, it wasn’t a college basketball tournament. It was, in fact, something that seems even weirder for UNC to have played in all these years later.

Starting in 1966, Real Madrid — the basketball department of the sporting club most known for their immensely successful soccer club — and FIBA began holding the FIBA International Christmas Tournament. The initial edition saw Real Madrid, Corinthians of Brazil, Ignis Varese of Italy, and the Chicago Jamaco Saints, an American AAU team, compete, with the Italian team coming out on top.

Over the next couple years, club teams and even some national teams from all across Europe and the world took part in the event. Then for the 1971 edition, an American college team was invited for the first time, and that team would be the North Carolina Tar Heels.

On December 23, 1971, UNC took on Juventud Schweppes — yes they were sponsored by the soft drink company — and won 87-74 after 19 points from Bobby Jones. The next day, they bear Chilean team Unión Española 87-65, with Bob McAdoo leading the way with 21.

That set up a final Christmas day matchup against the hosts Real Madrid. The format of the tournament was a four-team round robin event, with whoever finished first winning the championship. Both UNC and Madrid won their first two games, meaning whoever won the last game would go 3-0 and win the whole thing. In the end, the Heels narrowly won by six in what some called the best game in the history of the tournament.

Over the years, a couple more college teams would take part, including UNC again in 1974, where they were runners-up to Real. However, Bradley’s appearance in 1977 appears to be the final team a college team went over to play in the event. These days, it seems wild that a college basketball team would go overseas in the middle of the season to play against a bunch of professionals. Yet, UNC did it in 1971, and came away with a title.