Losses are losses. You can live with those. When you compete, eventually it doesn't go your way. You may never get over it (Jenkins' shot is never NOT going to hurt) but you can at least negotiate with yourself into eventually coming to terms with it. Losing stinks, but it's something that can be accepted, justified, understood, even respected.
Injuries though? Those are the ones that kill you. Believing, no knowing, that a healthy team would've gotten it done? There's no acceptance, no tolerance. It's an open cut that will never scab. It's the reason I hate Creighton and smile whenever I hear my Chicago friends call Doug McDermott a bust. It's the reason I can't watch an Al McGuire-called game on ESPN Classic and not wince.
The news this week that Joel Berry broke his hand was a bummer, but it PALES in comparison to some of the agony Carolina fans have had to endure when the injury bug came a-knocking for Tar Heels teams of yore. Here are the five most snake-bitten teams in UNC history:
#5 - 2003
The 2002-03 Tar Heels were coming off the worst season in Carolina history. They had been beaten by everyone and their grandmother and had finished the season 8-20. The lone bright spot was that Matt Doherty had brought in a terrific four-man recruiting class that included Sean May, Raymond Felton, David Noel, and some swingman whose name escapes me at the moment.
The young Heels started off the season with a surprising string of victories in the Preseason NIT. They stunned 2nd-ranked Kansas (a team that would go on to the National Championship Game) and defeated Stanford to win the tournament. The freshmen had injected new life into what had been a hapless team, and looked like they were on their way back to becoming prominent, though probably not a contender.
Then Sean May broke his foot and was out for the season. Without him anchoring the paint, the wheels came off. The Tar Heels went 6-10 in the ACC and ended the season right where they'd started it: In the NIT. Matt Doherty was fired after an ugly offseason controversy (some might say mutiny) and Roy Williams came riding into town.
This team makes the list because it had a promising season derailed, but it can't be any higher because this Tar Heel team was too young to realistically stand a chance of cutting down the nets.
#4 - 1994
The Tar Heels had won it all in 1993 and, with the additions of stud freshmen Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, and Jeff McInnis, looked like heavy title favorites once again. The Heels didn't quite live up to that lofty billing (there were rumors of locker room division between the vets and the frosh), but they still won the ACC Tournament, swept a solid Duke team, and started the NCAA Tournament as the #1 overall seed.
But the Heels were derailed in the 2nd round by a scrappy (one might say dirty) Boston College squad. Jerry Stackhouse would later accuse the Golden Eagles of "cheap shots" during the game, and Dean Smith told reporters he had warned his team beforehand about BC's physical style.
No shot was cheaper than the one that Danya Abrams' carried out on senior guard Derrick Phelps. With 15:53 left in the game, Phelps had a clear path to the basket on a breakaway, when Abrams mugged him from behind, sending him crashing headfirst to the ground. Phelps, who had dealt with injuries in the past, sustained a possible concussion and did not return. The Eagles won 75-72, in a tight affair when the Heels really could have used their veteran floor leader.
This team belongs on the list because it was a title favorite that was knocked out by an inferior team after an injury to a key player, but it can't be higher because these particular Heels had issues besides Phelps going down and, let's face it, they should've beaten Boston College anyway.
#3 - 1984
There's a case to be made for this team being even higher, for the express reason that Michael Jordan lost his final game as a Tar Heel. The 1984 Tar Heels, at their healthiest, were Dean Smith's greatest team. Jordan was National Player of the Year. Senior Sam Perkins was a First-Team All-American. Brad Daugherty was developing into a big time pivotman. Electric freshman Kenny Smith drove the tempo. The Heels went 14-0 in ACC play and looked next to unbeatable early in the season, cruising through their first sixteen games.
Then Kenny Smith broke his wrist against LSU. Like Phelps, he was also taken down on a breakaway. The Heels lost to Arkansas in a thriller and fell to Duke in the ACC Tournament. Smith would return, but his wrist wasn't fully healed. He was at less than full strength and the team's chemistry was disrupted.
A disrupted UNC team was all the chance the Bob Knight-coached Indiana Hoosiers needed in the Sweet Sixteen. The Hoosiers upset the favored Heels 72-68, ending Jordan's career and treating us all to decades of Dan Dakich bragging about how he "shut down" Jordan (Child please. MJ was in foul trouble.)
This team is a no-brainer for the list, but it can't be higher simply due to the sheer volume of injuries our next two teams suffered:
I know, I know. A lot of you are wondering how in the world this team isn't first. It was close, but in my opinion the 2012 team comes in at Number Two. Let me assure you: I will absolutely positively never get over this season.
The 2012 Tar Heels both began and played the entire season as a title-or-bust team. Zeller, Barnes, Henson, Marshall. They were loaded, talented, and experienced. They were hungry after a gut-punch loss the Kentucky the year before. They had strength at every position. They had depth at every position...until they didn't.
First Leslie McDonald tore his ACL in preseason. Then Dexter Strickland went down with the same against Virginia Tech. Then Henson broke his wrist in the ACC Tournament.
Then Ethan Wragge, Grant Gibbs, Greg Echenique and Creighton decided to try and wrestle the Tar Heels in the Round of 32. A lot went on in that game, but the highlight was Wragge knocking Marshall out of the air on a layup attempt (STOP SHOVING OUR POINT GUARDS, PEOPLE). The Cousy Award winner had a broken wrist.
The Heels tried to rally without him, barely surviving a hideous game against Ohio University. But they fell to a solid, but inferior Kansas team in an Elite Eight matchup in St. Louis that was essentially a Jayhawk home game (lemme check...yup, still salty). The day before, Reggie Bullock had hyperextended his leg and played in a sleeve. Henson, who needed painkillers for his wrist, sprained his ankle during the game. That's five rotation players either out or hobbled. Five.
This team should have played Kentucky for the National Championship, and in my biased opinion they would have won. The absolute plague of injuries that hit them kept them from even making the Final Four. That said, they still come in behind...
#1 - 1977
Two words: Phil. Ford. That's the reason these guys are Number One. Hansbrough won more awards and titles and Jordan had the best pro career ever, but there's a very, VERY strong case to be made that Phil Ford is the greatest Tar Heel of all time. No player was ever more essential to a Carolina team, no player ran the Four Corners better, no player carried the Tar Heel standard better than Ford.
The 1977 Tar Heels were a nuclear absurdity. Along with the All-American Ford, the Heels had Walter Davis, Tommy LaGarde, Mike O'Koren, John Kuester, Dudley Bradley, and Rich Yonaker. That's seven NBA players. Ford, Davis, LaGarde, and O'Koren all rank as some of the greatest Tar Heels ever. Ford, Davis, and LaGarde won a Gold Medal the year before on the Dean Smith-coached Olympic team.
But LaGarde blew out his knee and missed most of the season, including the entire postseason. The injury would haunt him in the pros as well.
Despite this, the Heels won both the Regular Season and Tournament titles in a loaded ACC. Walter Davis broke bones in his shooting hand and still played. Ford hyperextended his elbow in the Sweet Sixteen. Despite this, the Tar Heels reached the Final Four, where they defeated UNLV's legendary Hardway Eight in the Semifinal.
The Heels were heavy favorites against Al McGuire's Marquette Golden Eagles (that moment when Golden Eagle becomes your least favorite animal) and out played them much of the game, holding a lead in the 2nd half, despite Ford and Davis struggling from the field. Then, convinced his wounded team was close to wearing out, Smith sent them into the Four Corners. The Heels lost momentum and Marquette came back to win. My father often assures me that it's one of the rare occasions Dean coached the Tar Heels right out of a game.
Four Corners or not, a healthy '77 team would've mopped Marquette off the floor. Injuries prevented one of the greatest Tar Heel teams of all time from hanging a banner.
So, without jinxing this current Tar Heel squad (seriously, knock wood, people) let's all wish Joel Berry a speedy recovery, but remember that Tar Heels past have had far worse luck than him. And remember also that the last time Berry got hurt, we won a National Championship.