Twenty one years and Dean Smith couldn’t catch a break. He had checked every other box and then some. Had to fight to hold onto his job? Check. He’d been hung in effigy. Had he been a great ambassador for the university? Check. He had helped desegregate Chapel Hill and recruited the great Charlie Scott. Had he proven himself a winner? Check. He had led Team USA to Olympic glory. Was he an influential tactician? A peerless leader of men? An icon of the sport? Check, check, and check.
However, he hadn’t won the big one. Six trips to the Final Four and six defeats. If it wasn’t John Wooden and Lew Alcindor, it was Bob Knight and Isiah Thomas. Or Al McGuire and Lord-Knows-Who on that ‘77 Marquette team. If it wasn’t Ford’s Elbow and Davis’ Thumb, it was Reagan’s Shooting Delay. No matter what the year, the situation, the quality of the teams, it just didn’t happen for The Dean.
The journey of the 1982 Tar Heels began on March 30th, 1981 in the Spectrum in Philadelphia, where the Tar Heels fell to the Indiana Hoosiers in the National Championship. It was the final game in Carolina blue for the great Al Wood who two nights earlier had played an all-time game against Virginia in the semis. The other four key Tar Heels, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Matt Doherty, and Jimmy Black would all be back, but their senior captain would be replaced by a hot-shot freshman from Wilmington. His name was Michael Jordan.
The Tar Heels were picked as the preseason #1 and were given the cover of Sports Illustrated. Dean Smith, in keeping with his old school values of seniority, indicated that four of his five starters be photographed for the cover, leaving his freshman off of it. Young Mike Jordan would have to earn his press attention.
The Tar Heels played like the best team in the nation all season long. Worthy made the leap to superstar between his sophomore and junior seasons, and Perkins, the rare freshman star under Dean Smith the year before, was one of the best big men in the nation. Jimmy Black served as a surehanded point guard and leader. Matt Doherty was a versatile utility player, and Jordan was a superbly efficient freshman. The Tar Heels cruised through the regular season, going 12-2 in the ACC, and knocked off #2 Virginia in the ACC Tournament Final 47-45 after a controversial but effective stall game in the final minutes (this game led directly to the shot clock being implemented in ACC play the following season).
A look at UNC’s stats that year are somewhat staggering when contrasted to the college game now: UNC’s five starters all averaged big minutes (Jordan had the fewest of the five and he averaged 31.7 mpg!) and the bench player with the most playing time was Jim Braddock, who had just 10.6 mpg. No one else got more than 8. On top of that, all five starters shot better than 50% from the field and 67% from the line.
In the weeks leading up to the NCAA Tournament, Jimmy Black called the team together and gave a speech exhorting them to be the squad that finally finished the deal for Dean Smith. The Heels survived a first round scare against James Madison, but otherwise sailed to the Final Four, where they faced the Houston Cougars of Rob Williams, Clyde Drexler, and freshman big man Hakeem Olajuwon. The Tar Heels extinguished any drama straight away: They scored the first 14 points of the game and never relinquished the lead, winning 68-63. This set up a championship match up with John Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas.
The Hoyas were champions of the three-year old Big East and were looking to become the first national champions in conference history. Thompson’s squad were led offensively by Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, a high-scoring shooting guard who, like Worthy, was a native of Gastonia, NC and had attended Hunter Huss High, the rival of Worthy’s Ashbrook. The two teams had met in the 1977 state championship, a game won by Floyd’s side. Now they would face off in another title game of greater import. But it was on defense that the Hoyas really earned their keep. That side of the ball was led by Patrick Ewing, the freshman sensation who averaged 4.5 blocks per game.
Here’s the full game, though I highly recommend syncing the audio to Woody Durham’s call below.
Thompson, an old friend of Dean who had been his assistant on the ‘76 Olympic team, had no plans to fall victim to the same opening blitz that had leveled Houston. His instruction to Ewing before tipoff: ”Make them feel your presence, no matter what.” Ewing did that on offense, nailing a terrific fall away jumper from behind the backboard for his first points of the game. Defensively, however, Ewing took it a bit too far: He blocked everything that UNC threw at the hoop, resulting in four consecutive goaltends. In fact, UNC didn’t score a true bucket of their own until 8 minutes into the ballgame, but it didn’t matter: In that time, Ewing had goaltended five times, gifting the Tar Heels ten free points. But it had been worth it: Unlike in the semifinal, everyone on UNC was out of sync offensively.
Everyone, that is, except James Worthy. The junior All-American took over for UNC, attacking the basket without regard for the intimidating presence of Ewing. The legend of “Big Game James,” which is largely associated with his Laker career, was born that night in New Orleans. At one point, Worthy scored 12-straight points on a series of smooth jumpers, both face ups and turnarounds, to keep Carolina afloat. Meanwhile, his Gastonia neighbor Sleepy Floyd was doing damage for Georgetown, scoring 8-straight points of his own. The first half ended 32-31, Georgetown. 18 of UNC’s 31 had come from Worthy.
The second half was another back and forth battle, neither team able to build a lead of more than five. Ewing, mainly thought of as a defensive player at that point, was pummeling UNC offensively as well. Floyd and Eric Smith triggered a Georgetown mini-run to grab a 47-43 lead with 12:51 left, but Perkins answered with a jumper, then Worthy went supersonic: In the first half he had showed off his shooting touch, in the second half it was all dunks, one of which was a transition throw down that landed on the face of his high school rival Floyd. But Georgetown wouldn’t bend in the face of Worthy’s onslaught: Smith and Ed Spriggs made baskets to keep the Hoyas in the lead.
Besides Worthy, Jordan was playing terrific basketball as well: The freshman was active on the glass, pulling down nine rebounds to lead Carolina and made several tough shots through the swarming Georgetown defense, helping to finally put that Tar Heels ahead. None of them were tougher than his gliding layup over Ewing with 3:26 left to give Carolina a 61-58 lead. To avoid having it blocked, Jordan put it high off the backboard and dropped it through.
Ewing answered with a short jumper that hung on the rim for an age before falling in with 2:37 left. 61-60 UNC. With the ball back in their hands and a one-point lead, UNC turned to their old (dreaded) friend: The Four Corners. UNC began to stall, inching ever closer to the elusive championship. Thompson wasn’t having it: He had his players press and go for the steal. Eric Smith nearly picked Matt Doherty near midcourt but got him on the arm. Doherty headed to the line to shoot a 1-and-1 with 1:19 to play.
During the season, Doherty had been a 77% free throw shooter. But he missed the front end badly. Georgetown brought it upcourt and UNC packed the lane to avoid a lob inside to Ewing. Instead, Floyd got it at the top of the key, evaded Jimmy Black, and faked Worthy out, then fired up a jumper in the lane. It fell in and Georgetown had the lead, 62-61. UNC came back and Georgetown dropped into a zone. With 32 seconds left, Dean Smith called timeout.
Then-Assistant Coach Roy Williams stared at the players as they returned to the bench, “I did not like the looks on their faces,” he remembered. Doherty in particular looked stricken, thinking he had blown it for Dean.
But Smith was unfazed: ”We’re exactly where we want to be,” he told them.
Roy was flabbergasted, “Did I look at the score wrong?” he wondered, glancing up at the board.
Then Dean elaborated, “We get to decide the game.” Then he called a play that will live in Carolina lore forever.
Knowing Georgetown would go back to their 1-3-1 zone, the play was to swing the ball around the top of the key, shifting the defense, then skip pass over the top to Jordan, who would be open on the left wing. The season had begun with Dean not allowing his brash freshman to be photographed on a magazine cover. Now that season was in the freshman’s hands. As the team broke the huddle, Dean slapped Jordan on the backside, “When it comes to you, knock it in.”
Doherty and Black kicked it back and forth, then Black fired the pass over the zone to Jordan, who didn’t hesitate: He rose up, shot it...and buried it.
”Jordan! Michael Jordan!” said Gary Bender on the CBS broadcast.
Georgetown didn’t call time to let UNC set their defense. Fred Brown raced upcourt with it, looking for Ewing at the rim. But UNC got back in transition and he pulled up, picking up his dribble. Eric Smith flashed on the wing for an outlet pass and Brown pump faked to him. Worthy bit on the fake and flew past. Brown then looked to the baseline. ”Look for Sleepy Floyd!” warned Billy Packer. But Floyd was closed off on the baseline and Jordan stepped out to block off Smith. Turning away from the coverage, Brown flipped the ball instead the man wide open on his right...Worthy.
Worthy reacted instantly, racing away upcourt towards the corner as the Georgetown bench, as one, crumpled in disbelief.
”Thrown away to Worthy! Worthy, five! The Tar Heels are going the win the National Championship!” yelled Woody Durham.
At the same time, his color commentator Jim Heavner summed it up perfectly: “Oh Dean!” After all the pain and heartbreak, Carolina’s coach had finally caught a break.
With two seconds, Worthy was intentionally fouled by Eric Smith, sending him to the line for two free throws. Carolina’s bench, coaches and all, went ballistic. On the court, Worthy leapt into Sam Perkins’ arms, Jordan and Doherty running over to join them. Jimmy Black raced to the corner and fell to his knees. In the stands, a wild celebration had begun amongst those in Tar Heel blue, while the Hoya faithful stood in disbelief; they had quite literally thrown away their chance to be champions.
Only one person held it together, and of course it was Dean Smith. Hands outstretched, cool as a cucumber, he motioned to his team to calm down. Even Billy Packer had to notice, “Look at Dean Smith: totally in control.” Carolina called time to reorganize and Dean told Worthy “Make these.”
Worthy missed the first, then John Thompson bizarrely called his fifth and final time out, essentially ending Georgetown’s chance of running a desperation play. Worthy’s second bounced off as well and Georgetown rebounded. Their last second fell far short into the hands of Perkins, who flung it over his head as time expired and the Tar Heels, champions at last, swarmed onto the court.
Dean and Thompson embraced, then Dean was mobbed by his jubilant players, a sobbing Jimmy Black in particular. ”We’re Number 1!” chanted the Carolina crowd. And, finally, they were.
Worthy was the hero of the night, finishing with a career-high 28 points on 13-17 shooting. Jordan had 16 points and 9 rebounds. Ewing had a masterful game, tallying 23 points and 11 rebounds, though the closeness of the final score would leave him ruing his early goaltends. Sleepy Floyd had 18 points, 5 assists, and 4 steals (what a night for Gastonia), and Eric Smith added 14.
The following day, The Daily Tar Heel opened with the following line: ”And on the seventh try, Dean created National Champions.”