Skip to main content

Nothing Could Be Finer

Than to be with Carolina after it had at last won the big one for Dean Smith, beating Georgetown 63–62.

Oh for six. Goose eggs by the half dozen. How many times had he heard it? And there it was happening to Dean Smith once more as his North Carolina team, behind again, passed the ball around the Georgetown zone with the clock running down in Monday night’s NCAA championship game in the Louisiana Superdome,

Over a multitude of Marches, if it wasn't Alcindor, it was Mount; if it wasn't a McGuire farewell, it was an Isiah goodby. If it wasn't one thing, it was always another whenever Smith and the Tar Heels got to the Final Four. They had lost to the best college champion in history (UCLA, 1968), and they had lost to the two champions with the most defeats (Marquette, 1977; Indiana, 1981). "I think I've handled it well. I don't feel the emptiness," Smith had said on Friday.

But in sport as in life there are turnings. To everything, there is a season. Surely this time, this turn, belonged to Dean Smith. In New Orleans, The City That Care Forgot, care couldn't get this brilliant, star-crossed basketball coach.

And so Smith's turn came Monday at 9:05 p.m. CST, (Four) Corners Stall Time, as 61,612—the largest crowd ever to see a game in the Western Hemisphere—rose to give him his due. Not only his, however, because the roar that was sent up like God's own thunder honored the play and the players on both sides, such was Carolina's wondrous 63-62 victory over Georgetown.

To win, the Tar Heels had to significantly alter their strategy against the Hoyas' 7-foot monster-child, Pat Ewing. At first Carolina tried to cut the court in half and challenge the elegant giant. Eventually, they had to rely on Forward James Worthy (who made 13 of 17 field-goal attempts, had 28 points and was "the most explosive he's ever been," according to his frontcourt running mate, Sam Perkins) to rush down the floor and jam the ball through the hoop before Ewing, a human PAC-MAN, swallowed them all alive.

Still, Carolina was, as Smith put it, "the hunted," and Georgetown, quicker, ravaging, downright frightening in its full court press, was "the hunter." After a time-out with 32 seconds left when Carolina was behind for the 12th time, 62-61, Guard Jimmy Black faked a pass to Perkins down low. The Georgetown defender at the point, Sleepy Floyd, fell for the fake, so Black reversed the ball to Michael Jordan on the left side.

Jordan, as ice-bucket cool as a 6'5" freshman could be, had already contributed six baskets and nine rebounds. Now with 18 seconds to go, Jordan caught Black's pass in front of the Carolina bench. He was all alone. It was a play designed for him. He was right where he had imagined he would be on the bus ride over from the hotel, with the ball—and the game—in his hands. "I didn't see it go in," he said. "I didn't look at the ball at all. I just prayed." String music, choir.

Georgetown raced downcourt without calling a time-out. Guard Fred Brown had the ball. Floyd, the shooter, was in the corner. Eric Smith was floating backdoor. But Brown blanked out. With eight seconds left, Brown looked out of the corner of his eye, thought he saw Smith and threw a perfect pass chest-high. "But it wasn't him," said Brown later. "If I'd had a rubber band, I would've pulled it back."

It was Worthy who clutched the ball to his chest and then dribbled the other way, a phantom from Mardi Gras escaping into the Louisiana night.

Worthy was deliberately fouled at :02, and after a final Georgetown time-out, missed both free throws, proving he knows an anticlimax when he sees one. And then it was over. The closest NCAA championship game since 1959 and one of the best ever, was over.

For a moment Smith's privacy was breached. A hint of a tear appeared on a cheek. Smith refused supplications to take the final shreds of net, insisting that Black, the captain, do the honors. "I got my net," Smith said, holding a snippet. Then an admission: "Sitting on the bench, it really was just another game," he said. "But now it's not."

In the days before judgment night, Smith and Georgetown's John Thompson could have been a pair of talk-show celebrities, so effusive and benevolent were they to each other. Over the years they have become uncommonly close, regarding one another with a degree of respect and a trust that few coaches hold for another member of the profession. Smith integrated the North Carolina program—indeed, helped integrate Chapel Hill itself. Thompson became the first black coach to make the Final Four and was proud of it, but he bristled at the slightest mention of this subject: "I don't want to be the first black nothing."

When Smith was selected as coach of the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, he chose Thompson as an assistant. Smith and Thompson exchange telephone calls about the little things: sneaker deals, recruiting prospects. "When the phone rings between one and two a.m., John's wife says she knows who it is," says Smith. John Thompson III, 15, attends Smith's summer basketball camp. Once Thompson even sent his ward, Donald Washington, to play for Smith.

Thompson allowed as how coaching with Smith at the Olympics was his "most refreshing experience." He said, "I've been a Dean Smith fan all my life." Thompson said if Smith's Final Four failures represented a monkey on Smith's back, it was a "helluva monkey. Can you imagine? Seven times the man's been here. I'd like to have that monkey." Most poignantly, Thompson said that playing against Smith for the championship would be, for him, a "no-lose situation."

Smith on Thompson: "As soon as you try to describe a close friendship, it loses something [in translation]. John is both a wonderful coach and a remarkable human being. Maybe he should run for President someday."

Just as cerebral, inventive coaches like Smith and Thompson have firmly imposed their styles and wills upon college basketball—this season finally taking the game away from the players and somehow making it less fun—so did they inject mystery in New Orleans.

Where was Smith? Unbeknownst to his own team, he was cozying out in the French Quarter, at the elegant St. Louis Hotel. And where was Thompson? Why, Biloxi, Miss., of course, a 1½ hour bus ride away. It's a feat to beat retreat to the Mississippi mud.

Georgetown's Eric Smith was asked if he missed staying in New Orleans. "I don't know what I've missed," he said. "Can't you see? I ain't here."

Smith was here, there and everywhere in the Hoyas' 50-46 semifinal victory over Louisville. As advertised, this was a menacing full-court-press-me, full-court-press-you defensive struggle. Good shots were hard to come by; in fact, with Ewing glaring down at one end and the veteran Cardinals, four of whom had started on the 1980 NCAA champs, flying and flapping at the other, any shot was hard to come by.

In the other semifinal. Worthy appeared to have reached all the way across Orleans Parish and up to the farthest row of the Superdome for a sledgehammer of a slam early in the Tar Heels' 68-63 TKO of Houston. The crowd had barely settled in when North Carolina took a two-touchdown lead, 14-0. Moments later Worthy spun around one Cougar at half court, flashed past another at the circle, took off from the foul line and didn't parachute to earth until he had drilled the ball through the floor. Dr. J, move over for Dr. James.

Though Houston rallied from that facial to make a game of it—31-29 Carolina at the half—the Coogs could never recover from the 0-for-8 shooting of star Guard Rob Williams. "I never went scoreless, even in my backyard," Williams said afterward.

And so it was on to the finals. "Everybody says Coach chokes in the Final Four, but we're finished with that song," Black said. "I'm tired of hearing it and I've only been here four years, so I know he's tired of it."

On Monday night before the game, Smith said he was as loose as he'd ever been. As the kindly Georgetown rooting section hollered, "Choke, Dean, choke," he even bantered with some journalists, showing them a depleted cigarette pack. "Fewer [smokes] today than for the Duke game," he said.

Shortly, it was Ewing who appeared on fire. The first four Carolina baskets weren't really hoops at all but goaltending violations by Ewing, who was hurtling about the place as if on a pogo stick. Talk about a Sultan of Swat. Eight minutes elapsed before the Tar Heels watched the ball go through the basket. After Smith saw fit to take the handcuffs off Worthy, the 6'9" junior pulled his team from a 14-10 deficit to a 22-22 tie all by himself.

By the time Georgetown established a 32-31 halftime lead on a preposterous fast break slam by Ewing, it was clear to all that this game was special. Thompson had even canceled his I Love Lucy attitude toward Smith by bellowing at the officials, "What're you telling me to sit down for? Don't let him [Smith] run the damn game."

The Hoyas maintained an edge until midway in the second half, when Floyd got cute with a scoop layup off another break. The basket would have given Georgetown a six-point lead, 49-43, and put Carolina on the run. As it was, Perkins hit from the side and Worthy scored three of the next four Heel baskets simply by swoop-jamming over Floyd, Ewing and—the Hoyas having suddenly wised up—nobody at all. During this span Carolina also stiffened on defense, Ewing got his third and fourth fouls, and five free throws gave the Tar Heels a 59-56 lead with 5:32 left. Now Smith could flash his spread-offense signals.

Jordan made a rainbow of a layup for a 61-58 Tar Heel margin, and the Hoyas had to get the ball to Ewing and Floyd. They did both; Ewing, who finished with 23 points and 11 rebounds, scored on a turnaround and Floyd coaxed in a jumper from the lane for a 62-61 Hoya lead. That set the stage for Jordan's final shot and Worthy's defensive magic.

Smith was as classy in victory as he'd ever been in defeat. "I was outcoached tonight," he said. "And I don't think I'm a better coach now because we've won a national. We're the same coach."

We? Smith always shares the spoils. One for seven and back to Chapel Hill. Home, James.