The North Carolina Tar Heels and the Maryland Terrapins had been scurrying recklessly up and down the floor of Cole Field House in College Park, Md. last Thursday night, and with 8½ minutes left, what they had to show for it was a 52-52 tie. So the Tar Heels' point guard, Kenny Smith, college basketball's foremost disc jockey and rapmeister, got this irritated look on his face and, while dribbling, thrust one finger into the air. This one's going out to Sam. Then he whipped the ball to Steve Hale on the wing, who bent down and shuffled it into Sam Perkins in the low post. Perkins wheeled on the Terps' Ben Coleman, threw in a four-foot bank shot and drew a foul. The three-point play put the Tar Heels up to stay. Final score: 74-62.
Two days later in a Carolina game with Wake Forest at Greensboro, N.C., the Deacons' Delaney Rudd had just canned a jumper, pulling Wake to within 58-57. Smith came upcourt with two fingers held up—but thought Wake's 1-3-1 zone, with 6'7" safetyman Mark Cline down low, looked soft. "Cline wasn't really playing Sam," Smith said later. "So we made a little eye contact." It's so nice, we'll play it twice. Smith arced a lob pass over the Wake zone, Perkins made short shrift of the business end, and Carolina never looked back, winning 70-62.
The Tar Heels' two road wins within 48 hours over their top Atlantic Coast Conference challengers and downstairs neighbors in the SI Top 20 left them 12-0. After Kentucky's 19-point loss to Auburn, Carolina is now everybody's No. 1, and—Perkins and Carolina's other superstar, Michael Jordan, notwithstanding—Smith, the team's more-music, less-talk freshman, is a very big reason for it.
Tar Heel coach Dean Smith, who isn't given to extolling freshmen, prefers to emphasize the improvement of 6'11" Brad Daugherty, his sophomore center. And while Jordan, the junior swingman, has turned in several ghastly shooting games, his coach says, "Michael is playing the best of his career. He's just not shooting the best." Indeed, next to saying "Delaney Rudd," watching Jordan fly is the most fun to be had in the ACC. He ended the Maryland game with a breakaway, walk-the-dog, rock-the-baby, afterthought cuff dunk at the buzzer. Asked whether he was trying to make a statement, Jordan said, "No messages," sounding like an efficient secretary.
Jordan and Daugherty have opened things up for the 6'9" Perkins, who has raised his shooting percentage nearly 10 points from last season's 52.7%. In the Maryland game he had his way with Coleman and Mark Fothergill, who both go 6'9", 220, and twice last season combined to outplay him. In each game last week, after scoring baskets that began three-point plays, Perkins pummeled the air with his fists. Heretofore it had been widely believed that the only time Perkins made a fist was when he would wipe sleepywinkers from his eyes, so languid is his playing style.
For his part, Kenny Smith has been Carolina's deejay, the man who decides which terrific talent will get air play when. With his per game average of 4.9 assists and 9.8 points and his 59% shooting, he's a welcome surprise if only because, preseason, the point was thought to be the Heels' Achilles' heel. Carolina had a fine defender in Hale, a sophomore, and a superior shooter in Buzz Peterson, a junior, but no heir apparent to Jim Braddock, who had graduated. After playing well in a Nov. 23 exhibition against the Yugoslav National Team, Smith, who had been a New York City high school phenom, learned he would be the starter just before the season opener with Missouri.
Smith probably racked his brain trying to find a way not to start a freshman at the crucial point position. In the hidebound Carolina caste system, freshmen are untouchables. They're assigned the worst seats on buses, they lug team equipment and have to retrieve any ball that goes out of bounds in practice. Each fall, upperclassmen elect the cockiest newcomer to perform the most odious tasks. Smith, who presumed to supply the team music with his gleaming chrome portable sound box, easily beat out classmates Dave Popson and Joe Wolf.
As a senior at Archbishop Molloy High in Queens, Smith spent a lot of time as Special K, a deejay who performed original raps with seven buddies in a group called Super Sound, which hired itself out to parties. He also spent a lot of time being watched by Virginia assistant coach Jim Larranaga, a Molloy grad who was crestfallen when Carolina swooped in late to steal his quarry. "At Virginia they were saying they'd contend in two or three years," says Kenny. "Here I could see it for all four years. If that's the goal of everybody in America, why wait two years?"
Said Larranaga, "He's making a mistake." Virginia coach Terry Holland said, "I don't think Dean knows exactly what he's getting."
Dean does now. Since freshmen became eligible for varsity play in 1972-73, only five Tar Heels have started their first game as rookies: Phil Ford, Mike O'Koren, James Worthy, Jordan and now Smith. But Smith is the first freshman to call Carolina's complex offensive and defensive signals—there are some 25 permutations in all—from jump street. Even Ford, the former national Player of the Year who quarterbacked the 1976 gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team, spent his first season deferring to senior Brad Hoffman. Says Art Chansky, the Carolina hoops maven who runs the Four Corners Restaurant in Chapel Hill, "Smith is way ahead of Ford at this point. Phil didn't get into playing defense until late in his sophomore year."
But the 18-year-old Smith, who's 6'3", 170, isn't just a precocious defender. He's outrageously fast. His nom de disque may be Special K, but his basketball handle is The Jet. With seven slams already this season, he's the first dunking floor leader Carolina has ever had. "It's uncanny how he makes the right decision on the break," says Dean Smith. And he can stop and pop so adeptly that he's been described as a "1½" guard—a hybrid of the classic "1" (point) and "2" (shooting) backcourt types. Smith's shot looks odd—it's released from in front of his forehead with the elbow out, a form he developed while reaching the national finals of the Pepsi-Cola/NBA Hotshot competition as a 5'7", 115-pound 13-year-old who wasn't strong enough to reach the basket any other way.
But the test of his mettle is how he has taken to the Four Corners, the Tar Heels' notorious spread delay offense. "You're a soloist in the team concept," he says. "It's a little playgroundish. And every New York City kid likes to play one-on-one." Against Wake Forest Saturday, with Carolina in the Four Corners to protect a 62-59 lead with two minutes left. Smith wriggled down the lane and dished to Daugherty, who drew a two-shot foul, making one. When Wake's John Toms answered with a banked follow, pulling the Deacs to 63-61, Smith singlehandedly broke the defensive pressure and continued down the lane—this time ignoring Daugherty—for a layup. "I knew [Deacon center Anthony] Teachey would play Brad," he said later, "because the last time I'd gone to Brad." There ain't a problem that I can't fix, 'cause I can do it in the mix.
"Pretty good move for a freshman," a reporter told senior Matt Doherty.
"He's not a freshman," Doherty replied.
Kenny Smith still carries the team film projector on road trips—"It's a good 15 or 20 pounds," he says. But there may be a slight crack in the caste system. Popson carries Kenny's box.
Fluent on court and off, Smith is never boxed in.