George Lynch has been sneaking up on people his whole life. Actually, longer than his whole life. He sneaked up on his mother, who didn't suspect she was even going to have a baby until she was already five months pregnant. "I thought I was having a kidney problem at the time," she says, "but it was just George."
Lynch was born two months premature and weighed only three pounds. "I was really, really scared," says his mother, Francine Small. "He was so tiny, and he wasn't breathing that well." In fact, the doctor who delivered George pronounced him dead at birth, though Small wasn't told. The baby was rushed to Roanoke (Va.) Memorial Hospital, and there he remained in an incubator for more than a month. It wasn't until Small took George back to the doctor six months later for a hernia operation that she learned he wasn't supposed to have lived.
In the East Regional last weekend at New Jersey's Meadowlands arena, Lynch, now grown into a 6'8" forward, first sneaked up on, and then thoroughly overwhelmed, Arkansas and Cincinnati. The only senior in North Carolina's starting lineup, he scored 23 points and had 10 rebounds—half of them offensive—in the Tar Heels' 80-74 defeat of the Razorbacks on Friday. "Lynch got so many second-chance shots," said Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson. "Those stickbacks were the difference in the game." On Sunday, Lynch torched the Bearcats for 21 points, 14 rebounds and six steals.
His performance against Cincinnati was not unusual for him, and yet it seemed to take at least one opponent by surprise. "I'd never heard of him before," said Bearcat forward Erik Martin. "I guess I'd seen him play, but I didn't know who he was. He gets the job done real quietly."
Quiet is the way coach Dean Smith prefers it at North Carolina, where it is often difficult to identify the truly outstanding players until they appear on NBA scorecards. This season Lynch's 9.6 rebounds per game were the most by any Tar Heel since Brad Daugherty's 9.7 in 1984-85, and he became only the second player in ACC history, after Duke's Christian Laettner, to have more than 1,500 points, 1,000 rebounds, 200 assists and 200 steals in a career.
In any case, Lynch's incubation period appears to be about over. "He's not as flashy as the other guys," says Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins. "He just does the dirty work. But you don't become North Carolina's alltime steal leader and Number 2 on its career rebounding list and not be a great player."
North Carolina purposely scheduled a game with Virginia Tech this season so Lynch could play in Roanoke, where his father, George Lynch Jr., is a mail handler for the postal service. The city declared it George Lynch Day in the Tar Heel star's honor, conferred a key to the city upon him and then watched him very quietly sneak up on the Hokies for 18 points and 11 rebounds in North Carolina's 78-62 win. The city fathers probably didn't discover that Lynch had buried the key to the city between their shoulder blades until Lynch was already on the bus back to Chapel Hill.
When the Tar Heels fell behind Cincinnati by 15 points in the first half on Sunday, it was Lynch who brought them back. "We didn't panic at any time," he said afterward. "We knew we had to step it up on defense." With 2:54 left before intermission and North Carolina trailing by 11, Lynch returned from a respite on the bench and scored almost immediately, on a layup. Then he stole the ball from Bearcat forward Terry Nelson, made another layup, was fouled and sank the free throw. He stole the ball again with 38.5 seconds to go in the half, was fouled again and made both free throws to put North Carolina up by one. The Tar Heels had made up 12 points in 2:17, and seven of the points were Lynch's. North Carolina went on to win 75-68 in overtime.
For Lynch, this was no big deal. For someone who has been declared dead at birth, the rest of life is one long comeback. Can Kansas stop someone like that? Can anyone?
If the Jayhawks aren't wary, the Heels' only senior starter will sneak up on them.