THE 1982 NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP GAME WAS THE first to be staged in a
domed stadium, and if it was a sad night for purists who objected to
basketball being played in a football arena, the record crowd of
61,612 seemed well entertained, judging by the noise that
reverberated through the cavernous Louisiana Superdome, in New
Orleans, as North Carolina and Georgetown engaged in a battle of
superior quality and gripping drama. The cast of characters on that
historic night of March 29 included a coach with a monkey on his back
and another with a barrier to break; a Tar Heel freshman who was to
emerge as the most exciting player in the sport's history and a Hoya
freshman who was to become a shot-blocking legend; and a Georgetown
sophomore whose gaffe in the final seconds was unfairly to stamp him
for life and overshadow the virtuosity of the champions' play.
With 32 seconds left in the game and the Hoyas clinging to a 62-61
lead, Tar Heel coach Dean Smith called timeout to set up what he
hoped would be the game-winning play. As every nail-biting North
Carolina fan knew, the Heels were only a bobbled play away from again
turning the Final Four into final frustration for Smith; six times he
had brought a Tar Heel team to the Final Four, but never had he left
with a national championship. Before this game Georgetown fans had
taunted Smith with chants of ''Choke, Dean, choke!'' But now, in the
huddle, he concentrated only on finding a play that would work
against the Hoyas' zone defense.
The obvious choice was to work the ball inside to junior forward
James Worthy, who had put on a dunking exhibition on the way to 28
points despite the intimidating presence of Patrick Ewing,
Georgetown's 7-foot freshman center. Instead, Smith instructed the
Tar Heels to run their Two, a play designed to get freshman guard
Michael Jordan a jump shot on the wing. As the Carolina huddle broke,
Smith looked at Jordan and said, ''Knock it in, Michael.''
Smith stood tensely on the sidelines as point guard Jimmy Black
set up the play. After Worthy cut through the Hoya zone, shifting the
defense toward him, Black passed to small forward Matt Doherty near
the pivot on the right side. Doherty faked inside to draw the zone
even tighter before he gave the ball back to Black, who then found
Jordan wide open in front of the Carolina bench. Jordan took the
pass, went straight up and released. The ball spun lazily toward the
hoop, carrying with it a lot of hopes and dreams and destinies.
The photo that appeared on SI's Nov. 30, 1981, cover showed Smith,
then 50 and beginning his 21st season at Chapel Hill, diagramming a
play for four of the starters on the Carolina team that the
magazine was picking to win the 1982 NCAA championship. The players
-- Worthy, Doherty, Black and center Sam Perkins -- looked
appropriately serious. The reason the fifth starter wasn't included
was that Smith still was undecided on his shooting guard. When
practice opened, Smith was leaning toward Jimmy Braddock, a 6 ft. 2
in. junior. The other candidate was the skinny, 6 ft. 5 in. Jordan,
who didn't handle the ball well and needed serious work on his
Although the Tar Heels were the consensus preseason pick, and
although the 6 ft. 9 in. Perkins and the 6 ft. 9 in. Worthy gave
Carolina an inside game as powerful as anyone's, the nation's hoops
fans had a right to be skeptical. The previous season the Heels had
been blown out 63-50 by Indiana in the championship game in
Philadelphia. A sportswriter for the Charlotte Observer wrote that
Carolina would never get the title because Smith's system was too
rigid to allow the creativity necessary to win the Big One.
Besides, the competition looked formidable. Virginia still had 7
ft. 4 in. Ralph Sampson and was looking to make a return trip to the
Final Four. Louisville still had four starters from its 1980 national
championship team. UCLA had everyone back from a 20-7 club. And
perhaps most menacingly, Georgetown, already known for its
suffocating defense, was unveiling Ewing, who was reputed to be the
second coming of Bill Russell. As Smith would recall years later,
''We were hardly a lock to win it.''
Going into the season, Smith knew he would get scoring from the
slashing Worthy, defense from the long-armed Perkins and rebounding
from both. Black, a senior, finally had grown comfortable and
dependable as Phil Ford's successor at point guard, even though he
had been whipped badly by Indiana's Isiah Thomas in that title game
in Philly. And at small forward, Doherty, a sophomore, was a fine
passer and a good-enough shooter to knock down the 15- footer when
teams tried to stop Worthy and Perkins by packing their zone defenses
around that formidable pair. That left the shooting guard as the only
''I really didn't know if Michael could be a starter or not,''
Smith says. ''Here was an 18-year-old freshman who had never played
the backcourt in high school. But I've never seen a guy work on his
ball-handling skills the way he did. And after two weeks of practice,
I said, 'We've really got something special in Michael defensively.'
He learned very quickly.''
North Carolina's most serious deficiency was its lack of depth.
''We did take a step downward when we had to substitute,'' Smith
says. His solution, in those days before the 45-second shot clock and
the three-point field goal, was to try to get leads and then go to
the delay game he had learned from Hank Iba, the legendary coach at
Oklahoma State. ''We went way out high and created a lot of
opportunities for Worthy to drive,'' Smith says. And woe to the team
that came out of its zone to chase the Heels, because Worthy could
turn a game into what Clemson coach Bill Foster called ''a dunking
Carolina got off to a 13-0 start, winning by an average of more
than 15 points a game, before it was upset 55-48 by Wake Forest in
Chapel Hill. After three more victories, the Tar Heels were drubbed
74-58 by Virginia in Charlottesville. ''That really woke us up,''
Smith says. Indeed it did: It would be Carolina's last loss of the
season. The Tar Heels and the Cavaliers met again in the final of the
ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C., and this time North Carolina won
47-45 in a maddening game. It was a thriller until the Tar Heels, up
44-43 with 7:34 left, went into a delay and held the ball until only
28 seconds remained. Fans around the country (the game was nationally
televised) were so disgusted by all the standing around that the
NCAA's rules committee set in motion the process that led to the
adoption of the shot clock in 1985 and the three-point shot in '86.
Entering the NCAA tournament, Smith was pleased with the Tar
Heels' development and with the way his players had handled the
pressure of being No. 1 virtually all season. Each of the starters
contributed something important. Worthy led in scoring, Perkins in
rebounding and blocked shots, Black in steals and assists, Doherty in
free throw percentage (at least among starters), and Jordan in
''Michael was up and down as a freshman,'' Smith says. ''He made
dramatic improvement between his freshman and sophomore years, when
he grew an inch and a half. He was a late bloomer that way.'' Says
Doherty, now an assistant coach to Roy Williams at Kansas: ''The
three questions I get asked most often are, Is Dean Smith a good guy?
Is Michael a good guy? Did you know Michael would be that good?
Michael was good, but you still couldn't project that he'd be as good
as he is. The main thing that separates Michael from everyone else,
then as now, is his competitiveness.''
The NCAA early rounds weren't exactly a cakewalk for North
Carolina, which was seeded first in the East Regional. In Charlotte
the Tar Heels got a second- round scare from James Madison before
pulling out a 52-50 victory. Moving on to Raleigh, the Heels beat
Alabama 74-69 in the semifinals and then defeated Villanova 70-60 for
the East title. The victories were more workmanlike than spectacular,
leading to speculation that Smith, then a chain- smoker, was on the
brink of adding to the rings -- 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0 -- that his teams
had been blowing in the Final Four.
''In Raleigh some of the guys didn't want to cut down the nets
after we won,'' said Williams, then an assistant to Smith. ''The goal
was the national championship, and they didn't want to celebrate
until then. The feeling was, Let's shut up the sportswriters talking
about Coach Smith never winning the Big One. Black and Worthy were
adamant about it.''
''Everybody asks about the NCAA title,'' Smith had said before the
season. ''It's just one of many goals. I'd like to see each team win
it -- not for me, but for them.'' In his defense Smith pointed out
that it wasn't as if his Carolina teams had blown titles they should
have won. His first three trips to the Final Four came in 1967, '68
and '69, which just happened to be the three years that Lew Alcindor
played for UCLA in the NCAAs. Next case. When the Tar Heels returned
to the Final Four in '72, the Bruins were still there, this time with
a sophomore center named Bill Walton. No chance. In '77, North
Carolina did a remarkable job of getting to the title game,
considering that two of its starters, Tom LaGarde and Walter Davis,
were hampered by injuries. On the night of the final, though, nobody
could have beaten Marquette in Al McGuire's farewell appearance as
the Warriors' coach.
In the 1981 final, Worthy was called for two early fouls against
an Indiana team that had improved dramatically from the previous
December, when the Tar Heels had beaten the Hoosiers by nine in
Chapel Hill. The big difference between the finalists was at the
point where Thomas outscored Black 23-6 and fouled him out. As Tar
Heel substitute forward Chris Brust told the Raleigh News & Observer,
''I can remember sitting with Jimmy after the final game ((in '81)).
He kept talking about how we were going to get to the finals again
the next year and make sure it worked out right.''
As he prepared for Carolina's 1982 semifinal game against Houston,
Smith was impressed with the talents of Cougars Akeem Olajuwon,
Larry Micheaux and Rob Williams. ''But there was another guy I
noticed on the tape whom I hadn't heard about,'' Smith says. ''His
name was Clyde Drexler.'' Although Drexler would later join Jordan,
Olajuwon and Worthy as an NBA superstar, he was no factor in this
game. The Tar Heels jumped out to a 14-0 lead and held on for a 68-63
victory that put them in the title game against Georgetown, a 50-46
winner over Louisville in the other semifinal.
The matchup gave the media an interesting story line: While Smith
would be trying to get the monkey off his back, Georgetown coach John
Thompson would be attempting to become the first black coach to win
the national title. But Thompson resisted, snarling, ''I don't want
to be the first black nothing.'' He also chided the writers for
talking so much about Smith's 0-for-6 record. ''That's a helluva
monkey,'' Thompson said. ''Can you imagine? Seven times the man's
been here. I'd like to have that monkey.''
The 6 ft. 10 in. Thompson had played his college ball at
Providence in the early 1960s and had been good enough to serve for a
couple of years as a backup center with the Boston Celtics. He went
into coaching at the high school level and met Smith in 1971 when
Smith recruited one of Thompson's players for North Carolina. Later,
Smith recommended Thompson for the Georgetown job. Smith also picked
Thompson to be one of his assistant coaches on the 1976 U.S. Olympic
team, which won the gold in Montreal.
When the Tar Heels played Marquette for the title in 1977,
Thompson was Smith's guest at the pregame meal. That was significant,
Smith said, ''because we never have any strangers or outsiders
there.'' The two coaches remained so close that one often would call
the other at 1 or 2 a.m. to talk about a loss or discuss strategy.
And now here they were in New Orleans, each trying to deny the other
the prize he wanted so much. Still, Thompson said before the game,
''I've been a Dean Smith fan all my life. For me it's a no-lose
Even before Jordan fired his fateful jumper, North
Carolina-Georgetown was one of the best title games ever.
In the early going, the glowering Ewing established his dominance
on defense. Carolina's first four field goals came on goaltending
calls against the Hoya center. In fact, the Tar Heels didn't get a
field goal in the conventional manner until after Thompson removed
Ewing for a breather with 7:41 gone in the first half. The first
Carolina basket with Ewing on the floor came when Worthy dunked a
Jordan miss for a 20-20 tie, 6:26 before halftime. After the Heels
took a 25-24 lead, the Hoyas drew ahead again, 32-31, at the
The teams battled on even terms throughout the second half. After
Georgetown took a 62-61 lead on a double-pumping jumper by Eric
(Sleepy) Floyd with 0:57 to go, Smith let the clock tick down to 32
seconds before calling timeout.
And now here was Jordan's jumper, spinning through the stale
''It was a lovely sight,'' says Doherty, who was standing at the
foul line when the ball hit home. ''Here is a freshman taking it,
with no hesitation, and it goes cleanly through the net. It was like
he was in a gym by himself, hitting 50 in a row.''
At this point some observers felt Thompson should have called a
timeout instead of putting the ball in play. ''It's always easier to
coach from the sidelines than from the bench,'' Thompson later told
reporters. ''Had I called timeout, I don't know what defense Dean
would have set up in. We wanted to . . . get down for a shot before
North Carolina could set up.''
The plan, apparently, was to get the ball to Floyd in the corner.
But when Floyd was hidden behind a wall of Carolina defenders,
sophomore Fred Brown turned and threw the ball directly into Worthy's
chest. ''That was the first game the whole tournament where
Georgetown hadn't worn white,'' Smith says. ''I think Freddie just
forgot and threw it to the first white jersey he saw.''
''I saw him fake to his right like he was going to the wing,''
Worthy said. ''I moved into the passing lane and just stood there. I
felt very surprised by it. I thought he'd try to throw it over me
instead of hitting me in the chest.''
As Worthy clutched the ball, the hint of a grin appeared on his
bearded face. He still had the presence of mind to eat up as much
clock as possible before being fouled. When Georgetown got him, only
0:02 remained on the huge Superdome scoreboards, and the Tar Heels
fell into fits of hugging and laughing. On the sidelines, though,
Smith held up his hands and motioned for them to cool it, keep
thinking. Now that he was so close to his goal, he didn't want to
Worthy missed both foul shots, and Georgetown regained possession.
But there was too far to go and too little time. Even as Floyd's
desperation shot was on its way, Smith was running down the
sidelines toward Thompson's bear hug.
Typically, Smith didn't gloat about finally winning the Big One,
nor did he lash out at the critics who had pestered him about it all
through the years. His only reference to it was gentle. ''A great
writer from Charlotte, North Carolina, once said that it was our
system that kept us from winning the national championship,'' Smith
said. ''I thought that was the most ridiculous comment ever made. I
always wanted to be able to say that.''