By Dan McGrath
Tribune staff reporter
September 10, 2009
North Carolina was SI's pick to win the '82 NCAA tournament, and the cover jinx didn't hold -- the magazine got it right.
The cover photo suggests a missing-man formation in that it includes only four players: James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Jimmy Black and Matt Doherty, returning starters from a 29-8 Tar Heels team that lost to Indiana in the '81 title game.
Buzz Peterson was supposed to be the fifth. The slick-shooting guard from Asheville had been prep Player of the Year in Carolina in 1980-81, but an SI cover would have been a bit much given coach Dean Smith's aversion to publicizing freshmen.
Besides, anyone who had seen or heard about the Tar Heels' informal preseason scrimmages knew otherwise.
"I watched one day, and I came back and told the other coaches, 'I think I've just seen the best 6-4 player I've ever seen,' " said Roy Williams, then a Carolina assistant who took over as head coach in 2003 after a 15-year apprenticeship at Kansas.
If his fellow staffers were skeptical, it was understandable. Williams, a fourth-year assistant, had less seniority than longtime Smith aides Bill Guthridge and Eddie Fogler, and he had recruited the player he was so high on: Mike Jordan, a lesser-known 6-foot-4-inch guard from Wilmington, N.C.
"You try not to get carried away," Williams said, "but even then he had so many intangibles to go with that explosive talent. The work ethic, the toughness, the competitiveness. ... You just sensed he had a chance to be something special."
Buzz Peterson's early take: "I'm thinking I better find a new position."
But an obvious truth engendered no bitterness; the two were roommates as well as teammates and remain close.
And sure enough, 18-year-old Mike Jordan seized the starting spot with the ferocity and flair that would characterize his play for nearly two decades. He scored the first two points of the season in a 74-67 victory over Kansas, and the last two on perhaps the most storied bucket in Carolina history: an 18-foot jumper from the left wing that beat Georgetown 63-62 in the Louisiana Superdome for Dean Smith's first national championship.
Along the way there were increasingly frequent glimpses of the once-in-a-lifetime player he would become ... Michael Jordan, not Mike.
"That was Coach Smith's doing," recalled Carolina historian Rick Brewer, then the school's media relations director. "In Wilmington he was Mike, and most of our players called him Mike. Coach Smith always called him Michael. I asked him which he preferred, and he said it didn't matter. So we went with Coach Smith's choice. Rolled off the tongue a little better."
Jordan had ambition to match his talent.
"We used to kill our guys in preseason conditioning drills, really try to bury them so they'd welcome being in the gym," Williams said. "Michael and I were talking one day as they were cooling down after some strenuous running and he told me, 'I want to be the best guy who ever played here.' I said, 'Well, Michael, you've got a chance to be a great player, but you're going to have to work awfully hard.' He said, 'What do you mean? I work as hard as anyone.' And I said, 'That's just it. You're at a different level now. As hard as anyone won't get it done -- you've got to work even harder.'
"Next day he came in and it was like, 'I'm going to show you.' From that point on he tried to win every sprint, every drill, dominate every scrimmage.
"And the only thing he did better than play was talk. Whether it was basketball or pool or cards or golf later on, if he was competing, he was going to win. And he was going to tell you about it."
Peterson can attest: "He came home with me for a weekend one time and he was yappin' to my mom about beating her at cards. Probably cheated her, just to win."
As can Worthy. "I used to hide from him," he said. "Every day, no matter how hard we practiced, Mike wanted to play one-on-one. I was pretty much regarded as the best player on the team, and he wanted to test himself. 'Come on, Junior, I'm going to take you today,' and he'd have stayed out there all night until he did."
Still, the young Jordan knew his place on a talented, veteran team.
"He carried the bags, did all the freshman things, made every effort to blend in," Perkins said. "He was a confident player, but he understood that it was team first. And you couldn't deny his talent. It was pretty clear he was going to be instrumental in what we were trying to do."
That would be win a national championship, the one omission from Smith's glittering résumé. Already a coaching icon, he had never cut down the nets in six previous trips to the Final Four. The Tar Heels were 27-2, ACC regular-season and tournament champions and the top-ranked team in the country heading into the '82 NCAA tournament.
"Mike was the missing piece," Worthy said. "Coach Smith did a great job bringing him along. By tournament time he was ready to blossom."
Thirty-two seconds remained in the title game when Smith called a rare timeout after Sleepy Floyd's basket had given Georgetown a 62-61 lead. The noise from the crowd of 61,612 inside the Superdome suggested a jet engine at full power.
Worthy was a 6-9 power forward, strong and quick, a two-time All-American and national Player of the Year whom the Lakers would choose with the first pick in the 1982 NBA draft. Accordingly, the deciding play was designed for him -- he had 28 points on 13-for-17 shooting -- but Smith knew Georgetown's alley-fighter defense would prioritize denying Worthy the ball.
Perkins, a long-armed, left-handed center known as "Big Smooth," was not a bad second option, but 6-11 shot-blocker Patrick Ewing loomed over his shoulder in the low post.
"We always tried to move the ball quickly enough to find the gaps in the defense," Worthy said, "so if I was covered and Sam was covered in that set, we'd reverse it to Mike on the wing."
Where Smith knew he had a third option.
"As we were breaking the huddle," Worthy said, "Coach Smith patted Mike on the butt and said, 'Knock it down, Michael' -- he's a freshman, remember. Mike got this look in his eye and kind of smiled. He was excited, not nervous."
And he delivered, with the cold-blooded self-assurance that would define his play in dozens of game-deciding situations over the next 20 years.
A freshman, remember.
Later that evening, on Bourbon Street, Jordan and Peterson observed Carolina rooters' long-suppressed revelry. "Mike looks at me and he says, 'I guess that was a pretty big shot I made,' " Peterson recalled. "I said, 'Buddy, that was a huge shot, believe me.' "
"Knock it down, Michael" is memorialized in a spot of honor on the museum floor, along with several other big shots in Carolina history. Results notwithstanding, it might not have been MJ's signature effort.
"With about three minutes to go, Georgetown was making a real run at us -- they got a six- or seven-point lead down to one," Worthy recalled. "Mike drove on Patrick and went over him with this left-handed finger roll and scored. I don't know how he got it over him. Changed the momentum of the game."
Perkins recalled a play against Maryland in February as MJ's breakthrough moment.
"They had a pretty good team, and it was a close game, back and forth," he said. "I blocked a shot and got it to Mike, and he took off and made this windmill dunk over Ben Coleman, who was about 6-10. That's when I think people started to talk about Michael Jordan."
And after the Georgetown shot they rarely stopped.
"Every accomplishment made him more confident, and also more competitive -- he wanted more, and he never lost that hunger," Williams said. "The Georgetown shot took his confidence to another level. He came back for his sophomore year knowing he'd be a marked man, so to speak, and he wanted to prove he was up to it. ACC Player of the Year, defensive Player of the Year, national Player of the Year -- he just kept getting better."
Carolina, oddly, did not: The Tar Heels went 28-8 and lost to Georgia in the East Regional finals in Jordan's sophomore year. They took a 27-2 record and the No. 1 ranking into the '84 tournament, but Indiana stunned them in the East Regional semifinals as MJ encountered foul trouble and a poor shooting night: 13 points on 6-for-14 shooting in 26 minutes in his final college game.
"That was probably one of the best Carolina teams ever, too," Peterson recalled ruefully. "But the NCAA tournament is one and done, and if you don't have it for 40 minutes, somebody can get you. Indiana got us."
Steve Alford, an Indiana freshman, hit the Tar Heels with 27 points, but it was fellow guard Dan Dakich whom CBS analyst Billy Packer tried to immortalize, raving about his defensive work on Jordan. Dakich, who went on to a coaching career and now hosts a radio talk show in Indianapolis, enjoys reliving his 40 minutes of fame.
"Game's over, I go for Steve Alford, who was great ... hug the hero and you're on TV, right?" Dakich said. "This lady from CBS grabs Steve, and then she says they want to talk to me. I'm thinking, 'What for?'
"So Billy Packer says, 'How'd you stop Michael Jordan?' Truthfully, I didn't know I had, but if he wanted to say I did. ... Then I said something really dumb like, 'It wasn't that hard.'
"Of course, he was not yet Michael Jordan. He was really good, but he wasn't Michael Jordan. And we were Indiana. We didn't think it was an upset. We expected to win games like that."
With Smith's blessing, Jordan declared for the NBA draft after his junior year. The Bulls chose him in the first round, No. 3 overall behind Hakeem Olajuwon to Houston and Sam Bowie to Portland.
And after a star turn as the leading scorer on the gold-medal-winning '84 U.S. Olympic team, it was on to the NBA, which had never seen the likes of him.
"We didn't think about the pros much because Coach Smith kept us focused on schoolwork and trying to win the ACC," said Perkins, who went to Dallas at No. 4 in the same draft. "I thought Mike would be a good pro because the game suited his skills, but I'd be lying if I said I knew he was going to become the player he became. He just manhandled the NBA. That was all Mike."
Peterson caught a glimpse of Jordan's NBA future on a tour of Europe before their sophomore year.
"He got 34 on an Italian team that had Scott May," he said, "and the next game he went for 34 again against a team of pros from Yugoslavia. He was already a handful for the older guys, pros like Walter Davis and Al Wood, when we played in the summer. I said to Coach Williams, 'I think my roommate is going to be like Dr. J some day.' "
Williams saw an insatiable drive for betterment that was first displayed in Wilmington, in one-on-one games with older brother Larry on the Jordan back-yard court at 4647 Gordon Road.
"We thought he'd be a good NBA player, possibly an All-Star, but none of us knew he was going to be able to do what he eventually did -- I certainly did not predict it," Williams said. "But one of the reasons he became Michael Jordan is he continued to work at it.
"He was back here after his rookie year. Averaged 28 a game, won Rookie of the Year, but he was almost strictly a driver. He said, 'What do I have to do to get better?' I said, 'You need to work on your outside shot. They're going to play you to deny you the drive, so if you can knock down the outside shot when it's there, they'll have to respect that and you'll be illegal.'
"You look at the shots he made over the years, when he made them. ... I'd say he became a pretty good shooter."
Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007, the eighth Tar Heel honored. He plans to be in Springfield, Mass., when MJ becomes the ninth.
"People around here heard me talk about Tyler Hansbrough for four years," Williams said of the three-time All-American and 2008 Player of the Year who led the Tar Heels to the 2009 national championship. "His work ethic and his effort and his competitiveness ... they probably got tired of hearing me talk about it. I'm proud of Tyler and what he did, just like I'm proud of all our guys.
"But Michael, he's the gold standard for Carolina basketball."
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