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North Carolina hits jackpot - 1982
By Joe Gergen
For The Sporting News


TSN Photo
Michael Jordan
At last, big-time college basketball found a home suitable to its aspirations -- a place capable of housing the Big Ten, Big Eight, Big East and Big Sky all under one roof. In 1982, they played the Big Event in the Big Gym.

Its official title was the Superdome. But to those who spend the best years of their lives in pursuit of a bouncing ball, any building with a court and backboards at each end forever will be a gym. As it was at the Springfield YMCA, where the first baskets were nailed from the balcony of a running track, so it was at the Final Four. Only the seating capacity had changed: Zero to 61,612.

That was Jimmy Black's attitude. Black, a senior point guard from North Carolina, took his first look at the massive facility during a practice session the day before the national semifinals in New Orleans.

"It's just another gym," he said.

Still, when North Carolina and Houston stepped onto the court for the opening tip in the first game of the doubleheader, it represented a quantum leap for a sport that traced its roots to cramped sweatboxes and basement halls, complete with pillars.

In such surroundings, Tommy Heinsohn never would have had to develop his hat-trajectory jump shot, not with the ceiling 19 stories above the floor. This was a building created for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook.

It was the spectators who marked the event as a milestone in the sport. They reported to the spacious arena in record numbers even though at least a third were guaranteed a brush with vertigo.

Houston had provided America with a glimpse of the future when the Cougars scheduled a regular-season game against mighty UCLA in the Astrodome on January 20, 1968. The promise of a game between the nation's two best teams and a matchup between Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) and Elvin Hayes drew a crowd of 52,693.

Although few actually saw the Houston upset with the naked eye -- the court was far removed from most of the seats -- it remained the largest basketball gathering in the country until the Superdome shootout. The 1968 "Game of the Century" also attracted a nationwide television audience on a hastily assembled independent network.

"It changed college basketball tremendously," said Guy Lewis, the Houston coach in both instances.

From that moment, college basketball and the TV networks that supported it began thinking in bigger terms. The Superdome was the biggest thought yet, and as the decade progressed, domes played an increasingly significant role in the development of the sport.

Although Houston pioneered the concept in the Astrodome, the Cougars did not respond well to the mammoth surroundings or the challenge of North Carolina and became the first college basketball team to suffer defeat in front of 61,000 witnesses.

The Cougars battled back to forge a 29-29 tie late in the first half after North Carolina scored the game's first 14 points, but they never took the lead and the Tar Heels went on to a 68-63 victory. In the second game, Georgetown held off Louisville, 50-46.

Their victories created an intriguing matchup for the NCAA title between teams coached by the Tar Heels' Dean Smith and the Hoyas' John Thompson, who were the best of friends.

Smith and Thompson met in 1971, when Smith made a trip to Washington, D.C., to recruit a talented youngster named Donald Washington. Thompson happened to be Washington's legal guardian as well as his coach at St. Anthony's High School.

His first impression, Thompson recalled, was not enthusiastic. Smith seemed too smooth, too carefully packaged. But Washington was sold on the coach and the school and elected to enroll at Carolina.

Washington had a difficult time. He broke his foot. He experienced academic difficulties. He had emotional problems.

"He was not in a position to help the Carolina program," Thompson said.

Nevertheless, Smith was supportive. He steered Washington to the Denver Nuggets, where former Carolina player Larry Brown was coaching, and later to a European club, where he was able to make the adjustment.

As a result, what had been a nodding acquaintance between the coaches grew into an enduring friendship. Thompson, a 6-foot-l0 bear of a man who had starred at center for Providence and later served as Bill Russell's understudy with the Boston Celtics, moved up to Georgetown in March 1972, and four years later he served as Smith's assistant with the U.S. Olympic team in Montreal.

When Thompson's son was ready for a basketball camp, he sent him to Smith's. And Smith was not reluctant to call Thompson's home at any hour to discuss basketball and a hundred other topics.

The foundation on which the hardened competitors had built a friendship was strong enough to survive a clash for the national championship.

"It's not a coaches' game," said Smith, a reserve on Kansas' 1952 NCAA titlists. "It's a players' game. It's not Dean Smith versus John Thompson. If it was, he would take me inside and kill me. We played each other one-on-one at the Olympics and he beat me, 6-0."

Their teams were more evenly matched. Carolina had the better record (31-2) and the top ranking in the polls, but Georgetown (30-6) had played devastating defense in the NCAA Tournament and boasted the most intimidating player in the country in 7-foot freshman Patrick Ewing.

The Tar Heels had no one so big or strong, but they did have outstanding 6-9 threats in consensus All-America forward James Worthy and center Sam Perkins. They also had a sensational freshman of their own in guard Michael Jordan.

Add Georgetown guard Eric (Sleepy) Floyd, another consensus All-American, and the two teams would start five players eventually chosen in the first round of the NBA Draft.

It was Ewing who commanded attention at the outset of the game. The Georgetown strategy was to make Carolina hesitate pushing the ball inside, and to that end the young colossus swatted at every shot he could reach. The result was five goaltending calls in the first half.

"We wanted them to be conscious of Patrick," Thompson said.

Ewing also startled a few people with his offensive ability, and his shooting touch helped propel the Hoyas to a 32-31 halftime advantage. The teams then traded leads -- a four-point Georgetown advantage, the last with 12:06 to play, was the biggest -- through much of a glorious second half. Floyd and senior forward/guard Eric Smith supported Ewing; Jordan's jump shots complemented Worthy's stunning drives to the basket.

A 9-foot jump shot in the lane by Floyd provided Georgetown with its final lead, 62-61, with 57 seconds left. Carolina killed 25 seconds, then called a timeout to set up a play.

Though Worthy, a junior, seemed a logical choice to take the shot, Smith picked Jordan. The freshman did not hesitate when he received the pass on the left side.

"I was all kinds of nervous," Jordan said, "but I didn't have time to think about doubts. I had a feeling it was going to go in."

The jump shot, from 16 feet, dropped cleanly through the hoop and Carolina again had the lead. Fifteen seconds remained, plenty of time for Georgetown to work for the winning basket.

Fred Brown, a sophomore point guard, brought the ball upcourt for the Hoyas. He looked to the left baseline for Floyd, but the Carolina defense shifted quickly and the passing lane was closed. Brown looked toward the middle, but both Ewing and Ed Spriggs were covered.

Instinctively, he knew that left Smith open on the right wing.

"I thought I saw Smitty out of the right corner of my eye," Brown said. "My peripheral vision is pretty good. But this time it failed me. It was only a split-second, but that's all it takes to lose a game."

The player Brown thought was his teammate, Smith, turned out to be Worthy.

"I thought he'd try to lob it over me or throw it away from me," Worthy said. "I was surprised that it was right in my chest."

Worthy caught the ball with five seconds left and dribbled for the other end of the court. By the time Smith could reach and foul him, only two seconds remained. It didn't matter that Worthy missed both free throws because Georgetown only had time for a desperation shot by Floyd that was well off the mark.

Worthy led both teams in scoring with 28 points, including five forceful slam dunks, but the biggest play he made in the game was the result of being in the right place at the right time.

Thompson, ever mindful of his players' emotions, threw his arm around Brown as he came off the court.

"He told me that I had won more games for him than I had lost," Brown recalled. "He said not to worry."

Still, he could not help but relive that errant pass. It was the first question on every reporter's mind.

"I knew it was bad as soon as I let it go," Brown said. "I wanted to reach out and grab it back.

"If I had a rubber band, I would have yanked it back."

The player appeared remarkably composed. Someone asked how that was possible.

"This is part of growing up," he said. "It was a great game. I loved playing it. I just wish the score was reversed at the end."

But the score, 63-62, favored Carolina and granted Smith his first national title after six empty trips to the Final Four.

"This is one we'll always remember," said Worthy, the Final Four's outstanding player. "It was the one that made us and Dean Smith champions."

It also was a game that measured up to the building. A Big Game for the Big Gym.


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