CHAPEL HILL — With 15 seconds left on March 29, 1982, North Carolina freshman Michael Jordan buried a 16-foot shot against Georgetown at the Louisiana Superdome, earning the Tar Heels their second NCAA championship -- and the athletic guard his first significant dose of national stardom.
In the 27 years since, Jordan has become a cultural icon who transcends sports, winning six NBA title rings and earning a place in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where he will be inducted this weekend.
Yet had more-heralded teammates James Worthy or Sam Perkins been open against the Hoyas' 1-3-1 zone in New Orleans, Jordan probably never would have been passed the ball, much less attempted that shot. It's an early example of how the "team" mentality at North Carolina -- in this case, making the correct fundamental play to get the ball to the open man -- ultimately helped shape his individual game while teaching him what it takes to become a champion.
"That comment that stupid people make, that Dean Smith is the only one who could keep him under 20 points a game, every time somebody would say something like that to Michael, he would always say, 'The foundation I was given at North Carolina allowed me to expand and do so many other things,'" said UNC head coach Roy Williams, an assistant coach when Jordan played at UNC from 1981 to 1984.
"He did play for a team-driven coach and a team-driven team, but what it did was allow him to become so fundamentally strong that he could do anything, once you add that God-given gift and athleticism that he had."
Athletic but raw
When Jordan arrived in Chapel Hill in 1981, his athleticism was apparent, but his game needed work. He was a solid defensive basketball player, but his jumper looked more like a line drive than a rainbow, and he was much better with his right hand than his left.
"He was a good player -- but no one could have possibly known how good he would be," said Bill Guthridge, a former UNC assistant who recruited Jordan.
What was evident was his passion to improve. Williams remembers first meeting Jordan the summer before his senior year at Wilmington's Laney High, when he attended UNC's summer basketball camp. Counselors were instructed to bring 30 kids at a time, for 30 minutes, from Granville Towers (a spiffy private dorm on Franklin Street) to Carmichael Auditorium.
Williams was so impressed by Jordan that he asked him to stay another session before sending him back to his room. Two sessions later, Williams looked around and saw Jordan playing again.
"He got back to Granville, and decided to walk back over, and it was something like 90-something degrees," Williams recalled. "He loved to play."
And like in high school and little league, he hated to lose.
When practice began the fall of his freshman year, Buzz Peterson -- a fellow McDonald's All-American who had beaten him out the previous season for state player of the year -- finished ahead of him again, this time in a 60-yard dash.
"And that was the last time Buzz ever beat him," Guthridge recalled. "Later on, the next year, he left Buzz in the dust."
That competitive spirit -- even against the guy who was his college roommate and became one of his best friends -- spurred Jordan to diversify his offense and hone his defense.
"It's hard for people to remember, but he really didn't have that great of a jump shot at the time," Perkins said in the book, "Jimmy Black's Tales from the Tar Heels." "But Coach Gut [Guthridge] had Michael working on things. He would work on his weaknesses until they became a strength. And even then he was uncanny around the basket -- he had a knack for scoring there."
Teammates still think his left-handed layup over Patrick Ewing late in the 1982 championship game was more amazing than his winner, "because back in November, at the beginning of the year, I don't think he could have done that," Peterson said.
But as a rare freshman starter at Carolina on a veteran team, Jordan had to improve to keep up. Worthy, a forward, was the team's star and leading scorer. Perkins, a center, was the team's best rebounder. Matt Doherty was the "little things" guy -- setting screens and diving for loose balls. And Black, the point guard, was perhaps the most underappreciated of them all, as the key distributor and coach on the court.
Smith's philosophy was that the whole of the group was greater than the sum of its parts, that no one was more important than another. To this day, he doesn't like to rank his players -- even Jordan, who benefited because he had to earn every minute, point, rebound and steal.
"Learning how to play within a team, that's what makes you better," said Fred Lynch, the athletic director at Laney High who was an assistant coach on Jordan's high school teams. "Yeah, he could have gone to N.C. State, and he probably would have averaged 30 [points] a game. But I don't think he would have been as good of a ballplayer.
"I'm not knocking their coaches; that's just the way it was at the time. You look back at the David Thompson era, they really didn't run a set offense -- they'd give Thompson the ball, get out of the way, and let him do his thing. But at Carolina, you worked in a system, the system taught you how to play. And if you didn't work in the system, you didn't play.
"Mike, he wanted to play."
Urge to be great
What would have happened if Jordan had missed, or not attempted, the shot against Georgetown in the championship game?
"He would have made another like it the next year," Williams insists. "He was just destined to do something special, and it was going to come, and when it came, he was going to use it to take him to another level."
More than anything, Peterson said, that 16-foot swish ratcheted up Jordan's confidence; during the 1981-82 season, the Tar Heels won three games by two or fewer points, but that was the first time he had been responsible for a winner in the closing minutes of a college contest.
As a result, his game kept improving over his next two college seasons, as he grew another inch (eventually to 6 feet 6) and packed on 20 pounds of muscle.
Jordan's shooting percentage increased only a couple of points from his freshman to junior years -- from 53.4 to 55.1 -- but he added more jump shots to his around-the-hoop arsenal, became the team's leading scorer his final two seasons, and was chosen the national player of the year as a junior. Meanwhile, his defensive improvements were tangible. One example: his game-saving swat against Maryland's Charles Driesell in 1982-83, which secured the Tar Heels' 72-71 victory. Another: his late-game steal and dunk later that season that capped a double-digit rally to beat Virginia 64-63.
By the time he left for the NBA in 1984, he was averaging roughly one more block and one more rebound per game, compared to his freshman year.
Jordan was never hesitant to take, and make, a winner. Not after that March evening in 1982, when Worthy and Perkins were zoned in by Hoyas, but he was not.
"The fact that his teammates were so good is one of the reasons Michael was probably open on that last shot," Guthridge said. "They thought we'd go to Perkins or Worthy, but of course he was open and made the shot, which was one of a million shots he made to win games over the years, in college and in pros."
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