Young Michael Jordan was skinny even by 1980s standards.
Elbows and knees, that was the kid from Wilmington Laney High first referred to as Mike during his freshman season at North Carolina in 1981-82.
On the Tar Heels roster that season, Jordan was listed at 6-foot-4, 175 pounds, but on the court he looked taller and leaner.
And by no means was Jordan, who turns 50 Sunday, deemed a world-beater as a freshman or even after turning pro following his junior season.
The top-rated freshman nationally in ’81-’82 was Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, the center and centerpiece player on the team that Jordan’s jumper from the left wing put away in the NCAA title game at New Orleans.
When Dean Smith signed Jordan, his future teammate and best friend, Asheville’s Buzz Peterson was generally considered the best high school player in the state.
Nationally, Ewing, forward Chris Mullin (St. John’s), Milt Wagner (Louisville) and Greg Dreiling (Kansas) were all projected to be better college and NBA players.
But at least a couple of coaches – Dean Smith, of course, and Maryland’s Lefty Driesell – sensed the ratings might be off.
When Terps recruit Adrian Branch of Hyattsville (Md.) DeMatha High was selected as the most outstanding player in the first of two 1981 McDonald’s All-Star games, Driesell was thrilled.
“But that kid Jordan is going to be a real good one,” Driesell said.
At Carolina, Jordan quickly emerged as the top freshman in the class, starting and scoring 12 points in his first game – 74-67 win in Charlotte over Kansas.
By his third game – a difficult 78-70 win over Tulsa in Chapel Hill – there was no doubt Jordan would be a star. He finished that game with 22 points, five rebounds, three assists and four steals.
In his postgame remarks, Smith hardly mentioned the 22 points immediately.
“Defensively, Michael was outstanding at times. That was encouraging,” Smith said.
But during stretches of that first season, Jordan struggled on defense. It was the one aspect of his game where Smith pushed for improvement.
In his book “The World According to Dean,” Triangle author Barry Jacobs addressed the defensive issue with a 1983 Smith quote:
“He was so weak defensively as a freshman. He was trying to do all the right things, but they weren’t habits yet. Last year, they became habits and now he has reached the next echelon.”
And that defense was probably something NBA teams underrated when Jordan slipped to third – behind No. 1 Hakeem Olajuwon (Houston Rockets) and No. 2 Sam Bowie (Portland Trail Blazers) – in the 1984 draft.
Jordan, a junior, didn’t announce his decision to leave until mid spring – a month or so after Carolina’s stinging 72-68 loss to Indiana in the NCAA East semifinals at Atlanta.
Still firmly committed to Smith, Jordan’s ultra-competitive personality had surfaced and he didn’t rule out returning for another NCAA title run until Smith advised making the jump.
With his parents and Smith sitting nearby, Jordan said a part of him still wanted to stay in Chapel Hill.
“I’m still upset about that last game in Atlanta,” he said.
By then, of course, Jordan was no longer the spidery kid who arrived on campus during the summer of 1981.
Mentally and physically, the NBA was about to get a player who would change the sport.