The meetings began before North Carolina started the 1981-82 men’s basketball season. Jimmy Black, nicknamed “Boss” by his teammates, would invite everyone to the room he shared with fellow senior Chris Brust in Granville Towers.
They’d sit, cramped up together, and discuss different things that were on their minds related to the team. There would come a point in every session where Black would reiterate his mandate for the season: to get coach Dean Smith a national championship.
“I’ll never forget, even in the first meeting, every meeting, we would have, he would say, ‘We’ve got to win this for coach Smith,’” said Buzz Peterson, who was a freshman on the team. “’He hasn’t won it, he gets criticized for that, we’ve got to win it for coach.’”
Smith had been to six Final Fours and reached the title game three times, including in 1981, but all those appearances had ended in losses. While he certainly didn’t feel the need for validation, Black in particular felt it for him.
Carolina recognized the 40th anniversary of Smith’s first title this season during the Tar Heels’ 100-80 win over N.C. State in Chapel Hill on Jan. 29. The News & Observer caught up with Sam Perkins, Matt Doherty, Peterson and David Daly for their memories from that championship.
Plenty of motivation
Black’s leadership stood out to Peterson, who coached at five different schools, including Tennessee.
“Players hear from the coach and assistant coaches all the time, but it means more when your teammate speaks about it because you don’t want to let that teammate down,” Peterson said. “Jimmy was that leader within this team. He didn’t get a lot of credit, people focus on the guys who went to the pros. But Jimmy Black led this team and that was his motivation, win it for Coach Smith.”
Carolina’s focus wasn’t sole on winning for Smith. The Heels returned their core that experienced the heartbreak of losing to Indiana in the 1981 title game. They lost Al Wood, but added an unheralded guard from Wilmington named Mike Jordan.
It was a very different time in college basketball. There were no one-and-done players. And it was rare for a player to leave for the NBA even a year early. Of course, social media didn’t exist, so potential distractions weren’t so readily available.
“In our minds, we weren’t thinking about (the NBA), the only one who probably thought about pros was James Worthy, because he had the ability to do what he did,” said Perkins, who was a sophomore on the team. “And he was a junior and I heard hearing the word going around saying he was he might leave his junior year and he might be the No. 1 pick. That’s all we heard, rumors.”
Worthy was the best player on the team. And he delivered a not-so-subtle message, too, after the Heels defeated Villanova in the Elite Eight held in Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh.
“Everybody took turns cutting the nets down and then we said, ‘James, it’s your turn,’” Peterson recalled. “And James said, ‘No, I’m not cutting them down. I’ll wait ’til we get to New Orleans.’”
Capturing the 1982 NCAA national title began with a subtle change in his approach from coach Smith.
The previous season, when the Tar Heels lost to Indiana in the national championship, he chose to keep the team away from the heart of the city where most of the Final Four activities were being held.
But when they made it to New Orleans, he put it to a team vote. This was before the NCAA arranged all the travel accommodations for its Final Four participants.
“He tried to keep us away from all the craziness of the Final Four in Philadelphia, and as a result, we stayed out near Villanova,” said Doherty, who was a sophomore in 1982. “You didn’t feel a part of the Final Four and I remember being on the bus. It was like a long ride to the game and that kind of takes a little bit out of you.”
The players opted to
stay in New Orleans, and the team stayed at Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter, where they were exposed to a true Final Four atmosphere.
Perkins returned to New Orleans with UNC this week as an ambassador for On Location, which partnered with the NCAA to provide NCAA ticket, hospitality and travel packages to major college sporting events. Playing the Final Four in a dome is the standard today, but back then, Carolina played the first title game that was ever played in a dome.
“They said it was like a half a mile from the court to the last seat up top,” Perkins said. “And so the people were jammed and I think they had like what 65,000 (capacity)? I can’t remember, but something crazy.”
That took some getting used to for the players.
Doherty remembered there was a delay between when an official blew the whistle and the crowd reaction as if there was a disconnect because of the size of the arena. And that it felt like a mile run getting from the locker room to the court.
But what he remembered most was feeling like he lost the game for Carolina when he missed the front end of a 1-and-1 free throw attempt late with 1:11 left. His miss in a 61-60 game allowed Georgetown to take the lead on the ensuing possession. Doherty blamed the basket being off center.
“James had some pretty nasty dunks and when I was shooting the foul shots at the end of the game, the basket was off line,” Doherty said. “I had to go over probably four to six inches to line my foot up for that foul shot because I think James is powerful dunks moved the basket a little bit.”
Hubert Davis remembers
A young Hubert Davis couldn’t watch the first half that night 40 years ago. Carolina’s current head coach had a Boy Scouts meeting and his parents, wanting to teach him about commitment, wouldn’t let him skip it for the game.
Davis got to see the parts that may be the most iconic from the game: the Michael Jordan game-winning shot, Fred Brown’s errant pass, the James Worthy steal, and Dean Smith waving his hands in vain, attempting bring calm with two seconds and victory assured while the bench erupted in celebration.
Dean Smith ducked attention
Smith regularly didn’t travel with the team, according to Daly, who was a senior and co-head manager in 1982. So when he didn’t travel on the team charter returning to Chapel Hill, it didn’t raise eyebrows. But Smith was a conspicuous absence during the team celebration held in Kenan Stadium.
“There were 25,000 people at Kenan Stadium and he was not there,” Daly said. “He just deflected the accolades that came this way. And the humbleness that he showed was just amazing because he was — at that time and still is — considered one of, if not the best, coaching minds and in all of basketball.”
This story was originally published April 1, 2022 9:11 PM.