By the time the Tar Heels rolled into New Orleans for the 1982 Final Four, plenty of pundits wondered whether UNC would win another NCAA championship. Coach Dean Smith bore the brunt of the criticism, becoming a victim of his own success to such a degree that he was saddled with the following reputation: "good coach, but he can't win the big game." Smith's teams had won plenty of big games over the years, of course, but his critics pointed to a fact that they believed trumped his accomplishments: Smith had failed to lead UNC to an NCAA championship, despite six Final Four appearances in a 15-year span.
The 1982 Final Four—celebrating its its 30th anniversary as the 2012 Final Four is also held in the Crescent City—changed everything. It marked the year in which college basketball's biggest stage became supersized. It featured a collection of talent more impressive than any Final Four had seen before or has seen since. It produced one of the most famous shots in the history of the sport, launching the career of basketball's all-time best player in the process. It helped put a roof on the house that Dean built. And, most important to everyone in UNC's program not named Dean Smith, it yielded Smith's elusive first NCAA championship.
"My feeling was of relief because I thought Coach Smith had been unfairly labeled as a coach who couldn't win the big one," said UNC coach Roy Williams, who was an assistant coach under Smith in 1982. "I had tears rolling down my face. It was not joy; it was just relief that we'd shut those people up who were saying those kind of things."
Smith left his own athletics director speechless leading up to the Tar Heels' triumph. Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford, who served as UNC's AD from 1980-97, recalls that Smith wasn't totally pleased with the Tar Heels' proposed accommodations in New Orleans. So Smith decided to set up his team at a location away from the hotel where UNC's fans were staying. That was no great surprise, for Smith often did that at postseason tournaments throughout his career. It was the new spot that he picked—a hotel in the middle of the French Quarter—that stunned Swofford.
"I'll never forget how shocked I was when he told me," Swofford said. "I was like, ‘What?! Where?!' It was so out of character for him because he usually liked the team to be secluded and away from things, so to speak, and not so much in the middle of the hullabaloo that goes on with that type of event.
"I almost started laughing when he said that to me because I thought he was kidding, and then I realized he wasn't."
Distractions were going to be plentiful at the Final Four—and not just from the festive atmosphere enveloping Bourbon Street. The championship game at the Louisiana Superdome took place in front of a crowd of 61,612, almost double the previous record of 31,765 set at the Houston Astrodome in 1971. Playing in front of 40,000-plus people has become commonplace for Final Four teams today—every Final Four since 1997 has been contested in a domed stadium—but it was new in 1982.
Along with the bigger crowd came questions concerning the arena that provided seats to all of those people. Considering the vast, empty space behind the backboards, media members wondered whether players would lose their depth perception and struggle to make shots from the perimeter.
If the Tar Heels felt bothered by their surroundings, they didn't show it. UNC, the No. 1 seed from the East Region, registered a 68-63 victory over Midwest No. 6 seed Houston on semifinal Saturday. Sam Perkins led the way with 25 points and 10 rebounds, making nine of 11 field-goal attempts. Freshman Michael Jordan and added 18 points, and James Worthy had 14 points.
The Tar Heels raced to a 14-0 lead, but Houston tied the game at 29 before going into halftime down 31-29. UNC started the second half the same way it began the first—hot—and extended its lead to 46-37 after two buckets by Jordan and a layup by Worthy. The Cougars cut the lead to 54-51 with five minutes remaining, but they never got closer as the Tar Heels made 8-of-9 free throws down the stretch.
West No. 1 seed Georgetown defeated Mideast No. 3 seed Louisville 50-46 in the other semifinal to set up a title clash between coaching titans Smith and John Thompson, who were close friends. And Williams almost missed it.
Williams, 31 years old at the time, had developed a superstition late in the season of keeping a candy bar in his pocket during games. When he couldn't find one in the Superdome before the title tilt, he walked across the street to get his fix.
"I came back to the door and the person, the guard who was there, changed. They weren't going to let me come back in," Williams said. "My biggest memory is how doggone scared I am. I'm helping coach a team in the national championship game, and I'm not even going to get into the freaking arena."
Fortunately for Williams, he talked his way back inside to see one of the greatest title games in tournament history. Jordan hit the shot everyone remembers—a jumper from the left wing with 17 seconds remaining—to lift the Tar Heels to a 63-62 victory. Worthy, who scored 28 points on 13-of-17 shooting en route to earning Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors, came up with the game-clinching steal after Georgetown guard Fred Brown mistakenly threw the ball to him in the closing seconds.
In many ways, the game provided a glimpse of greatness to come. Worthy took his "Big Game James" persona to the NBA, where he helped the Los Angeles Lakers win three championships. The game-winning shot propelled Jordan to a career in which he won six NBA titles and developed a reputation as the best player in basketball history. Had Jordan missed that shot against Georgetown, there's no telling how his evolution from basketball player Mike Jordan to international superstar Michael Jordan might have changed.
"I'm very blessed for what that shot did, and my name did change from Mike to Michael," Jordan told The Associated Press in 2007. "To sit back and think ‘What if…?' is a scary thought. There are a lot of other options. I could be pumping gas back in Wilmington, N.C."
Instead, Jordan was the unlikely hero of what can be called the greatest Final Four in history. The three games—1982 was the first year since 1945 that the semifinal losers didn't play an additional game for third place—were decided by a total of 10 points. That's tied for the smallest combined victory margin at a Final Four. UNC's win over Georgetown is one of just six championship games in the history of the NCAA tournament decided by a single point.
To say that time has been kind to the 1982 Final Four is an understatement. No one knew it then, of course, but the four teams that gathered at the Superdome that weekend were loaded with legendary talent. The four teams combined to produce 12 players who became first-round NBA draft choices, including nine top-15 picks, six top-five selections and three overall No. 1 picks. Players from the 1982 Final Four went on to earn 55 NBA All-Star selections, more than from any other Final Four, and combined for more points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots in the NBA than any other Final Four. In most of those categories, second place is not even close.
Five players from the 1982 Final Four have been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, also more than from any other Final Four: Jordan and Worthy from UNC, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem (known as Akeem in 1982) Olajuwon from Houston and Patrick Ewing from Georgetown. All five of those players were named among the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. The quintet totaled 122,586 points, 54 All-Star selections, 18 appearances on the All-NBA first team, 12 NBA titles and nine NBA Finals MVP awards in the pro ranks. It was a staggering collection of talent.
"[TV analyst] Billy Packer and I had a conversation about that maybe a year later or at another NCAA tournament," said Woody Durham, radio voice of the Tar Heels from 1971-2011. "He said to me, ‘I'm not sure people know how much basketball talent was on that floor.' And it was. You think about it, and golly … "
The group of head coaches from the 1982 Final Four was almost as impressive. Smith, Thompson, Louisville's Denny Crum and Houston's Guy Lewis compiled a record of 2,742-1,067 (.720), good for the sixth-most victories of any coaching quartet in Final Four history, in 123 seasons at their respective schools. All except Lewis won a national championship, and all except Lewis are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Amazingly, each of the four men spent his entire head-coaching career at one school.
The 1982 Final Four is one of just six Final Fours in which each head coach ended up with at least three Final Four appearances to his credit. The quartet of coaches combined for 25 Final Four appearances, including 11 by Smith, and five NCAA championships.
Even the assistant coaches later enjoyed big-time achievements in college basketball. Craig Esherick took over Georgetown's program when Thompson retired in 1999, and he spent the next five seasons as the Hoyas' head coach. He was replaced in 2004 by John Thompson III, who as a 16-year-old watched from the Superdome stands while his father matched wits against Smith. Thompson III got a measure of revenge against UNC in 2007, when his Georgetown club (which included Patrick Ewing Jr.) eliminated the Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament Elite Eight.
For Louisville, assistant coach Wade Houston went on to serve five seasons as the head coach at Tennessee. His best player was his son, two-time NBA All-Star Allan Houston.
Not surprisingly, Smith's bench produced the most impressive credentials. Bill Guthridge took over at UNC after Smith retired in 1997 and went 80-28 with two Final Fours and one No. 1 final ranking in three seasons. Williams has taken teams at Kansas and North Carolina to seven Final Fours, coaching each school to a No. 1 final ranking, and has won two NCAA championships with the Tar Heels. Eddie Fogler, also a UNC assistant in 1982, reached six NCAA tournaments as a head coach and guided Vanderbilt and South Carolina to top-10 final rankings along the way.
"I think the quality of the people and the capabilities of the people, both players and staff, over time is what stands out most to me about that team," Swofford said. "And that's not surprising."
The timing of UNC's breakthrough victory couldn't have been much better for Swofford, who at the time faced the biggest challenge of his young career. He gladly accepted the job as athletics director at his alma mater in the spring of 1980, earning a promotion from his role as assistant executive vice president of UNC's Educational Foundation. Swofford's chief concern upon assuming his new role was figuring out a way to raise money for a new on-campus basketball arena.
"I immediately started lying awake at night worrying about how in the world we were going to raise that much money," Swofford said. "We needed to raise about $35 million, which doesn't sound like a lot of money in today's world with the way facilities are built. But at the time, that was a whole lot of money."
Almost on cue, Smith started delivering results that helped fund construction for the building that eventually would carry his name. The Tar Heels advanced to "only" one Final Four between 1973-1980, losing to Marquette in the 1977 championship game, but they returned to the championship game in Philadelphia in 1981. Point guard Isiah Thomas led Indiana past UNC 63-50, but the postseason run gave the Tar Heels momentum heading into the 1981-82 season.
When the Tar Heels returned to the Final Four and capped the year with the national crown, Swofford had just what he needed: positive feelings around the basketball program and happy fans and alumni who were willing to make donations.
"I don't know how you could possibly draw up a fund-raising effort to build a basketball arena at the University of North Carolina any better than that," he said. "You could never measure the positive implications of the success of the team. But without question, it was there. And that kind of performance during that two-year period of the meat of the fund-raising drive, there's no way you could put a number on it. But it had a hugely positive impact on our fund-raising efforts."
The legacy of UNC's 1982 championship remains strong today. Jordan's game-winning jumper and Brown's ill-fated pass have become lasting images of March Madness, perpetual symbols of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. But ask anyone associated with the 1981-82 Tar Heels about their most prominent memory of that Final Four, and they all begin talking about how much they wanted that championship for Smith.
Smith, of course, cared little about his personal resume. He refused to let his previous Final Four disappointments define him or become a burden. He famously remarked after the Tar Heels' victory over Georgetown, in a statement repeated often by Williams and other coaches in the years since, that he didn't feel he was a better coach after winning that game than he had been 2½ hours before.
In fact, Smith's chief concern in the aftermath of the championship had nothing to do with his reputation. Smith simply wanted to know if there was any way he could get his wife, Linnea, and children down to the court to share the moment with them. Swofford helped arrange the reunion, and Smith's night was complete.
Smith long had been a champion in the eyes of his family, players and coaching staff, but now he had a national championship to show for it.
"Because of the way he established his program and the way he ran that program and the way the players were treated when they were recruited and when they played for him and that sort of thing, I don't think it was necessary for him to win a national championship," Durham said. "But it was kind of like the cherry on top of the sundae."