Big is a hefty little adjective that nonetheless trips lightly off the tongue. What, after all, is really big? Is the Big Ten big? The Big Eight? The Big Apple? The Big Noise from Winnetka
It is, alas, a question that is merely academic to the sporting bloods of central North Carolina, where basketball is so big even football seems small and where the biggest thing in basketball is the Big Four—North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke and Wake Forest, those nearly contiguous universities which regard each other warily from distances that are hardly safe.
Proximity alone would necessarily stir rivalry on such proud Southern campuses, but in basketball the four have for years shared a common trait—excellence. A Big Four team has won 17 of the 19 championships in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which now also includes Maryland, Virginia, Clemson and, formerly, South Carolina. And the ACC champion has won the NCAA Eastern Regional championship eight of the last 11 years. Furthermore, it is common knowledge that Big Four games are to ordinary basketball what karate is to Indian wrestling. Take last weekend at the—what else?—Big Four basketball tournament on the supposedly neutral court at Greensboro.
The event is only in its third year, yet it has been embraced by local fanatics as hidebound tradition and, therefore, just cause for hysteria. This year's tournament had several added dimensions. Along with improving Duke and rebuilding Wake Forest under placid Carl Tacy, it would bring together—presumably in the finals—nationally ranked North Carolina and State. The Big Four is big on "eras," and the experts were saying that the Dean Smith era at North Carolina might be interrupted by a State team favored with one and possibly two superstars.
In devouring four mediocre early-season opponents, the State Wolfpack had averaged an astonishing 127 points per game. Its blossoming superstar, a shy, delicate-featured, 6'4" 18-year-old black sophomore named David Thompson, had averaged 33.8 points for his first four varsity games. He was the nation's leading scorer. Thompson, however, had been inspiring superlatives long before he had ever taken a shot for the Pack. It was reported he could jump 42 inches straight up from a standstill, a presumed record for this esoteric event. He was also a deadly shooter, an unbeatable defensive player, a deft ball handler and a jolly good fellow. What's more, he was a bona fide North Carolinian from out Shelby way. After seeing Thompson in action as a freshman, Purdue Coach Fred Schaus called him one of the 10 best basketball players in the nation, pro or college. His own coach, the effusive Norm Sloan, says: "He'll be recognized soon as one of the best who ever played the game."
For good measure, State could offer Center Tommy Burleson, a junior whose program height is listed as 7'4". It is not quite that altitudinous. When Burleson was measured officially at the U.S. Olympic Trials earlier this year he was found to be a mere 7'2�". But at heights like these why pick nits?
Against such colossi, North Carolina would defend its Big Four tournament title with a typical Dean Smith team—quick, cautious, exquisitely drilled and, above all, disciplined. Smith, who is by basketball standards something of a Renaissance man—which is to say, he has other interests, such as books and music—is a firm believer in discipline. "No person who goes with the winds," says he, "is truly free or completely happy." Whatever it is Smith believes in, it works. In 11 years at Chapel Hill his teams have won 217 games and lost only 82. His record against the others of the Big Four since 1966-67 is an overbearing 39-10. Last season the Tar Heels won five separate tournaments in compiling a 29-5 record.
On opening night of this tournament, both of these alleged powerhouses nearly came a cropper. State played abominably in barely holding off an inspired Wake Forest 88-83, and Carolina had its disciplined hands full with Duke before winning 91-86. Thompson played spottily, although he scored 29 points and electrified the crowd—not much of a feat, really—with some showy shot-blocking on defense. Burleson was in foul difficulty early and was scarcely a factor.
Still, the best would meet in the Saturday finals. Except for the partisan few, the crowd of 14,886 politely endured Duke's 80-67 victory over Wake Forest in the consolation match that night. The genuine ear-shattering shrieking began the moment the Carolina and State teams emerged from their dressing chambers.
Apparently both squads were unhinged by the din, for the first half was an op�ra bouffe of missed shots, errant passes, lost opportunities, frayed tempers and traveling violations. Two teams that together had averaged 219 points a game scored only 55 in those desultory 20 minutes. Carolina pulled itself together just long enough to gain a 29-26 lead. Tar Heel Bobby Jones, another former Olympian, scored 12, mostly by slipping past Thompson for passes under the basket. Thompson had six points, Burleson four.