For North Carolina basketball, there have been just three dark moments. That qualifies as outrageous good fortune, considering that the Tar Heels have spent nearly 50 years as a national power; if college ball were a sports bar, Carolina would be the jowly Southern gent in the corner, hale and red-faced and a bit self-satisfied. And why not? As he'll be too happy to tell you, Tar Heels basketball compensated for a wild youth by falling ever since on the right side of sport's serious issues, be it graduation rates, integration, recruiting by the rules, or behaving with a classy--if somewhat dull--comportment. That made for a lot of mature talk about winning the Right Way or, as chancellor James Moeser called it two Aprils ago, "the Carolina standard," which could come off as insufferable superiority if not for the chirping of that aristocrat from Durham. Sometimes, you see, it actually pays to have Duke nearby.
Still, three moments. We speak now not of the usual hoops nightmare--that final, say, in 1977 when Al McGuire's Marquette shredded the Four Corners to pieces--because every program, like every country, has its Waterloo. No, these were times when the qualities Carolina basketball was supposed to represent seemed to disappear, when losing suddenly made North Carolina's fans and alumni seem as shortsighted and ravenous as the worst in college sports can be. The first came in 1961, when freewheeling coach Frank McGuire quit when recruiting violations and the hint of point-shaving placed UNC on NCAA probation. The second came in 1965, when the young man charged to keep things clean, coach Dean Smith, returned to Chapel Hill to find himself hanged in effigy. And the third came those two Aprils ago, when a player revolt ended with coach Matt Doherty fired, and the administration seemed to lose its spine, and Tar Heels basketball turned a corner that it may never see again.
Yes, North Carolina beat Illinois, 75-70, in St. Louis on April 4 to win its fourth national championship. Happy mayhem again erupted on Franklin Street. But even those who revel in Roy Williams's first title, who see in the victory a rightful return to prominence, will admit that none of the previous championship teams inspired the ambivalence that this one did, or caused the faithful as much confusion. But then, no Tar Heels champion ever compared, as Rashad McCants did early this season, playing at UNC with being in prison, or blithely took credit, as McCants did during the Final Four, for firing his coach. "Go ahead," McCants said of Doherty. "Say I ran him out of town." You heard little sentiment from the players as they bored in on the prize, less than expected about "winning a ring for Roy." Individuals like Sean May and Raymond Felton provided the unit with its heart and soul, and freshman Marvin Williams was its constant surprise. But the Tar Heels were not cuddly. Cool to the touch, in fact.
It should be said here that many observers feel Doherty's messy departure was a necessary evil, the transformative act that signaled to the world--and more important, to the talent--at large that the old school could relax some and allow players a latitude they never had under Doherty's tradition-bound tongue-lashings. The man went 8-20 his second season and lost his team the next, they'll tell you, and you can't win without players. All of which is true; never mind that it would never have happened under Smith. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and the rest of the high schoolers who jumped straight to the NBA have created a new type of ballplayer, and to get those players you've got know how to bend. Freshmen don't, as Michael Jordan once did, carry the film projector anymore. And they probably shouldn't.
"New-jack players," Jordan said with a sneer. "I mean, Matt yelled at 'em, but everybody gets yelled at. I wanted to quit my freshman year too, but that's what happens. You don't go after the coach."
Williams had been an assistant on that '82 title team, and he, too, hadn't liked the way Doherty had been bounced. When Williams took the UNC job two seasons ago, much was made of his "return home," but home was a different place. Like Smith, Williams had drawn constant criticism until he "won the big one," and that will die now. But his achievement with this team was more subtle than mere winning, and it shouldn't be underestimated. Williams walked the tightrope between Tar Heels traditionalism and a team that had overthrown it. He convinced the team's most prominent rebel--not to mention its offensive star--to shoot less and pass more, and if McCants didn't always dive for loose balls, well, that was enough.
It's too soon to say whether Williams can bring about a full restoration of a Carolina that wins the Right Way, but there's no doubt he's taken the program further faster than anyone imagined two Aprils ago. If these Tar Heels were cool, they were also more of a team than critics would admit, and by the end they began to look very familiar. May embodied the dignified fierceness of a James Worthy or Bobby Jones. Felton's game-winning steal Monday fit right in with the intensity that caused Chris Webber's 1993 timeout and Fred Brown's '82 pass and Wilt Chamberlain's bewilderment back in '57: opponents undone, Carolina championships won--at the ultimate moment--with bruising defense, intelligence and hustle. That was always the basis of "the Carolina standard," and regardless of the bitterness, no traditionalist can resist it. Through basketball, Williams and this team began a healing: Minutes before tip-off, TV cameras even captured Jordan rushing into the arena, clad from head to toe in Carolina blue. He slapped hands with one of the current players and headed to a seat behind Dean Smith.
It was a telling moment, and a signal: Family is family. The letters on the jersey still say North Carolina, and the Tar Heels are national champions. For now, that's more than enough.