I missed the shot.
From my precarious perch on the left armrest of the brown, vinyl three-legged couch in the common room of Old East dormitory in Chapel Hill, N.C., I saw the University of North Carolina inbound the ball with 32 seconds remaining, trailing Georgetown 62-61 in the 1982 NCAA tournament final. I saw the Tar Heels pass the ball around the perimeter for a few agonizing seconds. I saw UNC point guard Jimmy Black loop the ball crosscourt to Michael Jordan 17 feet from the basket. I saw Jordan calmly set his feet, cock his elbow, extend his tongue and then... well, then all I saw was the back of some dude's head.
Trouble was, the three-legged couch teetered approximately three rows back from the television. So as Jordan prepared to launch, everybody closest to the TV instinctively stood up and then each successive row dove on top of whomever obscured the view. Hardly any of us actually saw the shot that first made Michael Jordan famous.
Mike Jordan and I both arrived in Chapel Hill among UNC's class of 1985. Yes, he was Mike then. But Tar Heel coach Dean Smith, who preferred addressing his players by their given names, called him Michael from the start. Noting that some in the UNC program were referring to the new kid as "Mike" and others "Michael," one day during the preseason Tar Heel sports information director Rick Brewer found Jordan in the locker room and asked the freshman if he wanted to be known as Mike or Michael. Jordan replied that he really didn't care. So Brewer decided it would Michael because he believed that the four syllable option, Michael Jordan, sounded better.
In those days, Coach Smith fancied the idea of starting freshmen about as much as doing yoga in Cameron Indoor Stadium, but he couldn't resist unleashing Jordan as only the fourth Tar Heel in UNC history to start the opening game of his freshman season. Playing without the three-point shot and fitting into Smith's team-oriented attack, Jordan never scored more than 22 points in any game during that 1981-82 season. Jordan averaged a pedestrian 13 points a game, third-best on the Tar Heels, evidence for the future adage that the only person who could ever stop Michael Jordan was Dean Smith. Jordan did foreshadow his future when in the ACC tournament opener he emerged from a sickbed to score 18 points in a victory over Georgia Tech. By the time he'd scored another 18 to help the Tar Heels defeat Houston in the NCAA tournament semifinal, the stage was set for the rest of the nation to meet Michael Jordan.
I missed the shot, but I immediately knew that Jordan did not. The boys of Old East dog-piled on that March 29, 1982, but what many don't remember about that game is that Jordan's shot was not a buzzer-beater. The game wasn't over. Georgetown still had 15 seconds, one final possession with a chance to reduce Jordan's clutch jumper to a footnote. As Hoyas guard Fred Brown raced the ball up the court, Smith would later point out that it was Jordan who jumped into the primary passing lane, causing Brown to hesitate and then infamously toss the ball into the grateful hands of UNC's James Worthy. As Worthy dribbled the ball back down the court in the waning seconds, the Old East common room emptied, all of us observing Tar Heel tradition by sprinting the 100 yards to downtown Franklin Street to celebrate.
The rest of that night is, admittedly, a bit of a blur. (Fortunately, I recounted it several years later for a story in UNC's student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, where I had become a staff writer, inspired at least in part by that game in New Orleans and the sublime lead in the DTH the next morning: And on the seventh try, Dean created national champions.)
What I do remember about that evening is that stores for dozens of miles around must have sold out of light blue paint, because nearly everyone had a stash, which was dumped indiscriminately over friends and strangers in a precursor to the Gatorade shower. I recall people wearing nothing but paint swinging from trees while cops stared in the other direction. I recall climbing on the hood of a car whose roof had already caved in under the weight of previous revelers and leading the congregation in some semi-orchestrated primal screaming. I remember I was wearing a navy blue sweatshirt, which today is threadbare, held together only by crusty blue paint and still residing somewhere in my basement.
At about 4 a.m., the party ended for me. I actually had an early class that morning, which for some reason that astounds me in hindsight, I was determined to attend. As I left Franklin Street that morning to return to Old East, I ran into a familiar face sitting on the rock wall that borders the campus. It was my roommate, Ricky. Because he is blind, Ricky, had staked out a spot just outside of the madness and he was relishing what a national championship sounds like.
I'll never forget that amidst the raucous celebration, Ricky had one simple question for me: Could you describe Jordan's shot? I tried to paint the picture for him as vividly as possible, basically sharing what has become the iconic image of Jordan from that night; tongue extended, ball on fingertips with the vast expanse of the Superdome in the background and 17 seconds frozen on the scoreboard clock. I recall admitting to Ricky that I didn't actually see the shot go in. He smiled broadly the way he sometimes did when he believed for a moment that he could actually see. Ricky told me he could see it swish.
After his junior year at UNC, M.J. left early (NBA). T.C. left late (GPA). But we both eventually graduated with the class of '86. In those days, we could never have known the level of confidence that March night had seeded for Jordan. It was still pre-Spike, pre-dunk contest, pre-his Airness, pre-Be Like Mike. Who could have imagined six NBA championships and five MVP awards for a guy drafted after Sam Bowie?
Now 31 years after the shot, Michael Jordan is still a part of UNC basketball games. A historical highlight montage is shown on the giant video screens inside the Dean Smith Center before the Tar Heel player introductions at every home game and when Jordan rises up for his fateful shot in New Orleans, some of the younger Carolina fans, many of whom are named Jordan after him, shriek with anticipation as if they are watching it live. Then during the second half of all home games, a fundraising video is featured during which a series of UNC hoops legends each states his name before proudly proclaiming, "I'm a Tar Heel."
I'm Phil Ford and I'm a Tar Heel.
I'm Tyler Hansbrough and I'm a Tar Heel.
I'm Roy Williams and, yes, I'm a Tar Heel.
Hello, I'm Dean Smith and I'm a Tar Heel.
Thanks to a star that began rising with a single shot more than three decades ago, one Tar Heel doesn't even bother stating his familiar four-syllable name.