Nothing could be finer these days than to be in North Carolina and inquire whether that state's mystery team will ever sign in, please. Can the Tar Heels who were ranked No. 2 in all the land and the Tar Heels who finished the regular season with only a .500 road record in their own league and the Tar Heels who were rubbed out by N.C. State and the Tar Heels who destroyed Duke—can all these be the same Tar Heels?
Uh, huh. All of this happened to the team last week, which was surprising only because the Atlantic Coast Conference usually waits until after the season to initiate a Looney Tunes scenario with its annual tournament. Undoubtedly, there will be more nonsense during that roulette-inspired travesty this week, but for sheer surprise North Carolina's most recent two games were enough.
In Raleigh on Tuesday, against a North Carolina State team they had already beaten twice by a combined total of 54 points, the Tar Heels stumbled. After 7'4" Tom Burleson fouled out for the Wolfpack, teammate Paul Coder came in to score the last seven State points in an 85-84 victory.
Back in friendly Chapel Hill on Saturday, North Carolina took on a Duke team that, following several player resignations, had sailed into respectability while resembling the crew of the good ship Caine. Avenging a midseason loss, Carolina routed the Blue Devils 93-69 in a contest whose only shock was that the whole Duke team did not quit, leaving Coach Bucky Waters wondering how Captain Queeg would have handled it.
Last week's windup gave the Tar Heels the ACC regular-season championship for the second straight year (their fifth in the last six years) and a 21-4 record. Coach Dean Smith has now won 146 games in the last six years, including, at one point, three ACC tournaments and Eastern Regional championships in a row. The school bombed out of the NCAA tournament in two of those years, however, and the brightest memory remaining is of Tar Heel fans serenading their team with the cheer, "We're Number Four."
On the way back this season, North Carolina has undergone some revolutionary alterations that have pleasantly threatened the concepts of the college game while turning the team into a veritable Clockwork Orange of an athletic machine. Indeed, from the way his players line up and cavort out there in Carmichael Auditorium, nobody seems to know whether Smith is running a track meet, a hockey match or a touch football game. The Tar Heels platoon, shadowbox, change lines, free substitute, huddle all over the place, Z-out, flare-in, hook-back, face-off, stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight. They use cross patterns, hit and run, run and jump, jump and slide, zone cover, play man-to-man, flash interesting hand and arm signals, yell numbers, cross-check, sprint around during breaks in the action, use at least 47 players and, in general, show off just about every sporting pastime there is except the sand wedge from 20 yards.
As if all this were not enough to drive opponents into stir, the Heels, as they are affectionately known, wear V-neck uniforms, bright blue shoes and terrific knee socks with numbers painted on them (you can't tell the players without their Supphose). They are led by two sore backs in backcourt, a "Ukrainian mystic" at forward, and a tall, dark stranger named McAdoo everywhere else, and they are accompanied by the shortest cheerleader on record, Miss Annis Arthur, an honest-to-goodness dwarf. As they say in Chapel Hill, it is the year of the big man and the tiny lady: they also say McAdoo can do.
All of this madness has not been restricted to native soil. During the Christmas holidays, North Carolina flew to Madrid and won the Torneo Internacional de Navidad de Baloncesto; then, five days later and 4,600 miles away, won the Sugar Bowl classic in New Orleans—a Spanish-French connection of major proportions.
Of all his successes so far, Smith's record last season may have been his best. Working under the shadow of public ridicule as the man who lost Tom McMillen in a recruiting war, he finished 26-6 and won the National Invitation Tournament in New York. "You know, it's the first time I've ever managed to end a season with a victory," he says.
This winter has been similarly prosperous, if only because Smith went out and got himself another Mac—slim and smooth Robert McAdoo, a 6'9" native of Greensboro. The junior-college transfer has fit admirably into Smith's complicated defensive patterns and is leading the team with 20 points a game, although at times he seems to be McAdoo about nothing. In three earlier defeats he looked lost at Princeton, shot one for 12 at Duke and committed a stupid foul at Maryland that gave the Terrapins the winning free throw. "I find myself sometimes thinking too much instead of just playing," he says of the stringent Carolina system. The coach has a passion for game films, from which he charts 23 different categories of player performance, leading to such locker-room howlers as, "What kind of practice today, boys—one-or two-reeler?"
Still, anyone witnessing the Tar Heels constantly saluting one another and giving teammates standing ovations at the bench can see that Smith gets through to his men. Opposing coaches marvel at the team's morale, which is obtained, in part, by the use of substitutes.
Though four starters returned from last season—the bad-backed Guards George Karl and Steve Previs, Forwards Dennis Wuycik and Bill Chamberlain—North Carolina sends out 12 men to play every game. Two of the reserves, senior Kim Huband and sophomore Bobby Jones, have started a total of 12 games while the remaining five enter each contest as a unit, often to ferocious catcalls and canine woofings on hostile courts.
"We're the tall blues," says Craig Corson, tallest of the subs. "Like in Pabst Blue Ribbon tall blues—we're always popping." The starters nod in agreement, conceding that the team that drinks together plays together.
Forwards Wuycik and Chamberlain, both 6'6", are contrasts to the core. Wuycik is the mystic, a handsome, silent type who conceals a wry sense of humor. When asked by school publicists to name his favorite film actress, Wuycik offered, "the beautiful Pasha Bird." And that is the way it went into the press brochure—"Pasha Bird," who happens to be a dog owned by Wuycik's girl friend.
Chamberlain, the most valuable player in last year's NIT and a sturdy individualist, was suspended by Smith early this year for challenging his discipline. "I've always had trouble facing authority, sacrificing my identity," says Chamberlain. "But this man was right. And I've grown."
The presence at North Carolina of black players such as Chamberlain and McAdoo has resulted in raised eyebrows only among those unaware of the liberal traditions of the university and the fact that the mayor of Chapel Hill, Howard Lee, himself is black. According to Chamberlain, the mayor "smooths the waters" while Smith, too, has earned respect by standing up for Chamberlain's right to speak during a Black Student Movement controversy.
It was one occasion when Smith's sober countenance and Kansas twang did not come in for the usual mimicry by his backcourt. When Karl, a savage competitor who calls himself a "maniac," is not busy flying onto the scorers' table or putting his head through a door, he tries to keep up with Previs' imitations of Smith. These involve alternately concealing and dragging madly on a cigarette (Smith is an almost-three-pack-a-day man who paces back and forth before games while hiding his weed from the crowd), then slurring along—"aanngh, aanngh, aanngh"—in a Smith dialect.
Previs, who has acting ambitions and bears a resemblance to North Carolina's last athlete-turned-movie star, Jack Palance, plays it perfectly. Once, during a vicious, exhausting practice, he relates, Wuycik shot a free throw, vomited right there at the line and then shot another. Coach Smith never flinched. "Aanngh, aanngh," Previs remembers him saying. "Nice, aanngh, concentration, Denny. Manager, aanngh, get a towel."
Such humor keeps the Heels loose, a condition needed if they are to overcome the unfortunate ACC legacy of failure in postseason play. Despite their lapses, old-line conference watchers believe this is the deepest and best team ever to play at North Carolina, which takes in a lot of years and the 1957 national champions.
Meanwhile, Dean Smith smokes those cigarettes, reels his game films and considers the difficulty of chasing history. The point always has been to finish the season with a victory.