It's curious how, for all their brilliance, many of the innovations of North Carolina coach Dean Smith have passed into virtual disuse, even by the Tar Heels themselves. Before dunking dervishes James Worthy, Michael Jordan and J.R. Reid came along, the signatures of Carolina basketball were the Four Corners offense, the Scramble defense, the foul line huddle and the raised-hand signal that said, "I'm tired, Coach. Give me a rest."
Yet one of Smith's hoariest contributions to the game reappeared—well, sort of—during Saturday's Tip-Off Classic in Springfield, Mass., and helped lift the Tar Heels to a 96-93 overtime upset of No. 1 Syracuse. North Carolina's salvation turned out to be a variation on the old Blue Team, that platoon of end-of-the-benchers, most of them underclassmen, who wore the cerulean singlets in practice and hustled and raised hell with the opposition for those few minutes that they were on the floor. The Blue Team hasn't existed officially since its heyday in the 1970s, and Smith, who once preferred his freshmen to serve literally as water carriers, would never have started two of them in a season opener if he didn't have to. But he did have to, mainly because sophomore Reid and junior Steve Bucknall were back in Chapel Hill, N.C., waiting to stand trial on misdemeanor assault charges. So there were freshmen Pete Chilcutt and Rick Fox nearly getting run out of the Springfield Civic Center in the first half by the Orange strongmen, Rony Seikaly and Derrick Coleman, and then finishing with 29 points and 20 rebounds between them. They missed only three shots, and it was a hoop by Chilcutt that forced the game into overtime. "I'll always take that underdog role," said Smith afterward, fairly glowing. "When we were beaten the last two years, other teams did the celebrating. We did the celebrating today."
In any other year, to do what the Tip-Off Classic did—pit Smith against Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim—would have been to match a genius with his foil. However undeservedly, Boeheim would have been seen as having that monkey on his back, while Smith would have received the ritual genuflections. But events beginning with the Orangemen's 79-75 upset of the Tar Heels in the NCAA East Regional final last March had served to reverse the two coaches' roles. Boeheim went on to lose so gallantly, 74-73 to Indiana, in the title game that he suddenly got the benefits of the doubt about his coaching ability that had been routinely withheld from him. Then last week Boeheim beat out Smith in the recruiting battle for 6'8" Billy Owens, the nation's finest high school forward. Six times this fall a top prospect narrowed his college choice to North Carolina and another place—and chose the other place.
But there were other, more intimate reasons that Smith was suffering through his most difficult time since the early 1960s, when North Carolina students, upset with some mediocre teams, hung him in effigy. In mid-October, the father of 6'10" sophomore center Scott Williams shot and killed his estranged wife and then turned the gun on himself. Smith joined Williams in Hacienda Heights, Calif., for the funeral, and while he was there, he began suffering sudden nosebleeds. Nicotine and caffeine were constricting his sinuses, said doctors, who ordered Smith to swear off coffee and cut down to eight cigarettes a day from his customary two packs.
November 30, 1987
Shortly after Smith's return from the West Coast, Reid and Bucknall ventured into a nightclub near the North Carolina State campus in Raleigh. Taunted by a group of NC State students, they left briefly and then returned to confront one of them. Exactly what transpired thereafter will be determined on Nov. 30 in Wake County Court. Reid will be tried for spitting at Paul James Doherty, a North Carolina State junior—under North Carolina law spitting on someone could be considered "offensive touching," which constitutes simple assault—and Bucknall will be tried for allegedly striking Doherty.
Smith suspended the two Bar Heels for the Tip-Off Classic, pointing out that he wasn't prejudging his players, neither of whom had been drinking. He was penalizing them merely for using bad judgment and for sullying the North Carolina program, which is the game's most image-conscious. "I want them to walk away next time," Smith said.
So the Carolina blue sky seemed to be falling as the Tar Heels prepared to play Syracuse. Said Smith's top assistant, Bill Guthridge, before the Tip-Off tipped off, "If it gets real bad, we'll watch the Nebraska-Oklahoma game."
It got real bad. Seikaly—who last summer astounded hoops guru Pete Newell with his all-around improvement at Newell's famous summer camp for big men—wheeled around and ducked under Chilcutt and Williams to score 14 points in the first half. Coleman blocked shots and rebounded, and guard Sherman Douglas had 17 points and four assists as the Orangemen took an 11-point lead into the locker room.
What the Tar Heels needed to do was some touching, offensive or otherwise. Only Fox produced in the first half, with 12 points and three offensive rebounds. He was born in the Bahamas and grew into a 6'7", 221-pound tree stump by eating dishes with names not unlike King Rice (who happens to be another North Carolina freshman and who contributed a couple of assists and defensive work that Smith called "sensational"). When scheduled starter Kevin Madden took a slow hotel elevator and was three minutes late for the bus that would carry the Tar Heels to the game, Fox replaced him at forward.
Chilcutt, by contrast, had known for several weeks that he would be in Reid's spot, but it didn't look like he had been forewarned—until the second half. Then he sank all four of his shots and got nine rebounds, including five off the offensive glass. A 6'9", 225-pound native of Eutaw, Ala., who plays with a plastic shield sewn into his jersey to protect his only kidney—he was born with just one—Chilcutt came to Chapel Hill a year ago so inexperienced against quality competition that he asked to be redshirted. This season he joined a suddenly fierce Williams in the trenches of Carolina's 21D defense, a sagging man-to-man that Smith resorted to "to try to stop Seikaly from setting an alltime record on us."
Ranzino Smith, who earned the game's most valuable player award with his 21 points, gave the Tar Heels their first second-half lead, 83-81, by converting a clinical backdoor pass from backcourt mate Jeff Lebo in the final minute of regulation. Four free throws, two each by Seikaly and Coleman, put Syracuse back up 85-83 with 10 seconds to play. Lebo took the inbounds pass and slalomed into the forecourt, pivoting smartly out of a double team to whip a one-hopper to Chilcutt astride the foul lane. Chilcutt wheeled into the paint and, drifting to his left, squeezed off a 13-footer that bounced high off the back rim, then right down and through. Overtime.
Six turnovers in the last 2½ minutes of OT—four by the Orangemen—decided the game, as did the ability of Fox, Madden and Lebo to sink five of six free throws during that stretch. Syracuse had a last chance when Chilcutt fouled Matt Roe on a rebound with six seconds left and the Orangemen down 94-91. Everyone knew Roe would try to make the first and then miss the second, in the hope that Seikaly or Coleman could steal the rebound. Roe's first swished through, and, try as he did to avoid it, he made his second.
"Now we know what weaknesses we have," said Seikaly, who was limited to three shots in the second half. Outside shooting is surely one. Only Roe shot with confidence, sinking three treys in four attempts. Said Boeheim, "We're going to see that collapsing D a lot until we prove we can shoot the ball."
Free throws are another weakness. Saturday's figures, 19 for 32, were awful, and it was just like Syracuse, which made only 65% of its foul shots last season, to connect on the one occasion that called for a clang.
If the game had been played four days earlier, it could have been billed as a joust for Owens. Would he go south to join former high school teammate Lebo, whose dad, Dave, was Owens's coach at Carlisle (Pa.) High? Or north, where brother Michael had already wowed thousands as a sophomore Syracuse running back?
On Wednesday, Owens shunned Carolina, just as the fates had before Saturday's second half. All of this thrust Boeheim into the unfamiliar role of fortunate son. His father had been an upstate New York undertaker, and Boeheim learned to assume a solemn mien in deference to the folks who came by the mortuary. Although that melancholy now seems ingrained in his personality, Boeheim was accepting Syracuse's role as a preseason consensus No. 1 with what, for him, passes for grace. "It's the year to underrate our football team and overrate our basketball team," he says. "We got beat twice by Pitt last year, and they have back more than we do. But I'm happy to be picked Number 1. It's a compliment to our program. I hope everybody's right."
With less than 1% of ESPN's schedule gone, we're already faced with some interesting questions about Syracuse and North Carolina: Can the Orange get the job done at the foul line? Can Reid win back his starting spot from the callow kid from Alabama? And can Madden or Bucknall unseat the Bahama Mama?
We know now that one question isn't worth asking: whether there beats a heart within the North Carolina program, the big, blue, ostensibly digitized and regimented IBM of college basketball. "It's just a tremendous feeling right now," said Williams after Saturday's victory. "After that heartbreaking loss last year, to beat them this year with almost all odds against us...." Of all the Tar Heels, Williams didn't have to speak of the stormy months between the two Syracuse games. But for one afternoon in basketball's birthplace, Carolina provided itself with a blissful escape. It was like going to a revival house and seeing a Dean Smith film festival.