THE DEAN IS DEAD. College Basketball has passed him by. North Carolina coach Dean Smith can't recruit anymore. Can't live off his name. Can't sell his system. Can't get today's supreme athletes to come to Chapel Hill to pass, screen and trap. Can't lure them to Carolina to execute the four corners, gather in a huddle before each free throw, jump off the bench to salute a teammate's good play, be polite or accept discipline. Can't get them and their grades into school—or control them when they do get in. And he can't beat a name team to save his Tar Heel soul.
Why, didn't North Carolina get embarrassed right there in the Dean Dome last season by Temple? Get knocked out of the 1988 NCAA tournament, absolutely humiliated, by Arizona? Get handed its gizzard just this past Thanksgiving eve by Missouri? And now that the man has up and quit his beloved cigarettes, you don't believe that, even if he isn't ready to kick the coaching bucket, Smith isn't just a teensy-weensy bit...moribund?
Well, save your Confederate butts—both kinds, gang—while you still can, because the 57-year-old, twangy-voiced, nicotine gum-smacking coach has risen once again.
During last week's inaugural Tournament of Champions in Charlotte, N.C., to which, coincidentally, all three of the Tar Heels' above-mentioned tormentors were invited, the only burials conducted were those for the visitors. While North Carolina's 6'9" bellringer, J.R. Reid, sat on the bench in his civvies, nursing a stress fracture in his left foot, and senior guard Jeff Lebo gave himself up as a decoy, a couple of mysterious no-names emerged. Rick Fox? Isn't he the lifeguard on A Different World? Kevin Madden? Doesn't he do hardware commercials? With the two of them leading the charge, the Tar Heels won the tournament going away.
December 12, 1988
Call the gala occasion Smitty's Salute: When Temple coach John Chaney congratulated Smith in a luncheon speech for forsaking the weed, the crowd gave their favorite mentor one of his countless weekend ovations (and this occurred in a state where tobacco is nearly as important as basketball, for heaven's sake). Or call it Dean's Redemption: "Vengeance was in the back of our minds," Tar Heel center Scott Williams said of the trio of defeats. Whatever tag you put on it, here was Smith starting his fourth and fifth different lineups of the young season—"We're just trying to have some fun; whoever beats me shooting free throws in practice gets to start," he said—as North Carolina, 6-1 at week's end, whipped Arizona 79-72 and plundered Missouri 76-60. All of which may have Reid wondering if he'll have to beg to get back in the lineup.
A more reasonable question is, What's going to happen to the suddenly mobile Tar Heel attack when the hulking Reid returns and takes up a considerable portion of the interior space in which Madden's baseline jump shots and Fox's turnarounds have been so effective? In Charlotte, Lebo's total of three baskets in two nights was more than offset by Madden's 30 points for the weekend. Fox's 24 against Missouri (plus the tournament MVP trophy) and the 22 rebounds in the two games by a scrawny sophomore named Peter Chilcutt, who is smack out of The Official Preppy Handbook. Chilcutt is also out of that legendary basketball hotbed, Eutaw, Ala., and if you think that's weird, please note that Fox, a 6'7" soph forward with a most unorthodox, low-slung gait, is from Nassau—not the county on Long Island but the city in the Bahamas. What in Carolina blue is going on here?
"A team thing," explained Williams, sounding like a certain president-elect.
The portents for this season were for misery among the Tar Heel faithful. It wasn't horrid enough that Reid had fractured a metatarsal bone in October, or that hated rival Duke had grabbed the spotlight of the No. 1 national ranking, or that Kenny Anderson, the New York high school prodigy whom the cognoscenti figured would be the next Tar Heel star, signed with Georgia Tech, making it two years in a row that Smith was shut out on the blue-chip recruiting circuit.
No, worst of all, college hoops' enemy No. 1, the NBA, had surfaced in the glorious new 23,500-seat Coliseum in Charlotte, and the newly hatched Hornets were leading the league in enthusiasm—not to mention attendance. The night before the tournament, the Hornets upset the Philadelphia 76ers for their—gasp!—second win in a row, and the city was aglow for the pros. "I have felt guilt and puzzlement," Carlton Tadlock, 39, told The Charlotte Observer. "Am I not a Carolina fan? But...if somebody asked me who I follow most emotionally, I'd have to say the Hornets."
Nevertheless, the city presented a show worthy of the Final Four, an event Charlotte happens to be bidding on for 1994 and 1995. The civic luncheon downtown included a multicolored balloon spectacle that put the Republican National Convention to shame, and there were many parochial entertainment options—although the visiting teams arrived at the Charlotte Motor Speedway after dark, too late to take a death-defying lap in a stock car. "We drove around the track in a bus," dead-panned Missouri coach Norm Stewart. "When these guys come to our tournament, we'll take them over to Booneville and show 'em how to cure a ham."
Stewart, 53, a tall, laconic Show Me son (from Shelbyville), is a character—he delivered his luncheon remarks wearing a woman's wig of black curls—who is known mostly for the success the Tigers achieved with the Steve Stipanovich-Jon Sundvold teams early in the decade. Missouri's 91-81 victory over Carolina in the NIT semifinals in New York over Thanksgiving was Stewart's 500th as a head coach, but like Smith, his contemporary, he labors under the tag of being a "restrictive" fellow, unwilling to let his athletes roam free.
But change is in the air everywhere. "I don't coach anymore," Stewart said last week, only partly in jest. "I've always preferred a lot of action and movement anyway. Now we just let the players play and hope maybe they'll learn something about the game that way."
Moreover, these current Tigers—bereft of last season's scoring leader. Derrick Chievous—are a conglomerate of athletes whose method of operation now resembles that of another Missouri institution, the speed-burning St. Louis Cardinals. Indeed, this Mizzou squad, says NBA scout Marty Blake, has "more talent for our purposes than any other team in the country."
Four of the Tigers' top nine players are from Detroit, where Stewart built a base after signing the lightly regarded Lynn Hardy six years ago. Another of the mainstays, senior guard Byron Irvin, a transfer from Arkansas, is at Missouri because in 1985 Eddie Sutton, then the Razorback coach, refused to take Irvin to Kentucky with him when he switched jobs. And freshman guard Anthony Peeler, from Kansas City, is at Mizzou only because he somehow knew when Larry Brown was recruiting him for Kansas that by the time Peeler would have joined the Jayhawks, Brown would be gone. Obviously, Peeler is a history buff.
Peeler is also the lefthanded gun who on Friday night bravely whirled and fired in a three-pointer to tie the Missouri-Temple game at 67-67 with a minute left in regulation time. And Irvin is the streaky dervish who, with his team trailing Temple 40-25—"Frankly, I was embarrassed," he said—scored Missouri's first 13 points of the second half. He also had 10 in the two overtimes and a career-high 33 altogether in the Tigers' 91-74 victory over Mark Macon (30 points) and the young Owls.
If the sloppily played first-night doubleheader proved nothing else, it served to show once again just how influential the steadying hand of an experienced point guard can be. Under the control of Howard Evans, now departed, Temple had averaged about nine turnovers a game during the past three years; against Missouri last week, the Owls flapped to 18. With Steve Kerr at the controls, Arizona won 35 games last season; without him the Wildcats had nobody to turn to when Sean Elliott fouled out against North Carolina with 4:45 left and the score tied 61-61. Arizona then faltered down the stretch.
Smith had focused his troops to take advantage of Elliott's penchant for no-look driving, thus providing opportunities for the Heels to draw the charge, and Elliott's fourth foul, with 13:28 left in the game, was an obvious charge. But the play that resulted in his fifth and disqualifying personal—on defense, away from the ball—didn't warrant a whistle. "You wouldn't call that in a pickup game," said Madden, the alleged victim.
As the closing seconds ticked away, Lebo joyously waved his arms in the air, a gesture at once expressing how much the victory meant and belying the Tar Heels' reputation as a crew of lobotomized automatons.
The next night North Carolina was equally emotional, breaking down a Missouri squad that had brutalized the Heels on the boards the week before in New York. But in that contest Tiger center Gary Leonard administered a vicious swinging elbow to Madden's forehead in the first two minutes of the game and knocked him out of action. That blow also knocked Smith's rhythmic substitution pattern out of whack. On Saturday night, though, Tar Heel runs of seven and nine consecutive points, plus a pair of unexpected three-pointers from Fox, helped North Carolina double Missouri's score (42-21) and effectively end matters with more than four minutes remaining in the first half.
This time the rugged, 6'5" Madden avoided elbows and simply jumped over everybody for 19 points. "I'm more comfortable posting up inside with my back to the basket, the way I did in high school," he said.
Of all the Carolina surprises, it's Madden's improvement that is most welcome to the Tar Heels, primarily because they've been awaiting it ever since Madden came to Chapel Hill from Staunton, Va., billed as "the next Michael Jordan." He was never that—will anybody be?—and poor grades, attitude and motivation thwarted him until now. Because of Reid's absence, North Carolina needed somebody—anybody—to take on some scoring responsibility; Madden, now a junior, has responded with 18.9 points per game on 61.2% shooting.
If a tournament is judged by its consolation game, this one was surely proud to have two teams that, between them, held the No. 1 ranking for a total of 12 weeks last season. Unfortunately, it was this season's Arizona club that beat this year's Temple club in a 68-50 stinker that saw All-Americas Elliott and Macon miss 19 of 31 shots.
If a team is judged by its response to adversity, however, North Carolina appears to be in good shape. With no stars on the horizon and no cigs in his pocket, Smith continues to pile up the numbers: 14 straight years in the NCAA tournament, 18 seasons of 20 or more victories, and 16 seasons of 25 or more victories—all NCAA records. And counting. While chalking up last week's tournament title, Smith moved into seventh place on the career victory list with 644, 23 away from none other than John Wooden, another coach once criticized for limiting his players' creativity.
Finishing second in recruiting is nothing new to Smith; he points out that in the past he has lost Tom McMillen, David Thompson and Ralph Sampson to other ACC schools. And he's not about to take any guff from a lost recruit. Reacting to remarks by the loquacious Anderson after the Georgia Tech-bound high schooler used the term "handcuff" in describing the North Carolina system. Smith snapped last week, "Where was Kenny Smith [the ex-Carolina playmaker] drafted by the pros? Where was Pearl Washington [ex-Syracuse freewheeler] drafted?" (The answers are sixth in 1987 and 13th in 1986, and the former has clearly outshone the latter in the NBA.) "Somebody's putting ideas into Anderson's head."
Said Tar Heel senior Steve Bucknall, "Anderson also said he didn't want to be 'just another horse in Dean Smith's stable.' It's not Coach's fault we didn't get Anderson. It's the kid's fault, his own loss, his bad luck. He's the one who'll be missing out. Anderson may be a great horse—but we're the ones with the great trainer."