The Tar Heels' freshman basketball players are in a class by themselves
December 17, 1990

A Dean Smith Whistle stops practice inside the Dean Smith Center, and three North Carolina seniors shuffle over and drink from paper cups arrayed on a courtside table. Smith toots his whistle again a few seconds later, and the Tar Heels' sole junior joins the trio. Soon enough, there's a whistle for the sophomores. (If you blew a whistle inside a building with your name on it, people would do exactly what you wanted them to do, too.) But only after another 20 sadistic seconds pass does Smith permit his five freshmen to slake their thirst.

If Smith, the Tar Heel coach, seems harsh toward his newcomers, it's because at North Carolina, every senior is a rajah and every freshman an untouchable. And this season, even as he welcomes a class of rookies hailed by some scouts as the best of all time, Smith is enforcing his caste system as rigorously as ever. Freshmen must run down stray balls in practice, lug equipment on road trips and take back-of-the-cabin seats on team flights. The Tar Heel newcomers—7-foot center Eric Montross, 6'10" power forward, Clifford Rozier, 6'8" small forward Pat Sullivan, 6'5" wing guard Brian Reese and 6'3" point guard Derrick Phelps—are even crammed onto a single page in the Tar Heels' media guide, while a redshirt freshman who didn't see a single minute of playing time last season got an entire page to himself. Smith can lead all manner of studhorses to Chapel Hill, but he won't let them drink until he's good and ready.

As of Sunday, the Tar Heels were 4-1, after having last week beaten Connecticut 79-64 in the ACC-Big East Challenge. North Carolina's only defeat came at the hands of South Carolina on Nov. 30 in a game in which Montross got the freshmen's first start. Phelps joined him in the starting lineup the next night against Iowa State, when the Heels romped 118-93. Afterward, NBA scouting director Marty Blake shared the notations he made during the game: "Greatest high-school recruiting class of past 10 years.... Should win national title in two years.... MUST-SEE TEAM."

Those are rare accolades coming from Blake, who can't afford to traffic in hyperbole. But then, all five Tar Heel freshmen were ranked among the top 53 high school players nationally a year ago by recruiting maven Bob Gibbons, and only Sullivan wasn't a member of last spring's 20-man McDonald's high school All-America team. Together, they give Carolina so much depth that Smith may revive the Blue Team—an end-of-the-bench bomb squad that plays as a unit for a few frenetic minutes a game—for the first time since 1981. "Apart from sheer ranking, the thing that makes this class so great is that the players are so compatible," says Gibbons. "It's almost as if the staff sat down and targeted who they wanted at point guard, at power forward, and so on." Then Gibbons goes further than Blake: "In 25 years of evaluating high school talent, I've never seen a class like this one."

Such talk makes Smith, normally the genial contrarian, absolutely obstinate. "How can you [rank players as] number such-and-such in the country?" he asks. Then he ticks off the names of the five players in the high school crop that entered college four years years ago whose rankings correspond to those of this year's Carolina freshmen. He names Terry Mills of Michigan, Memphis State's Sylvester Gray, Larry Rembert of Alabama-Birmingham, Villanova's Barry Bekkedam and Notre Dame's Keith Robinson. "If they had all gone to the same school," says Smith, "there's no way you could say that was the greatest class of all time, just as you can't say this is. Let's wait four years before we say anything."

In deference to Smith, who thinks the freshmen are getting too much attention at the expense of his senior leaders, we'll let senior leader Rick Fox introduce each of his new teammates. Rick?

"Eric, he's the quietest," says Fox. "Every time you see him he's reading a book. He'll probably get a 4.0." Montross is the kid from Lawrence North High near Indianapolis who turned down Indiana, and for this temerity he was actually booed at the McDonald's game, which was played in Indy. Hopeful but preposterous rumors still circulate in the Hoosier State that he's unhappy in Chapel Hill and will transfer. "Get a grip!" Montross says, shaking his head in disbelief. "It's time to let me get on with my life." If you ordered up a prospective center, Montross would be it—almost. His lateral movement is slightly wooden and he has limited shot-blocking skills, but all other facets of his game run from good to excellent, with his passing and shooting touch fitting into that latter category. Montross notes that nine of North Carolina's big men over the past 20 years wound up being first-round draft choices. But as Montross, the son of an attorney, talks of majoring in pre-law and reminisces about his family's journey to Kenya two summers ago—what better way to shake the hoards of recruiters?—you get the feeling that he would fare just fine in life without an NBA career.

"Clifford's the most, uh...confident," says Fox, who joined the other Tar Heel veterans in voting to give Rozier the chore of carrying the team's video equipment, an honor accorded the cockiest newcomer. Where Montross's game is all methodical strength and power, Rozier's is contrapuntal quickness and mobility. There's a reason for that: Only four years ago he was a 6-foot guard and he didn't lose any of his all-court dexterity as he grew during his career at Southeast High in Bradenton, Fla. Notwithstanding the opinion of his teammates—they call him Curious George, for his somewhat befuddled facial expressions—Rozier isn't so out of it that he would dare go behind his back before throwing down a breakaway dunk during a 104-61 defeat of Jacksonville on Nov. 27. "I couldn't work up the nerve," he says, fully cognizant of Smith's strictures on such showboating.

"Derrick's the most lyrical," Fox says. "He's always singing some verse." Phelps is a classic point guard, lefthanded, with a big-city bounce to his game. "He's the master of the simple pass," says New York City-based talent scout Tom Konchalski. "He has active hands and an appetite for defense. He's the perfect point guard for this class, because he'll be content to get the ball to Montross and Rozier—to be a piano carrier rather than a piano player." Phelps learned that role at Christ the King High in Queens, N.Y., where he kept seven other future Division I players happy—among them, prominent freshmen Khalid Reeves of Arizona and Jamal Faulkner of Arizona State. "Derrick can handle the ball in the subway at rush hour and still not lose it," says Christ the King coach Bob Oliva.

"Pat, he's the gamester," says Fox. "Always wants to play—video games, anything—and always wants to win." Sullivan, a post player at Bogota (N.J.) High, promises to be the next stage in the evolution of Matt Doherty, the epoxy of Smith's 1982 NCAA title team. He's the early team leader in charges taken, screens set and errant passes run down in practice. (Yes, they keep track of such things at North Carolina.) Teammates call him Self, not because he won't give the ball up—on the contrary; what little praise Smith lets slip about the freshmen has to do with Sullivan's passing ability—but because he keeps to himself. "If genius is 99% perspiration, this guy's real name is Albert Einstein," says Konchalski. "Three times a week he'd go to St. Anthony [High, in gritty Jersey City] to work out and supplement his meager diet of suburbia. A lot of people told him not to go to Carolina. They said he'd never play there. But Dean Smith knows the more you have the Montrosses and Roziers and Reeses, the more you need the Pat Sullivans. He's the perfect blend player."

And Reese?

"Brian, he's the quietest," says Fox.

But you said Montross was the quietest.

"I'll have to take that back. I completely forgot about Brian, he's so quiet."

Reese, from St. Nicholas of Tolentine High in the Bronx, has the kind of self-effacement that comes with being the youngest of 10 children. It's his curse to be playing a position that was defined by Michael Jordan, yet his 42-inch vertical leap and knack for the pull-up jumper equip him to do a fair impersonation of the master. "I call him the Human Grasshopper," says Konchalski. "Most players spend themselves with their first step. Brian has a tremendous second step." Reese had been at first intrigued at the prospect of attending Georgia Tech, where he could launch jumpers from the wing and convert alley-oop passes from Kenny Anderson. But then he made his visit to North Carolina and came away impressed by the puritanical and cooperative spirit prevailing at practice. Meanwhile, Phelps was confiding in him his choice of the Tar Heels, and Reese knew that a Phelps alley-oop would be every bit as dunkable as one from Anderson. An hour after Phelps announced his choice, Reese did too.

It's worth noting that Smith's class of '94 eerily resembles the group that won for him his only NCAA title, in 1982. Think of Phelps as metro New Yorker Jimmy Black, Sullivan as suburban New Yorker Doherty, Reese as the avian Jordan, and Montross and Rozier as Sam Perkins and James Worthy, respectively, the unusually complementary post tandem.

Lurking behind North Carolina's epic haul is something of a soap opera. The Tar Heels had long possessed one of the most stable coaching staffs in the game until, in the space of two years beginning in 1986, preeminent recruiters Eddie Fogler and Roy Williams left to take head coaching jobs elsewhere. Meanwhile the hellion duo of center/forward J.R. Reid and swingman Steve Bucknall—they were involved in an incident at a Raleigh nightclub three years ago, and never fully lived it down—wasn't the greatest advertisement for the program.

Compounding their problems, in 1988-89 the Tar Heels, with the 6'9" Reid and 6'10" Scott Williams already on the roster, made an early commitment to a 6'9" recruit from Elizabeth City, N.C., named Kenny Williams. Williams subsequently failed to qualify academically and ended up at Barton County (Kans.) Community College. He now plays for the Indiana Pacers. The signing of Williams seemed to scare off such big men as Christian Laettner, who wound up at Duke; Michigan State's Matt Steigenga; and Adam Keefe, who chose Stanford. Carolina was also a bridesmaid during the '80s for the affections of such stars as Danny Manning, Danny Ferry, Billy Owens, Bobby Hurley and Anderson. All but Owens have taken their teams to at least one Final Four, a place Carolina hasn't been since That Championship Season. Anderson even made a notorious remark about not wanting to be "just another horse in Dean Smith's stable."

To any other school these would be the usual vicissitudes. But to UNC, the college game's IBM, this was turmoil, events that stripped away some of the aura of a program that, legend had it, could call recruits collect. To compensate, the North Carolina coaches worked so hard that they could have given each other the famous Tar Heel tired signal—the raised fist that flagging players direct toward Smith when they want to come out of a game. As Phil Ford, the former North Carolina point guard who replaced Williams, grew into the chief recruiter's job, Smith himself hit the road as never before. "He realized he had to," says Konchalski. "He saw Phelps play and practice more times than he saw Ford and James Worthy when they were in high school. He's not as omnipresent as [Georgia Tech's] Bobby Cremins. But that makes it special when he does show up. It's like God coming down from Mount Olympus."

Gibbons thinks Smith's earlier recruiting setbacks actually made this year's coup possible. "It was a first-class program with immediate opportunities to play at every position," he says.

Nitpickers point out that Reese, given his quicksilver baseline game, will probably wind up at small forward, and that Sullivan, who doctors say may have two more inches of growth in him, could easily become a power forward. Therefore, they say, North Carolina's ostensibly perfect class is really one shooting guard short. The Tar Heels have already signed their rejoinder: Donald Williams, a 6'3" three-point artist at Garner (N.C.) High who is on track to become the state's alltime leading scorer. He's the best player in the state and, according to Gibbons, a national top-10 recruit.

All of this leads naturally to the question of whether this is the group with which Smith will retire. He'll turn 60 in February, and by averaging 25 wins a season between now and 1994, he would surpass his old college coach, Kansas's Phog Allen, for second place, behind Adolph Rupp, on the Division I victory list. At week's end Smith had 692 to Allen's 770. The '94 Final Four will be in Charlotte. And if he were to step down that year, he would have time to gear up for a run at Jesse Helms's U.S. Senate seat in '96. It's a flyer some people close to Smith, who is far from the ultraconservative Helms on such issues as civil rights, wish he would take, even as Smith dismisses it by pointing out that campaigning would involve the two things he likes least about coaching—attending receptions and giving speeches. "Every year I judge how excited I am about basketball around October 15," he says. "I've always been ready. The day that I'm not is the day I retire."

Perhaps this fall Smith was excited—secretly, of course—by his freshmen. And maybe he recalled that it was a freshman, name of Jordan, who sank a late jump shot to win that NCAA title for him. Or does the Carolina caste system not allow delighting in that moment?

"No, no," Smith protests. "I'll take that. We have no pecking order when it comes to performance. If you deserve to play, you play."

Then: "But of course, you know, if Michael had missed that shot, Sam [Perkins] was right there for the rebound."

But, of course. Perkins, you know, was a sophomore.

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERBRIAN REESE: Also known as the Human Grasshopper, Reese has a 42-inch vertical leap and a sweet pull-up jumper. PHOTO[See caption above.] PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERERIC MONTROSS: The latest Tar Heel big man, Montross is a deft shooter and passer for one so tall.
PHOTO[See caption above.] PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERCLIFFORD ROZIER: Once a 6-foot guard, Rozier is now a quick, mobile—and cocky—6'10" power forward. PHOTO[See caption above.] PHOTOBRUCE SCHWARTZMANPAT SULLIVAN: Taker of charges, setter of screens and victim of floor burns, Sullivan figures to be the "glue" of the group. PHOTO[See caption above.] PHOTOJIM GUNDDERRICK PHELPS: A consummate playmaker, Phelps is content "to be a piano carrier rather than a piano player." PHOTO[See caption above.] PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERSmith is quick to point out that highly touted freshmen often flop.

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