There were eight seconds left in the East Regional final at the Meadowlands when North Carolina's multifaceted, multinational Rick Fox—Canadian-born, Bahamian-bred, Indiana-nurtured and Tar Heel not (yet) dead-started checking Temple's fabulous guard, Mark Macon. Macon had already netted 12 baskets (four of them treys) and 31 points, bringing Temple from 11 points back to within 75-72, calling out "good" each time he knew a shot would fall. Surely this baby was going down, too. Macon would tie the game, the Owls would dominate the overtime, and Fox would finish a distinguished college career precisely as had the eight previous classes of Tar Heel seniors: failing to reach the Final Four.
As the 6'7½" Fox, who had scored 19 points with seven rebounds, ran cheek to cheek with the 6'5" Macon and the clock ran down...seven...six...did the Tar Heel defender blot out Carolina's vicissitudes of the past? There were the disappointing defeats in this very round, to Georgia in '83, Villanova in '85 and Syracuse in '87. Five...four.... There was the revered coach, Dean Smith, losing two of his valued assistants in the past five years—one of whom, Roy Williams, had already guided his Kansas team to this year's Final Four. Three...two.... And there was the lingering aura of a program still recovering from lost battles for marquee recruits and the poisonous influence of J.R. (Rogue?) Reid.
All of this might have been a burden had not Fox been used to shouldering that kind of responsibility.
"I just wanted to stay in front of [Macon]," he said later. "I thought he was going to take another dribble before he shot. I was thinking, Man, that's a long one."
"Good," said Macon, once and for all, finally mistaken. The 25-footer was, as it turned out, not long enough.
As a result of the Heels' victory on Sunday, not only was Macon going home but so was Fox. Not to Toronto, where he was born, the son of Dianne Gerace, an Olympic athlete and former Canadian record holder in the high jump. Not to Nassau, Bahamas, where his father, Ulrick Fox, owns a lucrative ice-making business. But to Indianapolis, three hours from Warsaw, Ind., where he transferred as a high-schooler in order to develop his basketball skills.
While Macon had to wait three long seasons and, worse, take another hideous bus ride up the New Jersey Turnpike from Philadelphia to gain redemption for his sorry 6-for-29 field goal-shooting performance as a freshman in the 1988 regional final at the very same arena, the real revenge may have belonged to Fox and North Carolina. In that same '87-88 season, Temple had whipped the Tar Heels 83-66 in Chapel Hill during the regular season. Fox remembered. "We had 29 turnovers," he said.
The irony of the Tar Heels' return to the main stage for the first time since the school's Jordanian championship in '82 is that their ballyhooed freshmen contributed just one basket and one free throw against Temple. Oh, Eric Montross, the 7-foot freshman center, did score a career-high 17 points in the team's 93-67 laugher over Eastern Michigan in the regional semis, but when push came to shove and Montross was smacked by an opponent in that game, it was good old Ulrich (Fox spells his name with an h, unlike his father's k) who stepped in to restore order.
The oldest of four children, Fox's initial basketball experience came on the cracked asphalt of a small private Christian academy in East Nassau. Back then he was more concerned with the Faith Temple Church of God (Pentacostal). He was, says his mother, "a sweet kid who always was the wise man or shepherd in the plays." By chance, Fox saw the last five minutes of the 1982 NCAA championship game on a big-screen television while attending a convention with his dad at Paradise Island. Immediately, he was hooked. Not just on playing basketball. On playing basketball for the winning school in that game—North Carolina.
When a touring team from tiny Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind., came through Nassau and invited Fox to a summer camp in Hoosierland, he jumped at the chance. There, he met Gene Gossman, a Grace graduate and math teacher at Warsaw High School. One thing led to another, and Rick came to live with the Gossmans in Warsaw, where he played two seasons for coach Al Rhodes. What, the coach asked him, were Fox's goals? "I want to play at North Carolina, then the NBA," said Fox.
Sure enough, Fox developed quickly, and when he blocked a shot by Lloyd Daniels, the infamous New York City playground star, at a summer all-star camp in 1985, Smith happened to be sitting in the stands.
Fox would continue to be a big-game guy.
•Freshman year: With the Tar Heels playing shorthanded against No. 1 Syracuse, Fox became one of only eight freshmen under Smith to start in a season opener; he finished with 15 points, his season high, and seven rebounds as the Tar Heels won 96-93 in overtime.
•Sophomore year: When Smith suspended Reid for one game because of a curfew violation, Fox, a part-time starter, stepped in and scored 18 points in a come-from-behind win over UCLA in the second round of the NCAAs.
•Junior year: Against No. 1 Oklahoma in another second-round NCAA contest, Fox, now a full-fledged starter, scored 23 points, including a desperation trey with 55 seconds left and an off-balance, driving bank shot that won it at the buzzer.
Moreover, no Tar Heel since the days of Jordan and Sam Perkins has enthralled the children in Chapel Hill like Fox, who makes appearances at everything from birthday parties at the Putt-Putt course to his landlord's seder, where he arrived in a yarmulke, posing as the prophet Elijah.
Following the victory on Sunday, Smith could scarcely conceal his joy. He has always regarded his current senior triumvirate—much-maligned point guard King Rice, the stocky spitfire from Binghamton, N.Y., and center Pete Chilcutt, an unequivocal preppy from Tuscaloosa Academy in Eutaw, Ala., round it out—as particularly special, even after they posed for the North Carolina basketball brochure furtively giving the "V" salute recognized as a sign supporting victory over apartheid.
And even before they carried him, triumphantly, to his eighth Final Four.