Know this about what it's like to play against the Tar Heels of coach Dean Smith and the University of North Carolina: Eventually you run out of time. Eventually you run out of timeouts. Eventually the passing of the years delivers Smith a brace of players so perfectly meant to play with one another—and for him—that they bring to glorious life all the precepts and rules and dicta of the Carolina way.
To secure his second NCAA title, with a 77-71 win over Michigan in New Orleans on Monday night, Smith—Dean, Dean the Witch Doctor Mean—dipped into his trusty gris-gris bag, just as he did in the same Louisiana Super-dome in 1982, when Fred Brown of Georgetown inexplicably threw a pass to the Tar Heels' James Worthy and thus cast a long-tongued kid named Michael Jordan in his now familiar role as hero. Once more, nothing rational, no philosophy, no scheme, no system, to use the word Smith so disdains but won't ever escape, can fully account for the strange doings in a title game involving Carolina on the Bayou.
In the final seconds, with the Tar Heels up two threadbare points and Michigan holding the ball, the Wolverines' splendid sophomore Chris Webber incurred a technical foul by calling a timeout his team didn't have (box, page 28). As the Tar Heels celebrate their third NCAA crown, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, Donald Williams—like Mike, a native North Carolinian and a shooter of wondrous skill—and his teammates should use "laissez les jump shots rouler" as their partying cry and give a nod of thanks to the mambo kings and queens of black magic. The Superdome court may have been manufactured in Michigan, but Monday night's baskets, through which Williams seemed to toss the ball at will, were made in North Carolina.
You can hear Smith now, in his contrarian twang: Donald needs to work on his passing and defense. He's a shooter, just a small part of the team. And Smith is right; was this not his most exquisitely assembled team? Its foundation came to Chapel Hill three autumns ago as the class of '94, the ballyhooed group of players—center Eric Montross, point guard Derrick Phelps, small forward Brian Reese, power forward Clifford Rozier and swingman Pat Sullivan—who were quickly forgotten when Michigan brought in its Fab Five a year later. Smith's group benefited from perfect subtraction (the malcontent Rozier transferred to Louisville after one season) and perfect addition (Williams and his crystalline jump shot arrived as Rozier left), while the perfect senior (the indomitable George Lynch) stood fast. Like spackling compound, a passer (Henrik R‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ádl) and a shot blocker (Kevin Salvadori) filled cracks and provided cohesion.
There's an optimal balance between freedom and responsibility that those who work with young people-teachers, parents and coaches alike-all strive to find. With these Tar Heels, Smith locked in on that balance and held fast to the coordinates. By late February the team's offensive decision-making ability caught up with a soundness at the defensive end that had carried it to that point. As Smith granted them more and more license, the players kept reciprocating, showing an ever keener sense of obligation. Smith would never admit it, for he flatly refuses to compare his teams, but no other had so completely bought into what he teaches.
Cynics might say that Smith, a man obsessed with minutiae, would especially savor a victory secured on a technicality. But they would miss the truth about this season's team, a group that allowed Smith to be more malleable than ever. The North Carolina coach promulgated the most recent of his rules last month, shortly after Phelps bruised his tailbone during the ACC tournament. Like any coach, Smith was tempted to hurry such an irreplaceable player back sooner than might have been prudent. Instead he vowed that no one would talk him into playing Phelps before the coach judged him ready. Certainly if a player was limping, out he would come.
So there was Phelps, seven minutes into the second half of the Tar Heels' semifinal game against Kansas, taking a hard fall and landing on his pelvis. After sitting out for 41 seconds, he came back in. Though clearly favoring his side and grimacing with every step, he carried on for more than a minute before Smith replaced him with senior Scott Cherry, a plucky reserve who, nevertheless, is essentially a glorified walk-on. No sooner had Phelps left than the Jayhawks' Adonis Jordan picked Reese clean and sailed in for a layup. Shortly thereafter Williams mishandled a pass from Cherry.
With that, Smith turned to Reese, who is Phelps's roommate. "You know him better than anybody," Smith said. "Can he play?"
"He can play," Reese replied, and one of Smith's rules met its exception. Phelps checked back in, and North Carolina celebrated his return by forcing a 45-second violation. The Jayhawks soon found themselves in tears at the Final Four for the second time in three years, after they lost 78-68.
A North Carolina box score from this season is like a passage of Hemingway: terse but eloquent and full of idiosyncrasy. Parse the final box from the Kansas game and you'll find every hallmark of these Tar Heels. The center gets the most shots (Montross took 14). The point guard (Phelps) passes off for baskets (six times) twice as often as he shoots (three). The power forward rebounds in double figures (Lynch pulled down 10). And the team's shooting guard (Williams) takes the three-point shots (he launched all seven of the Tar Heels' threes) and makes them (five found bottom).
Monday night's defeat of Michigan, on the other hand, seemed at first blush to be the work not of any sentient hand, but of dèjà voodoo. Then again, maybe it wasn't; maybe North Carolina caused Webber's gaffe. Early in the second half, in what seemed to be a meaningless incident at the time, Phelps and Lynch sandwiched the Wolverines' Jalen Rose, denying him a simple inbounds pass from teammate Juwan Howard. To avoid a five-second violation, Howard had to burn a timeout—the timeout that Webber will forever wish had been there to call at the end.
The title game lurched strangely to-and-fro, with numerous lead changes that weren't swings of one or two points, but great tidal ebbs. North Carolina by five. Michigan by 10. Then the Tar Heels back up by eight. Then, with 4:31 left, the Wolverines led by four. That's when Williams unspooled his fifth and final three-pointer (5 for 7 in the semis followed by 5 for 7 in the final; some systems analyst—sorry, Dean—must have fit him with a powder-blue silicon chip).
The upperclassmen took over from there. Phelps, after a block by Lynch, sailed in for the layup that pushed North Carolina ahead by a point. Lynch himself then knocked in a short turnaround jumper to put the Tar Heels up by three. Rose then fumbled the ball in traffic, and Williams intercepted, leading to a thunderous dunk by Montross. When Ray Jackson tossed in a jumper, Michigan called timeout, trailing 72-69. Forty-six seconds remained. In the huddle the coaches reminded the Wolverines that they had no timeouts left. "We thought we mentioned it," head coach Steve Fisher said later. "Apparently we didn't make the point specific enough."
Reese made a gift of the ball to the Wolverines by stepping over the sideline while receiving the ensuing inbounds pass, and Webber put back another errant three-pointer by Rose. Thus when Sullivan stepped to the line with 20 seconds to play, the Tar Heels led by only one point, 72-71. "This is for the national championship, baby," said Michigan's Rob Pelinka to Sullivan as he sighted the first of a one-and-one. The shot dropped through.
The second, however, kicked off to the left, where Webber picked it clean, just in front of the North Carolina bench. As the rest of the players retreated downcourt, Webber pivoted, and then clearly dragged his pivot foot before dribbling. Every last Tar Heel player, coach and team manager leaped high in protest when no whistle sounded. None could have known that Webber would soon make amends for the referees' oversight.
Phelps and Lynch dogged Webber up the sideline, and with 11 seconds remaining he covered up, bringing his hands together, perpendicular to each other and throwing the familiar glance at an official. Even before the technical was called, the Tar Heel bench erupted again, for everyone on it knew the Wolverines had already spent their last timeout and the title was now Carolina's. "Why did it happen?" Fisher would say. "How did it happen? Sometimes you get in the heat of the moment and things happen that you just say, 'It can't happen.'" As Williams knocked down both technical shots, and two more free throws after Michigan fouled on the next possession, somewhere Fred Brown must have been laughing.
The Wolverines had been lionhearts in beating Kentucky 81-78 in overtime to reach the title game. They sank their foul shots, played floor-slapping defense and scrapped back after trailing by four in the extra period. All in all, throughout this tournament, they did more than any team should be obliged to do to repudiate the poisonous lies about "underachievement" that had lately achieved the status of conventional wisdom. "It's a shame that Michigan will probably get some new label for losing this game," said Sullivan. "They came this close to winning two titles and being labeled a dynasty."
Deano, too, came to Webber's defense. "I don't think that timeout necessarily cost Michigan the game," he said. "We only had three team fouls at that point, and we were going to keep fouling them to use up the clock." As usual Smith had every angle covered, every possible trump card ready to play.
The coach can deny it all he wants, but there are certainly many constituent systems to whatever it is North Carolina does. There is an honor system: If you're dragging, you flash a clenched fist, the "tired signal," and the coach will take you out. But because you have credited the team with your honesty, the team rewards you, letting you return to the game whenever you're ready; Smith merely tells you whom to replace.
There's a buddy system, too. Each Tar Heel is paired with another. When Williams gives the tired signal, R‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ádl usually enters the lineup. When Reese flashes the sign, Sullivan fills in. When Montross wants out, Salvadori is sprinting to the scorer's table.
There is also an electrical system of sorts—or there had been. Since the three-pointer was introduced in 1986, good shooters had a green light to shoot threes, those with a less deft touch had a yellow light (they could shoot only under certain circumstances) and a few lived on Deano's own Bourbon Street, in his red-light district. " 'Red light, green light' was making me more hesitant," says Reese, who was one of several Tar Heels who went to Smith during the off-season and prevailed upon him to scrap the rule. "This year there is no light, and the team is more comfortable with its shots. Coach Smith knows that a team of juniors and seniors isn't going to try anything wild."
Do all these systems add up to some sort of supersystem? Ultimately none of this is nearly as bloodless as the word system might suggest. It has been well documented how Smith, during his fourth season as head coach, returned to Chapel Hill from a loss at Wake Forest in 1965 to find that he had been hung in effigy. In the following, decisive months—before he had taken teams to Final Fours in four different decades—he found solace in a book called Beyond Our Selves, given to him by his sister, Joan. One chapter, "The Power of Helplessness," allowed him to turn a trick of paradox: An individual could plumb his own depths for strength, so long as he recognized that there were limits to what that strength could accomplish. Hence North Carolina's pathological exaltation of the team over the individual. (Hence, too, the intermittent revelations when Tar Heels enter the NBA and we find ourselves wondering why we had never seen the full breadth of their skill in Chapel Hill.)
Today Smith practices a self-effacement so scrupulous that it calls attention to itself. He's fastidious not only about remembering people's names but at memorizing the details that go with them and then using those recollections as a shield, to deflect any attention that might hunt him down. Last week Smith was feted, along with the other Final Four coaches, at a huge NCAA gala at which he was obliged to speak under conditions—at the center of a cavernous hall, with no podium to hide behind, literally in the spotlight—that made his discomfort palpable. Sure enough Smith was soon pointing out someone at a back table, a woman who had asked him for an autograph earlier in the evening, a Margaret from Arkansas.
There also abides in Smith much of the activist spirit that helped integrate lunch counters and campaigned for a nuclear freeze—the man who, like John Stuart Mill, believes that society is perfectible. The coach takes after the public man, and thus his teams are the product of constant refinement. This season the legend of his obsession with detail grew: When Montross and Reese caught a slow elevator before the Tar Heels' opening game in the ACC tournament and wound up a minute and 20 seconds late for a team meeting, that's how much time elapsed in North Carolina's next game before Smith sent them to the scorer's table to check in. Yet for all the rigor Smith brings to the game, none of his many rules is immutable. A Brian Reese can walk into his office and change Smith's mind.
There is also a part of Smith that repudiates secularism, that still holds fast to Beyond Our Selves. One player who recognizes this is R‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ádl, who suggests that the team's interdependency is well expressed in the epistles of Paul in the New Testament, which speak of the body's many parts. "You may not be equal in talent," says R‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ádl, "but everybody is equal in the eyes of God, whether you're a good player or a bad player." The coach is a sort of minister, vested with the duty to serve his ad hoc flock. He must see that the better players play more, of course, and remind players and press alike that differences in talent are matters relevant to how we make our way in the world. But he must also see to it that three years of investment in "how we do things at North Carolina" bring one closer to a state of grace than a few months do. That's why the senior walk-on adorns the cover of the media guide while the hotshot freshman helps the managers lug equipment. That's why junior college interlopers are not welcomed. And that's why, after Saturday's victory, Smith said (as he almost always manages to say), "I thought Scott Cherry really gave us a lift tonight."
In 32 seasons the Associated Press has never once named Smith its Coach of the Year; that may be because it's altogether too worldly an award for the struggle he goes through each season. Even on the podium he couldn't stop coaching. He actually orchestrated the cutting down of the nets so that the seniors, of course, went first. Smith himself severed the last strand with a pair of gold scissors that had been engraved with UNC 1993 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS—a gift from a fan who had sent a similar pair in '82. When the players returned to the locker room, someone had already written on the chalkboard: CONGRATULATIONS! GREAT TEAM!! NO PRACTICE TOMORROW.
No wrinkle to insert. No weakness to work on. No detail to refine. How ever will Dean spend the day?