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The Tar Heel Tradition How It All Began The glory days of North Carolina basketball go back way beyond Montross, Michael and McGuire

April 23, 1993
April 23, 1993

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April 23, 1993

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The Tar Heel Tradition How It All Began The glory days of North Carolina basketball go back way beyond Montross, Michael and McGuire

BEFORE THERE WAS A DEAN DOME, EVEN BEFORE there was a Dean, North
Carolina not only played basketball but did so in championship style,
with rabid fans, players of the year, a national title and a Hall of
Fame coach.
If the above brings to mind Frank McGuire and his NCAA
title-winning Tar Heels of 1957, you're not going back far enough.
We're talking about victory marches led by 25-piece bands, about Mr.
Basketball and the Blind Bomber, about the White Phantoms and a Navy
lieutenant who was just passing through, all of which figured in
North Carolina basketball before McGuire's arrival in '52.
The university's first recorded basketball game was an intramural
contest in 1903 in which the College Team beat the Professional
Students 30-8. A few months later, on a North Carolina beach, the
Wright brothers made man's first powered flight.
Unlike Orville and Wilbur, however, intercollegiate basketball at
Chapel Hill did not get off to a flying start. It was not until 1911
that some stalwart students formed North Carolina's first cage team.
They longed to use the school gymnasium, but its director rebuffed
them. Not on my floor, he huffed. You'll erect baskets outdoors and
play your silly game there. And that's the way it went the first week
of practice until the university president, Francis P. Venable,
intervened and opened the gym doors.
The first Tar Heel coach was notable, though not for his knowledge
of basketball, which was nil. Nat Cartmell had come to Chapel Hill in
1909 to coach track. At the '04 and '08 Olympic Games he won two
silver medals and one bronze as a sprinter. A fast-break style
would thus have been appropriate for his basketball players, except
that this was the game's Mesozoic Era, with a heavy laced ball, which
did not lend itself to fast dribbling, snappy passing or one-handed
shooting, and a center jump after the occasional basket. Roy
McKnight, a member of that first team, later recalled, ''When two men
got the ball, they struggled for it fiercely. I've been flung across
the gym by a bigger man many a time.''
North Carolina beat Virginia Christian 42-21 in its first
intercollegiate game and trudged to four more victories before losing
its first road game, 38-16 to Wake Forest. Then it lost three of the
last five games of the 1911 season to finish 7-4. Not too many people
cared, though. ''There wasn't much enthusiasm for basketball then,''
McKnight said.
Or for a good while thereafter, as North Carolina had losing
records in three of its next four seasons against schedules heavy on
YMCA teams. Charles Doak, the coach during the 1914-15 and '15-16
seasons, occasionally had to double as an official, something Tar
Heel coaches have done from the sideline ever since.
Before the 1917-18 season Doak's successor, Howell Peacock, posted
this sign on campus: ''Oyez, oyez. All men wishing to get in the fall
tryout for basketball report to Bynum Gym Friday night. Meet our new
coach Peacock, learn to pass, dribble and shoot the goal. Earn a
place on the squad and the training table.''
Ten men answered the call. Spectators were barely more numerous,
but when Peacock's team beat Virginia for the first time, 35-24 in
February 1917, the campus took notice. Before that North Carolina had
been 0-8 against Mr. Jefferson's school. The victory was such an
extraordinary event that the student newspaper, The Tar Heel, led a
campaign to give each player a small gold basketball. ''That game
played a large part in raising the standard of basketball . . . from
a minor sport to a major sport,'' one player said later. ''When you
beat Virginia in those days, you more or less had it made.''
And how. Forty-one years later, North Carolina honored the
surviving members of its 1917 team in a ceremony at the Virginia game
in Chapel Hill. The honorees also visited the residence of a teammate
in Raleigh: Luther Hodges, whose house was the Governor's Mansion.
During the ensuing party at the mansion, somebody tossed a basketball
and broke a chandelier.
Through the Carolina-blue prism of time, the highlights of the
1919-20 - season were the first games ever against Duke -- a loss
and, a month later, a win. The Tar Heels wouldn't lose to the Blue
Devils again until '29. The '20s also saw the development of the
Southern Conference and the creation of its postseason tournament,
for more than 15 years the only such league tournament in major
college basketball. This was not the current Southern Conference of
Furman, Marshall and Appalachian State. This was a sprawling league
of as many as 23 schools that eventually spawned the Southeastern and
Atlantic Coast conferences. Kentucky won the inaugural tournament in
1921, and North Carolina entered and won its first tournament the
following year, with a grinding five victories in five days.
The next season, 1922-23, North Carolina was 15-0 and seemed
certain to repeat as tournament champion -- until it lost 34-32 in
the second round to Mississippi. Overcoaching wasn't the Tar Heels'
problem. There wasn't even a coach. Football and baseball coach Bob
Fetzer traveled with the basketball team but usually sat in the
stands during games. However, he did have one piece of advice for the
players. ''Only one thing I can tell you,'' Fetzer reportedly said.
''If you're nearer the goal, you got a better chance to make it.''
This sage strategy helped make an All-America, North Carolina's
first, of forward Cartwright Carmichael. According to the book They
Made the Bell Tower Chime, by Bob Quincy, Carmichael was known for
his ''soft shooting touch, his effortless movement and his poise
under the most difficult conditions.''
The 1923-24 Tar Heels had a new home, the Indoor Athletic Court --
known as the Tin Can because of its metal roof, which made its
interior freezing in winter and scorching in summer -- and a real
coach, Norman Shepard. In his only season Shepard led the team to an
honored place in the Carolina basketball record book. His Tar Heels,
who were called the White Phantoms for their fast, fluid style, went
26-0 and beat Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Alabama to
win the conference tournament.
When Western Union reported Carolina's tournament triumph back to
Chapel Hill around 11 p.m., the students erupted. More than 500 of
them (about one fifth of the total enrollment) marched to the home of
university president Harry Woodburn Chase and then followed the
university band 10 miles to Durham, where they serenaded the families
of team stars Carmichael and forward Jack Cobb. Both players were
chosen All-America, and the Helms Foundation later declared the Tar
Heels the national champions.
Another star of the '23-24 team was Monk McDonald. A four-year
letterman in football, baseball and basketball, McDonald stayed on in
Chapel Hill after graduating and coached the 1924-25 team, which won
the Southern Conference regular-season and tournament titles.
McDonald missed the tournament, though; he was studying for
med-school exams.
Even with a team possessing enormous talent, McDonald took no
chances. ''We play and pray,'' he said. ''It has been our habit to
pray before each game and also at halftime. Prayer has inspired
teamwork and morale. It has helped us win at times when defeat seemed
certain.''
The White Phantoms repeated as conference champions in 1926, led
by the towering 6 ft. 2 in. Cobb, the Eric Montross of his day.
Scoring 15 points per game (on a team that averaged 35), Cobb became
the Tar Heels' first three-time All-America and was named the '26
Player of the Year by Helms. In North Carolina Cobb was known simply
as Mr. Basketball.
From 1926-27 through '38-39 North Carolina continued to do well,
winning the Southern Conference tournament in '35 and '36. Bo Shepard
(brother of Norman), who coached the '34-35 team, didn't need much
time to recruit, because he had no scholarships to give. But as long
as the McCachren family was thriving, Shepard and his successors
always knew where to find a player. Four McCachrens took turns as Tar
Heel captain -- Dave in '33-34, Jim in '35-36, Bill in '38-39 and
George in '42-43.
North Carolina's biggest star of the 1940s was two-time Helms
Foundation Player of the Year George Glamack. He led the Tar Heels to
the Southern Conference tournament title in 1940 and to their first
NCAA appearance in '41, the third year of the national tournament's
existence. The 6 ft. 6 in. center had such poor eyesight without his
glasses, which he did not wear on court, that he was known as the
Blind Bomber. Glamack's explanation for his successful hook shot was
hard to believe, even coming from a Sunday school teacher. ''I
designed a Braille system all my own watching the black lines on the
floor near the basket,'' he is quoted as saying in Ken Rappoport's
1976 book, Tar Heel: North Carolina Basketball. ''I never saw the
basket, but I saw the backboard. It was so big, and it was so white,
I just got to my spot on the floor and shot from there.''
Glamack was a phenomenal scorer for his time, averaging 20.6
points per game * as a senior in 1940-41. His 45 points against
Clemson in '41 still add up to the fourth-highest single-game total
in Tar Heel history, and his 31 in a '41 Eastern Regional consolation
game stood as the NCAA tournament record until '50.
North Carolina won the Southern Conference regular-season title
for 1943-44 under coach Bill Lange and the tournament championship in
'45 under new coach Ben Carnevale. The Tar Heels returned to the NCAA
tournament in '46, and this time they reached the championship game,
losing 43-40 to Oklahoma A&M and its 7-foot phenomenon, Bob Kurland,
in Madison Square Garden. Kurland, with 23 points, and North
Carolina's All-America, Hook Dillon, with 16, were the only players
in double figures in that game. The gangly 6 ft. 6 in. Tar Heel
center, Horace (Bones) McKinney, scored five, fouled out guarding
Kurland and blamed himself for the loss. ''We could have beaten them
to death,'' he lamented. The colorful McKinney would later coach a
Wake Forest team featuring All-America Len Chappell and future TV
notable Billy Packer to the '62 Final Four.
Carnevale, a Navy lieutenant, looked natty as he sat on the bench
in his uniform at the '46 NCAA final. He had come to Chapel Hill to
be athletic director of the Navy V-12 program and had been talked
into coaching the school's basketball team once the war was over. He
went on to a distinguished career as a coach and administrator at the
Naval Academy and a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Carnevale's successor, Tom Scott, was a victim of bad timing,
arriving at North Carolina the same season, 1946-47, that Everett
Case took over at N.C. State. Scott won 20 games twice, but he was
0-14 against Case, and after losing seasons in '50-51 and '51-52, he
was gone.
Frank McGuire came from St. John's for the 1952-53 season and beat
Case the first time they met. The battle had been joined. That season
also marked North Carolina's last in the Southern Conference. The ACC
would begin the following year, and a young New Yorker named Lennie
Rosenbluth would average 26 points per game on North Carolina's
'53-54 freshman team and eventually wipe out most of Glamack's
varsity records. The modern era of North Carolina basketball had
arrived but so too had a piece of basketball's past.
In 1953 an elderly gentleman named Raymond Kaighn moved to Chapel
Hill to retire. Kaighn knew something about the game they were
playing over in Woollen Gym. On a winter day 62 years earlier, as a
student of James Naismith in Springfield, Mass., Kaighn had taken
part in the first basketball game ever played.
If he was looking for more basketball history, he had come to the
right place.

This is an article from the April 23, 1993 issue