They have the likely Player of the Year, may well be the Team of
the Year, have now won the Game of the Year, though their coach
hasn't held the job for so much as a year. Why not, then, make
Bill Guthridge, the 60-year-old rookie steward of North
Carolina's top-ranked Tar Heels, Coach of the Year? Every bit as
remarkable as North Carolina forward Antawn Jamison's season and
the throwback cohesion of the Tar Heels' six--yes, six--starters
and last Thursday's unneighborly 97-73 defeat of Duke has been
the absence of trauma following North Carolina patriarch Dean
Smith's decision to retire in October, only days before fall
"Bill, you're killing the rest of us coaches!" said Maryland
coach Gary Williams upon encountering Guthridge on the court
moments before the Terrapins fixed the Heels with their only
loss of the season, 89-83 in overtime on Jan. 14, a defeat for
which Guthridge characteristically took the blame. "We all bitch
to our athletic director about how tough this job is," Williams
said, "and you walk in and go 17-0!"
After Sunday's 107-100 double-overtime victory at Georgia Tech,
in which senior guard Shammond Williams scored a career-high 42
points, North Carolina was actually 24-1 and as implacable as it
had been through most of Smith's 36 seasons. Three times under
Guthridge the Tar Heels have rallied from double-digit deficits
to win, most recently after being 17 points in arrears at Wake
Forest on Jan. 31. "It was eerie how confident Coach Guthridge
was, never having been in that situation," says assistant coach
Dave Hanners of the first of those comebacks, against Purdue on
Nov. 29. "It was as if Coach Smith was still here."
Of course, Guthridge had been in similar situations, as Smith's
aide-de-camp for three decades. So too had North Carolina's six
veteran starters--frontcourtmen Jamison, Makhtar Ndiaye and
Ademola Okulaja, and backcourtmen Vince Carter, Ed Cota and
Williams, all of whom take their turns, in alphabetical order,
sitting on the bench at the beginning of each game. On Dec. 27,
with the Tar Heels down by five at Georgia with 1:54 to play,
Okulaja, a junior, went up to Jamison, his classmate, as the
Heels broke a timeout huddle. "How much do you think we'll win
by?" he asked. The record doesn't reflect Jamison's reply, only
the result: North Carolina by two in overtime.
February 16, 1998
The Tar Heels had no hole to dig themselves out of against Duke
last week in Chapel Hill. Early in the second half North
Carolina built a 20-point lead over the then No. 1 Blue Devils,
only to see that lead melt away, largely from heat emanating
from the senior Ndiaye's head. After being called for his fifth
foul, Ndiaye slammed the ball to the floor, an act for which he
was assessed a technical; this led to four Duke points from the
free throw line and a basket on the ensuing possession, which
left North Carolina's lead at only four with nearly six minutes
Not to worry. Cota, a sophomore, either scored or assisted on
five of the next six Tar Heels possessions, and North Carolina
closed out the game with a 24-4 run. The crowd at the Dean E.
Smith Center left having witnessed more than even the most
partisan Heels fan could have hoped for in a single evening:
North Carolina blowing out Duke not once, but twice.
As penance for Ndiaye's heedlessness, the Tar Heels had to do
extra running at their next practice. A North Carolina rule
dating back to the early days of the Smith regime holds that if
a player gets a technical, every player has to run; if a coach
does, the coaching staff runs. "Every rule Coach Smith set down
is still here," says Jamison. "Nothing at all has changed except
for the coach. And you really can't tell we have a new coach."
The few outward differences are piddling. Guthridge isn't quite
as obsessively diplomatic as Smith was; after the Tar Heels'
easy defeats of Middle Tennessee State and Richmond earlier this
season, he observed postgame, "We're more talented than they
are." Where Smith typically began his workday with midmorning
staff meetings and kept late hours, Guthridge convenes his
assistants at 8:30 a.m., well after his crack-of-dawn jog.
After a two-month grace period to allow Smith to respond to all
the mail he received upon resigning, Guthridge has finally moved
into his predecessor's office. The sign reading RESERVED AT ALL
TIMES is gone from the old coach's space in the staff parking
lot outside the Dean Dome, with the spot now available to anyone
in the athletic department, first-come, first-served. Smith
attends only home games that aren't on television, but several
times a week he comes into the office, where Guthridge and the
players often seek out his counsel. "As an assistant I gave him
many suggestions, and now he's giving me suggestions," says
Guthridge, who adds that he prefers the old arrangement. "You
don't have to live with the consequences of suggestions. You do
have to live with the consequences of decisions."
When Smith met Guthridge and Seattle SuperSonics coach and Tar
Heels alumnus George Karl for lunch at the Carolina Alumni
Center on the day of the game against Duke, there were no X's
and O's being scratched out on cocktail napkins. "Oh, Dean'll be
there," Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski nonetheless said
before the game, despite all the protestations to the contrary.
"It's going to be like one of those Alfred Hitchcock movies.
You're going to have to find Dean."
Krzyzewski was right, in a sense: Smith was there, in the sound
way that North Carolina dispensed with Duke. As early departures
for the NBA render college basketball an increasingly adolescent
sport, the average Tar Heels starter is a
wave-him-through-the-door 21.7 years old. (Though still a
sophomore, Cota is only three months younger than Blue Devils
counterpart Steve Wojciechowski, a senior.) Even more unusual in
this era of tricked-up, three-point offenses is North Carolina's
old-fashioned dedication to getting the ball inside. The Heels
are so inside-oriented that, in the second half against Duke,
Jamison set a low screen for Carter, and the Tar Heels'
rubber-legged junior swingman came off it not for a jump shot
but for a dunk.
North Carolina's ability to get inside and draw fouls creates
stoppages of play that allow the six starters--7-foot freshman
Brendan Haywood is the only other Tar Heel who gets regular
minutes--to catch their breath. In late-January victories over
Clemson and Wake Forest, the Tar Heels outshot their opponents
86-19 from the line. Through Sunday, North Carolina had made 135
more free throws than its opponents had even attempted.
Not that Guthridge believes that rest at the free throw line is
necessary. "Some of our fans think our depth is a problem," he
says. "I don't. Divide six into 200 possible minutes in a game,
and you get 33. That's about how many minutes a player in good
shape likes to play."
This season those trips to the line are more likely to pay off.
For the first time since 1992-93, North Carolina is making more
than 70% of its foul shots. No Tar Heel worked harder on his
free throws over the summer than the 6'9', 223-pound Jamison,
who after deciding last spring to pass up the pros has improved
his free throw percentage by eight points, to 70.6.
Jamison may be the only favor Hurricane Hugo did for the Tar
Heel State. In 1989 his father, Albert, was a 32-year-old
carpenter in Shreveport, La., struggling to support his wife,
Kathy, and their three children. He read a newspaper story about
construction jobs in Charlotte, which was still recovering from
Hugo's visit a year earlier. Albert began commuting to North
Carolina for a month at a time, returning home for weeklong
breaks between each stint. After 18 months he moved his family
to Charlotte, and Antawn, then 12, came into the pale of the
pale blue. "If the hurricane hadn't come through, I probably
wouldn't be in a Carolina uniform," he says.
Jamison's father and mother were 20 and 17, respectively, when
he was born. At that time, Albert's job often required him to
travel, and with Kathy putting in 12- to 14-hour shifts as a
cashier at a grocery store, much of the parenting duties fell to
Antawn's paternal grandmother, Annie Lee Jamison. She died when
he was a junior at Charlotte's Providence High, and ever since,
in the locker room before each game, he has said a prayer while
clutching a ring that belonged to her. Before he takes the
floor, he'll point at the arena roof, indicating the woman he
called Mama. But Annie Lee's son and daughter-in-law long ago
assumed full parental responsibilities and still lay chores on
their eldest child whenever he comes home. "I buy the food and
his mother cooks," says Albert. "Someone has to clean the
If you hear a man behind the Tar Heels' bench yelling, "They're
beating up my boy," that would be Albert. Three times at North
Carolina State on Jan. 21, Antawn hit the floor hard, one time
bruising his left hip and elbow; still he scored a career-high
36 points. Clemson fouled so systematically on Jan. 28,
committing an ACC record 41--Jamison attempted a game-high 14
free throws--that the Tigers finished the game with only four
players on the floor. ("They outscored us when we had the man
advantage," Guthridge says. "Rookie coach needs to work on his
Like his first name, which is pronounced AN-twon, Jamison's game
leaves people misdirected. He leads the ACC in rebounding in
part because, after jumping once, he doesn't seem to need time
to gather himself to jump again. "When everybody else comes
down, he's already back up at the rim," says Okulaja. He leads
the conference in scoring because he's ceaselessly traversing
the lane or spinning off his man. "Once you think you have him
defensively, he'll move, find a new spot and catch the ball,"
said Duke forward Shane Battier after Jamison had gone over and
around him and his teammates to score 35 points. "Before you can
say, 'Where'd he go?' he's scoring."
Jamison also spent the summer launching 400 to 500 jump shots a
day, working to extend his range beyond the lane to NBA
precincts. But he has long been comfortable shooting anything
from 12 feet in, even though he concedes that the closer he is
to the basket, the more improvisatorial he gets and the funnier
his shots look. "Sometimes, when we're watching game films, the
guys will see one of my shots, and all of a sudden they'll start
snickering," he says.
"You hear about his quick release," Krzyzewski says. "But
where's that release from?"
Sometimes from over the top. Sometimes from three quarters.
Sometimes, it seems, sidearm. Maybe Michael couldn't hit. But
Antawn sure can pitch.
Against Duke, Jamison made a play that seemed to bespeak the
ascendancy of his game and of his team. Cota is so unpredictable
when he light-foots it into the lane that one time when he
penetrated into the paint late in the first half, the home crowd
momentarily muzzled itself in anticipatory wonder. Cota then
sent a floater short off the rim. The fans hadn't yet had reason
to renew their roar when Jamison sprang up, claiming the rebound
with a sudden clap of his second hand on the ball. The Smith
Center was still quiet enough to permit this report to make its
way to the building's farthest reaches, up even to the
powder-blue beam from which Jordan's retired number had hung
until being stolen over the previous weekend. Jamison then spun
and sprang right back up again, tossing the ball into the
basket, and the Tar Heels faithful threw up their wall of sound
Nonetheless, for a few beats the Smith Center had been silent as
a chapel, and one man had every parishioner's ear. What he said
with that rebound wasn't so much a valedictory for the fans,
although this may well be Jamison's final collegiate season. It
was more an address to the blue heavens: If something's needed
to fill that space where 23 once hung, another number is on its
"The average Tar Heels starter is a wave-him-through-the-door
21.7 years old."
"For the first time since 1992-93, North Carolina is making more
than 70% of its foul shots."