THEY COMMENCED the season with their heads pressed against the ceiling of expectation, where only historic greatness would suffice. They ended it by winning the national championship as despised spoilers, literal visitors against a team riding the desperate passions of an entire state battered by economic ruin. From beginning to end, their season was a no-win proposition, and yet North Carolina won just the same, with an efficiency that fulfilled every inch of November's demand. On Monday night at Ford Field in Detroit, the Tar Heels dismantled Michigan State 89-72 and muted the Spartans' horde of followers, who constituted the vast majority of the championship-game record crowd of 72,922. North Carolina led by 16 points before seven minutes had elapsed, a ruthless assault that transformed the rest of the game into a formality. It was a performance that provided sweet validation for four Tar Heels—seniors Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green and juniors Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson—who returned for this season when they might have left Chapel Hill. "It was the best decision I ever made," said Hansbrough when it was over, standing on the court with one of the nets hanging from his neck. "All the hard work I put in, all the tough practices, all the weight room [sessions], that was what this was about."
This is an article from the April 13, 2009 issue
It was also about a legendary program digging itself deeper into college basketball's rich earth.North Carolina has now won five national titles and four since the UCLA dynasty ended in 1975, more than any other school. And it was about a dominant run through the postseason, when the Tar Heels beat six opponents by an average of20.2 points, the second-highest margin of victory since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
But just as much,it was about a sublime collection of athletes, rare in the age of early departures for the NBA. None were better on the final night than Lawson, the 5'11" point guard who, like Ellington and Green, explored the possibility of leaving for the NBA last spring but returned to improve himself and to chase a national title. On the afternoon of the championship game, Lawson was so nervous that he could barely touch his pregame meal of chicken, steak, rice and potatoes. But hours later he went out and devoured Michigan State with a game-high 21 points, eight steals and six assists, with just one turnover.
Ellington, a 6'4" wing player, won the Most Outstanding Player award after scoring 17 of his 19 points in the first half, and Hansbrough pounded the Spartans for 18 points and seven rebounds. When it was finished he pointed animatedly at his father, Gene, in the first row of the stadium's sweeping bleachers. His dad pointed back. "He's been all business this week," said Gene. "No discredit to Detroit, but they could have played this game in the Amazon and it wouldn't have mattered to Tyler."
While media and Michiganders alike flocked to the feel-good story of Michigan State, North Carolina simply went to work. On the team bus after Sunday's practice at Ford Field, a Tar Heels official told the players that they could go to watch the Pistons play the Bobcats at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Hansbrough immediately nixed the idea. "Last time we did this [in March 2008, in Boston], Tyrese Rice [of Boston College] laid 46 points on us," he said.
That intensity carried into the locker room on Monday night, when the often-measured UNC coach, Roy Williams, infused his pregame speech with raw emotion that his players said was unlike anything they had heard all year. "They have a lot of want-to," Williams implored. "They're playing for their state, their city, for the economy. Well, we're playing for ourselves and everything we've worked for. We're going to exceed their want-to. Invest everything. Don't comeback in here with anything left!" Scarcely half an hour later, Michigan State was reeling from the onslaught.
IT ALL began in the weight room at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, three weeks after an 84--66 loss to Kansas in the semifinals of the 2008 Final Four, a loss so devastating that Williams says it will haunt him forever, that Hansbrough has never viewed the tape and that Lawson calls it the worst game of his life.Before the Tar Heels even had a chance to recover, fans were demanding to know if Hansbrough, the national player of the year and a three-time All-America,would return for a fourth season.
Hansbrough had repeatedly told Williams he was coming back, and Williams had repeatedly pressed him further. Did you tell your parents yet? When Hansbrough finally did, Williams attempted to drag him upstairs to draft a press release announcing his decision. The process had exhausted Hansbrough; he was weary of discussing himself—"It's a long season, and I had been talking to the media the whole time," he would say later—and desperate to get back to his routine.
"I've been miserable for two weeks," he told Williams. "I'm staying here and I'm really happy for the first time since the end of the season. So why don't you go on upstairs and write something you think I'd say, and I'll stay here and finish my workout?"
Nearly two more months would pass before the Tar Heels were assuredly whole again. On June 16 Ellington, Green and Lawson all withdrew their names from the draft an hour before the deadline. Their choices would conform better to a fairy-tale version of college basketball had they stayed strictly out of loyalty to the powder blue. But only Lawson turned down certain millions—and even in his case, it was millions less than he had hoped for. They were simply disappointed by what they heard from the NBA scouts.
So they joined Hansbrough back on the North Carolina roster, prompting a chorus of proclamations from college hoops insiders that this could be one of the greatest teams of all time. They would lay waste not only to the venerable Atlantic Coast Conference but also to the entire nation. They might not lose a game. The only issue would be how to keep so many talented players happy.
Williams saw something different. He saw a new team with new issues. Not long after Ellington, Green and Lawson withdrew from the draft, Williams met with each of them. "I felt some things needed to be addressed," says Williams."I said, 'Let's make sure we understand each other here. If you're coming back to help your own personal situation, if you're coming back expecting 30 shots a game, we're going to have a problem. You're coming back to help our program, to help us win games.'"
One of North Carolina strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian's off-season workouts involves players flipping 500-pound tractor tires in slow laps around the SmithCenter, a form of moving, barnyard squats. This year Sahratian not-so-subtly called the drill "the Drive to Detroit." He pushed the high-profile returnees hardest of all. "[With] Tyler, from Day One this year it was,What can I do to become the best basketball player possible?" says Sahratian. "Danny was more along those lines. Ty and Wayne were a little bit slower in coming along. They are two really gifted kids. But I think the draft experience was a wake-up call. It was like, Hey, man, these guys are really good, and I do need to get a little bit better."
None of this guaranteed that the season would be smooth, and it was not. Injuries struck in bunches. Senior wing Marcus Ginyard, the Tar Heels' best defender, underwent surgery in early October for a stress fracture in his left foot, returned briefly in late December, but then was shut down for the year. On Oct. 30 Hansbrough, who had not sat out a game in three seasons, was found to have a stress reaction in his right shin and missed the first two games; then he sprained his left ankle and missed two more in late November. "I like to be working, so I hated sitting," says Hansbrough.
Tyler Zeller, a 7-foot freshman, played two games early and then missed 13 weeks after he broke his left wrist when he was fouled hard in a win over Kentucky. Most alarming,Lawson jammed his right big toe against the base of the basket support in practice on March 5 and limped off the floor. "He called me that night and said, 'Dad, it's broken,'" recalls Lawson's father, George, who works for a security firm. "That was a terrible phone call." It was not broken, but after playing the regular-season finale against Duke in pain, Lawson missed 12 days before returning to score 23 points against LSU in the second round of the NCAA tournament. "People said we had too many players," says Williams."Actually, we didn't have enough."
YET EVEN as the Tar Heels sublimated their talents to the team, individuals flourished. The centerpiece was Hansbrough, the 6'9", 250-pounder whose inartistic game has made him the target of opponents (and opponents' fans) throughout his career."People have been coming at me harder than ever [this season]," he says. "And that's fine." In the second half of the 83--69 win over Villanova in the semifinal last Saturday, Hansbrough had to take a short break to get bleeding stopped on a forearm scratch; after the game he obliged a writer by pointing out the cut, which was not as telling as the multiple scars up and down both arms, the by-products of his uniquely frantic work and his constantly awkward and frequently violent collisions.
On the eve of that game, Hansbrough had sat beneath a staircase in the Tar Heels' team hotel,two blocks from Ford Field. This season was Hansbrough's retirement tour, minus the rocking chairs a professional athlete might receive as he passed through visiting arenas for the last time. Yet at every turn he found himself fighting the urge to smell the roses. "It's been tough all year to just stay with the job," said Hansbrough last Friday. "I think I've prepared myself mentally for the fact that I'm moving on. But every time we lost in the tournament the last three years, I was able to say that there's another chance next year. Now there's none of that. So I'm trying to block out the emotions and just play hard. I'm not gonna lie—it's tough."
Tough for Williams as well. During a rare quiet moment in the North Carolina locker room at Ford Field last Thursday, he pondered the subject of Hansbrough's final game. Williams became acutely emotional, raising his chin, pausing and blinking back tears. "I don't mean to get upset," he said, chuckling self-consciously. "I'm being really corny here. Once Tyler decided to comeback, I wanted this kid to have the greatest senior year he could possibly have. Heck, I'm going to have more chances to win, but this is his last chance.And he is so special."
Williams pulled out a sheet with the day's practice schedule, listing the drills and the minutes assigned for each session. It was practice number 89 for the season."Look at this," Williams said. "Here's a drill that's supposed to last seven minutes. Back when Tyler was coming off his injuries, I was sweating out every frickin' drill. On this drill, if we'd get through six minutes, I'd think we should call it off before Tyler got hurt. Because if he gets hurt,every agent in the world is going to say he made the wrong decision to comeback. It's like the kid has the good of college basketball on his back."
GREEN'S BURDEN has been far more weighty. From age 12 on, his primary caregiver in North Babylon, N.Y., was his father, Danny Sr., a former phys-ed teacher. (DannyJr.'s mother left the family about 10 years ago.) On March 30, 2006, while Green was a freshman at Chapel Hill, his father was arrested on conspiracy and other charges connected to a drug bust that yielded 462 pounds of cocaine, $5 million in cash and nine firearms. Danny Sr. accepted a plea arrangement and served 22 months in prison before his release on Jan. 28, 2008.
Under the terms of Green's parole, he could not leave the state of New York, and hence did not watch Danny Jr. play in last year's NCAA tournament in person. "I'm anxious, excited, all those things," Danny Sr. said during the opening round of the tournament. "I don't want to miss a game."
Lawson's father will see him play plenty of NBA games in the future. Yet both were thrown off stride a year ago, albeit for different reasons. Lawson is supremely gifted, a blur in white Nikes. "Foul line to foul line," says Villanova assistant Patrick Chambers, "he is the fastest player in the nation." But the NBA scouts wanted more: a consistent jump shot, which Lawson is still developing.
After his senior year at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., Lawson worked with shooting coach Buzz Braman, who has tutored many college and NBA players. But in his first two years at North Carolina, Lawson forgot many of those lessons."Buzz taught me about getting my release point up and jumping into the shot," he says. "When I got back into the gym [last] summer, I realized I wasn't doing those things anymore. The NBA was right about my game."
George Lawson had other concerns. "I thought he was ready to go, basketball-wise," he says. "But as a father, I was looking at his maturity, I wasn't sure he was ready for the lifestyle." Lawson, who is 21, hit the craps tables at a downtown casino in Detroit shortly after the Tar Heels checked in. That move,which created a minor media stir, is a far smaller gamble than jumping too early to the NBA.
North Carolina came to Detroit with a goal, but also with one last demon to cast out. The Tar Heels not only lost to eventual national champion Kansas in 2008, but they had also trailed by the embarrassing margin of 40--12 early in the game. In the Ford Field locker room on Saturday night, a team not given to speechmaking made several small ones. "I just said, 'Remember what happened last year,'"says senior guard Bobby Frasor. Williams had never shown the team the Kansas tape, but he had gently referenced it twice during Final Four week.
Barely eight minutes into the Villanova game, the Tar Heels led by 14 points, and they had racked up 45 points with more than five minutes left in the first half. While the final seconds ticked away, Hansbrough held the ball on his left hip and pumped his right fist. "I was thinking, O.K., now we're back where we want to be," he said.
By 11 the next morning Williams and his assistants were huddled in a private room at the team's hotel, studying video. They cued up Michigan State's emotional upset of Connecticut, breaking down the Spartans. They did this, as always, with the sound off. A day later they would silence the Spartans more forcefully.
In the 48 hours preceding the final, Williams had grown agitated from hearing his team portrayed as emotionless and gifted (while Michigan State was impassioned and overachieving). "If you tell me that if Michigan State wins, it's gonna satisfy the nation's economy, then I'd say, Hell, let's stay poor for a little while longer," he said on Sunday. Surely some of the boos that rained down on the Tar Heels on Monday night were directed at Williams. In a private stadium lounge after the game, Williams said, "Heck, North Carolina's not doing so great, either."
An hour later he stood on a stage in the Renaissance Center, the towering glass atrium of a hotel and business complex on the Detroit River. Hundreds of North Carolina fans surrounded Williams as he spoke from a stage. "You balanced out all that green," he said, and the fans in their powder blue raised a roar skyward. It was not their city or their state, but it was their moment.