One for the Ages
THE chartered jet carry ing the 2009 national champions broke through the clouds on its approach to Raleigh- Durham Airport and entered a wide expanse of Carolina blue sky. The team, coaches, support staff, and university administrators aboard were finally home after six days of sun, cold, and snow in Detroit and the NCAA Final Four.
Their approach was smooth— not aborted twice, which had happened fi fty- two years before when North Carolina’s fi rst national championship team returned from Kansas City on an Eastern Airlines propjet. That plane almost did not land because an estimated 5,000 fans had broken through what ever security they had in those days and swarmed near the runway.
This time, the North Carolina Tar Heels were greeted by the high- tech stuff of the twenty- first century, or at least the 1990s. Cameras replaced people for the moment.
ABC- TV’s Chopper 11 hovered in the airspace above the terminal, waiting for the team and travel party to board three buses for the thirty- minute trip back to Chapel Hill. The TV he li cop ter would trace every mile of the ride down Interstate 40 and their victory lap as the buses snaked through the UNC campus.
The lower level of the Dean Smith Center had filled with about 12,000 people of all ages, thanks to the afternoon schedule and public school vacation, which allowed excited Tar Heels fans from seven months to seventy years old a chance to welcome their latest hoop heroes. Inside the light blue arena, four large video screens were showing live coverage of the buses, which were accompanied by police escorts fore and aft as they traveled the last mile up Manning Drive.
The biggest roar from the crowd came when the three tiny white rectangles on the screen turned down Skipper Bowles Drive and parked behind the huge octagon, where North Carolina had won fourteen games on the way to first place in the ACC and another No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. In the arena, the four fascia scoreboards had been lit up with the final score: UNC 89, Michigan State 72.Adjacent electronic signs read: 2009 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS.
Finally, the buses emptied out, heightening the anticipation of the fans inside, and video cameras now scanned the crowd. The cameras panned up to the five national championship banners hanging from the raf ters, and then they focused on the empty space next to 2005, which would be fi lled in a few months.
The crowd cheered impatiently.
How long would it take the team to walk the few hundred feet through the tunnel and climb up on the stage where twenty- four chairs had been arranged in a perfect oval?
At the other end of the court stood a media platform with a phalanx of cameras ready to record the moment. On the wooden playing floor in between, which was covered by a blue tarp, students moved toward the stage while behind them in the open areas children cavorted with their parents and cheerleaders- to- be cart-wheeled the time away.
The portion of the UNC pep band that had not made the bus trip to Detroit set up in a corner of Section 105 and readied to sub for the regulars, who were still on the road from the Final Four. The band blurted out the Tar Heels’ fight song and “Rah, Rah, Carolina.” People waiting at three open concession stands in the concourse scurried back inside when they heard Woody Durham, Voice of the Tar Heels, bellow: “Isn’t this great!”
Durham said he told the players on the plane ride that they had had a pretty good party the night before on the court at Ford Field and afterward in the hotel. However, that was nothing compared to what was going on at home. Then he walked off the stage.
Some cheered while others conjured up their ultimate fantasy: to be at courtside when the Tar Heels won it all and then, a moment later, to be among the Chapel Hill fans who fl ooded Franklin Street.
Durham returned a few minutes later with a small table that he set down right in front. “We have something to bring out and we need a place to put it,” he said. At long last, he introduced the traveling party one by one. The Tar Heels, all looking weary, wore coats and ties— not the blue blazers and gray slacks of the Mc-Guire era, but classy by modern standards.
Some of the players carried camcorders pointed at the crowd.
Bobby Frasor cradled the ball from the national championship game. Danny Green cracked everybody up when he said, “But did you see how we won it,” and then he got provoked into doing his jersey- pulling Jump Around dance. Girls in the front row held up “Marry Me” signs as the last player was called: Tyler Hansbrough walked out to the biggest roar of all.
Finally, Roy Williams arrived holding the national championship trophy, which was draped by one of the nets that had been stripped about fourteen hours earlier. He put it down on the table. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” UNC’s favorite son said to cheers,“winning a national championship for our alma mater. These guys took me on one fantastic ride.”
Williams looked up at the video boards as Carolina’s own version of “One Shining Moment” played: Tar Heel highlights only, which Williams watched with misty eyes.
Standing only 5’10”, Williams had grown into a coaching giant over the weekend, winning his second NCAA tournament title in five years and, perhaps more important, returning Carolina basketball to its greatest heights of the past. After enduring a painful transition from the Dean Smith years, the program seemed all the way back in every mea sur able manner— with the same spirit of the soul that a Tar Heel fan could fi nally feel again.
Joining Smith and eleven other elite coaches who had won at least two NCAA titles, Williams was positioned to match those who had won three (Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski) and four (Adolph Rupp).
On the home front, which was as important to many UNC grads, his Tar Heels had reclaimed the superiority that Duke enjoyed for much of the last twelve years since Smith retired with a 26- 14 record against Krzyzewski- coached teams. Leading a program that still owned the most victories, NBA graduates and TV exposure in the 55- year history of the ACC, Williams’ two national championships and three Final Fours had come since the last time Duke was there in 2004.
He was in the prime of his life and career, coaching at America’s most famous basketball school and using a fast- paced pro playing style that maximized his inherent recruiting advantages. Who wouldn’t want to play for this guy? His fifth Final Four team in the last eight seasons had the perfect blend: a point guard who led an explosive fast break and scored enough to become ACC player of the year, wing shooters who had the green light to fire away, and post men who started every offensive set by looking to score themselves.
But this season was far from how easy it seemed at the end, when Carolina fulfilled its long- time mantra of playing hard, playing smart, and playing together at the highest level.
The 2009 Tar Heels made every coach’s dream come true— reaching this peak per for mance at exactly the right time. They did it by repairing a defense that, only weeks before, couldn’t stop dribble penetration or shut down a hot outside shooter. On offense, they shared the ball so expertly that they appeared impossible to stop.
The coach sought such perfection all season and was rewarded with the most dominant NCAA tournament per for mance in his school’s storied history, leaving absolutely no doubt about which was the best team in the country. Even so, Williams had fought through what he called “one of my hardest years in coaching.”
The Tar Heels began in the polls as even more of a favorite for the national championship than Barack Obama— who had scrimmaged with them during his campaign— was in the presidential race. TV talking heads said they could be the fi rst undefeated team since Indiana in 1976.
Then, one by one, injuries reduced Williams’ deepest roster ever to a number of question marks. Marcus Ginyard’s off- season ankle surgery was not healing. Hansbrough began the season sidelined by a potential stress fracture. Promising freshman center Tyler Zeller suffered a broken wrist in the second game, leaving Williams momentarily with only two post men, ju nior Deon Thompson and freshman Ed Davis.
Among Williams’ biggest fears was that Hansbrough would not be healthy enough to reach the rec ords he could surely break after returning for his se nior season. The work horse of few words from Poplar Bluff, Missouri, had become the standard for staying in school when he refused to leave after a third straight season when he was unanimous All- ACC and consensus All- American, and he had won almost every national player of the year award given out.
Hansbrough hated to do it, but he sat out some practices, and he sat out three starts at the season’s onset before returning to score 50 points in the last two games of the Maui Classic. Those who were looking for parallel universes noted that the 2005 national champions had spent Thanksgiving week on what Hawaiians call the Valley Isle, carving up three unranked opponents by a total of 63 points. Four years later, the Tar Heels devoured three foes by 89 points. A matured Ty Lawson won the Maui MVP award with 22 points and 11 assists, his only double- double of the entire season, against eighth- ranked Notre Dame.
The ultra-disciplined Hansbrough sat out a fourth game for safety’s sake and then returned with a vengeance for the ACC– Big Ten Challenge in Detroit. He had 25 points and 11 rebounds in only 27 minutes as Carolina trounced tired and dinged- up Michigan State 98- 63 on the experimental raised floor in the middle of Ford Field. The dress rehearsal for the Final Four drew a crowd of 25,267, but Motown hoped to have three times as many people there four months later. The Heels went home with Hansbrough only 34 points away from Phil Ford’s thirty- one- year- old career scoring record at UNC.
Williams orchestrated the timing of the occasion by taking Tyler out of the Saturday eve ning game against Oral Roberts after he had scored 26 points and led Carolina in a 100- 84 victory. Thus, the big moment would come in the first half against underrated Evansville the following Thursday on ESPN’s primary national network. Ford, an assistant to Carolina icon Larry Brown with the Charlotte NBA franchise, could be in attendance because the Bobcats were off that night.
Contrary to mentor Dean Smith, who rarely acknowledged individual achievements with ceremony, Williams wanted to halt the game on Hansbrough’s record- breaking point, acknowledge the legendary Ford (who would be seated at courtside), and let the 22,000 fans and national TV audience participate. Hansbrough deserved such recognition, and it wouldn’t hurt recruiting, either.
Still, Williams was worried he might have gone overboard. He nixed the scripted celebration and hurried Hansbrough through the whole gig: Here’s the ball, go hug Phil, listen to the announcer, wave to the crowd, and let’s get on with the game!
“He hijacked the ceremony to make sure we’d get it done quickly,” veteran sports information director Steve Kirschner said, laughing. “He wanted it for Tyler and it was good for recruiting, but he did not want to seem inconsiderate to everyone else.”
Williams’ next decision along the way was whether to play Ginyard, whose ankle still bothered him three months after the operation. Bad for the team, Williams thought, but maybe good for Green, the sixth man who was talented enough to be invited to NBA tryout camps the previous spring even though he had started exactly one game in his college career. So, as a se nior, Green gave up his sideline dance before tip- off and headed for what later amounted to stardom.
Ginyard tried to play two games in late December but could not push off the ankle well enough to drive with the ball or guard his man. He had only one more game, against Boston College, before losing his chance for a medical redshirt and to come back fully healed the following season. Williams shut him down until the ankle healed properly, then left the decision of whether to return to Ginyard and his family.
Carolina spent New Year’s Eve in Reno, playing Nevada, nailing down its thirteenth straight victory just as 2009 rang in back on the East Coast. Williams enjoyed it quietly with a few friends and his family, having shot some lucky craps the night before at Lake Tahoe. He had done the same thing prior to beating Brigham Young in Las Vegas the season before, and he thought about doing it in Detroit the previous month. Williams was only inclined to gamble through superstition. As long as he kept rolling the dice and his team won, he would continue. His old high school coach had taught him how to shoot craps, he had seen Dean Smith do it during his coaching career and, though he did not know for sure, fi gured Frank McGuire knew his way around a casino.
The 2009 Tar Heels won their first thirteen games easily, all by double digits. Too easily, it turned out.
Without a healthy Ginyard, their defensive stopper, they were lit up in January by Boston College’s Tyrese Rice for the second straight season and then by Wake Forest sophomore Jeff Teague. Those scoring guards shredded Carolina’s defense for a combined 59 points with their penetration and perimeter skills.
The team that pundits said couldn’t be beat had lost twice right out of the ACC gate, the Tar Heels’ worst league start in twelve years. Williams had to counter the sniping and criticism that ensued with reminders that his first Final Four team at Kansas had also been 0- 2 in the old Big Eight, and the 1997 UNC team that started 0-3 in the ACC had also reached the Final Four.
He claimed too many bewildered fans “abandoned ship.” Maybe so, but it nonetheless appeared that Carolina wasn’t playing as hard on the defensive end and, indeed, seemed less lovable than it had been in November and December. Fans dreaming of a national championship now wondered whether this team could even get back to the Final Four.
Another winning streak began, only not as smoothly; Ty Lawson’s buzzer beater rescued the Tar Heels at Florida State and his fi ve three- pointers did the same at Miami. That win, in which the Hurricanes’ Jack McClinton hung 35 points on the Tar Heels, was Williams’ 165th coaching victory at Carolina and pushed him past Frank McGuire into second place.
Meanwhile, Lawson’s emergence as perhaps the most valuable player in the ACC came none too soon. Running mate Wayne Ellington was shooting far worse from the field and three- point line in his first seventeen games than he had in 2008. After three years of scouting Hansbrough, interior defenses were openly hacking away at him and shoving him off his sweet spots on the low blocks.
The same day Ginyard decided to sit out the rest of the season, reserve forward Will Graves got suspended for violating a university policy that nails a lot of North Carolina students. What was once the deepest team in the ACC and the country was down to eight healthy regulars, and it forced Williams to give freshman Justin Watts and se nior bench- warmer Michael Copeland more minutes than he had anticipated.
Despite ten straight victories that sent the Tar Heels into fi rst place in the ACC, including their fourth consecutive win at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Williams remained frustrated with their defense. They allowed non- contender N.C. State to shoot 54 percent and keep the game much closer than it should have been. Afterward, the media peppered ol’ Roy on why he had stubbornly stayed with his man- to- man all season and not trapped more, switched more, or pressed more.
He had set up this confrontation himself, saying that not switching keeps players from being lazy and he coaches to “get your butt through the screens” at the top of the key. By not practicing changing defenses, he admitted the Tar Heels were not very good at it when they tried.
Having three times explained that “we’re frickin’ bad at it,” he accidentally dropped the f-bomb in his next answer. He apologized repeatedly for the remainder of the press conference and immediately called his athletic director and chancellor to apologize. They thanked him for his sincerity, and Williams watched his language for the rest of the season.
He was still furious after the Tar Heels flubbed away a 16- point lead at Mary land, which halted the winning streak at ten and left Duke only one game back in the ACC race. They let the Terrapins rally by shooting quickly and poorly when they should have milked the clock, a surprising lack of poise this late in the season.
Carolina came back with its biggest ACC blowout, a 30- pointer over last- place Georgia Tech in which Hansbrough went 8- for- 8 from the foul line and, appropriately, set the all- time NCAA record for most free throws made.
The Tar Heels were ready for their— and Hansbrough’s— home finale against Duke until Lawson slammed his big toe into a basket support two days before the game and limped out of practice on crutches. Once the news hit the message boards and Internet,
Excerpted from Light Blue Reign by Art Chansky.
Copyright © 2009 by Art Chansky.
Published in November 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproductionis strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.