THE 1983-84 TEAM : Michael Jordan's Swan Song
BY : Bob Wingate 6/25/20
|Dynamic Duo : Jordan & Perkins|
On paper, the 1983-84 UNC basketball team looked like one of the best teams ever, not only for the Tar Heels, but in college basketball history. They sported an incredible roster, with a starting lineup which included returning All-American Player of the Year Michael Jordan in his final season, big man Sam Perkins, and talented freshman point guard Kenny Smith. They were #1 in the AP Basketball Poll for all but one week of the season. The Associated Press and Sports Illustrated both unanimously chose UNC as the preseason pick to go to the Final Four and win it all.
On the court, all indications were the same: this would be a very special team and season. Their overall season record was 28-3, winning 90% of their games and their first 21 in a row. No one, except perhaps Georgetown (34-3), had a better team or record. In 1984, only seven measly points (that's 3 baskets and a free throw) stood between UNC and a perfect, undefeated record. Two of their three losses had been by just one (to Arkansas) and two points (to Duke).
1984 UNC BASKETBALL
For all intensive purposes, every bit of the hoopla about the team was 100% true. Except for one thing: in the end, UNC didn't ultimately live up to all of the hype. They came home, at the end of the season, with no NCAA trophy. They had a marvelous season, with the one exception being how it ended. They pooped out, instead of popping the cork.
Two years prior, coming off of a successful 1981 season in which they had beaten rival Virginia in the national semifinals and were runnerups to Indiana, the Tar Heels had won all but two games and clinched coach Dean Smith's first NCAA title in 1982 by beating Georgetown in a close thriller, 63-62, freshman sensation Michael Jordan's jump shot with 17 seconds left being the deciding points. At the team celebration a few days later before 25,000 screaming fans, Jordan had uttered these prophetic words : "I hope in the next three years that I'm here, we can win at least two or three more." By 1984, with experience as a player, and a restacked team, it looked highly likely that the Tar Heels would fulfill part of Jordan's prophecy, and in so doing, add another championship trophy to their collection.
|Michael Jordan with Coach Dean Smith|
Fellow teammate Sam Perkins had forgone his successful NBA career to stay and try to win one more championship. And since 1982, they had added 7 foot center Brad Daugherty, and brought in incredibly talented freshman point guard Kenny Smith from New York City.
Things appeared to be running on all cylinders as they started the season with 21 straight wins, while maintaining the #1 ranking in all of the basketball polls. In the fourth game vs. Stanford, Dean Smith earned his 500th coaching win. With PG Kenny Smith running the show, role player Matt Doherty being an overall handyman, sensational Michael Jordan creating his unbelievable magic, and big men Sam Perkins and Brad Daugherty collecting rebounds and dominating the inside, the Tar Heels looked almost invincible. Add to that UNC's usual dependable bench players, like Steve Hale, Joe Wolf, and Buzz Peterson. It appeared North Carolina was on their way to the Kingdome in Seattle and the Final Four.
As it turns out, sometimes things are not always as they seem, and bad events can happen to cause our best-laid plans to go awry. So was the case with the 1984 Tar Heels basketball team. You might guess that the first loss to Arkansas (Feb. 12) was the turning point where everything started going south for the team. And if you did, you'd have guessed wrong, because the ultimate wrench thrown into UNC's perfect dream season was not a loss, but a win on Sunday, January 29, in a game vs. LSU. For even though they won the game, their 17th straight, 90-79, a crazy thing happened that day on the way to the Final Four. With Carolina playing well, and breaking away from a closely fought game, LSU's John Tudor grabbed UNC's Kenny Smith on a steal and breakaway layup, and Smith landed on his left wrist, making a clean break. Watch the highlights and see for yourself.. it was much more painful.. for Smith AND the Tar Heels.. than it may look.
UNC vs LSU * 1/29/84
It was the real disaster of the 1984 season, because even though Smith came back in the last game of the regular season, playing with a cast on his left arm, and continued playing in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments, he was never the same, explosive Kenny Smith that the Tar Heels had enjoyed throughout the rest of the season. A similar "Murphy's Law" moment happened in the 2012 NCAA tournament to the Tar Heels with point guard Kendall Marshall breaking his right wrist on an almost duplicate play.
Still, the Tar Heels adapted and won 10 of their next 11 games, most of them without Smith. Reserve guard Steve Hale did an admirable job in his place, but it just was not really the same. Smith was much faster and more explosive than Hale, plus it somewhat put the team's chemistry out of sync, and Smith's return at less than full strength did not rectify that situation.
In the NCAA tournament regional semifinal game vs. Indiana (March 22), Michael Jordan had tried to will the Tar Heels to victory, but he just didn't have his normal, extraordinary game, shooting 6 of 14 for a total of only 13 points. Part of that might have been due to the Indiana defense, which packed the middle, and forced Jordan and the Tar Heels to take more perimeter jump shots. Jordan said later : "...when I look back at the shots I had, I lick my chops. I just missed them." For the game, Indiana shot 65% to 42% for Carolina. Still, it was a close game, and could've gone either way, right down to the final minute, when guard Steve Alford cinched Indiana's win with clutch free throw shooting.
In the end, it is kinda ironic that one of the Final Four teams, Georgetown went on to win the championship. A rematch of the 1982 final would've been a wonderful thing for a Tar Heel fan to witness. Unfortunately, that would not become a reality, as the Hoyas' opponent would be Houston, who they beat to win their first ever championship. Maybe turnabout is fair play. But for the loyal Tar Heel, we want to win ALL of them, right? YEP..
When I look back at some of the incredible game films, and think about the whopper of a team that UNC had in 1984, it's a mind blower to think of the potential and what slipped through their elusive fingers. Legendary coach Dean Smith always felt that this was one of his best, if not the very best, UNC team ever.
They accomplished a lot that year. But what could have been? What would have been? What if Jordan had played better in the final game? What if Kenny Smith had not broken his wrist? Who knows? It's interesting to consider the "what-if's" of a situation. But in the end, it is what it is. A great season. But somewhat colored by the unfortunate event of an injury. It happens. But we all wish it would've just happened to someone else. [BW]
ARTICLES & REFERENCES
* SPORTS ILLUSTRATED : The following two articles appeared in Sports Illustrated on November 28, 1983, two days after the beginning of the season, giving high praise and predictions for the Tar Heels.
-TOWERING TWOSOME https://vault.si.com/vault/1983/11/28/a-towering-twosome
-PREVIEW OF #1 NORTH CAROLINA https://vault.si.com/vault/1983/11/28/1-north-carolina
* ONE OF THE BEST TEAMS TO NEVER WIN IT https://www.tarheelblog.com/2020/4/19/21226429/one-of-the-best-teams-to-never-win-it-the-1983-84-tar-heels-jordan-last-dance-basketball
* 25 GREATEST GAMES IN UNC BASKETBALL HISTORY :
UNC vs. Duke (1984)
1983-84 UNC TAR HEELS
|THE BEST TEAM TO NEVER WIN IT?|