By Drew Hammell
Thirty-five years ago, before college basketball had a shot clock, before there was a three point line, and before he was the GOAT, Michael Jordan hit “the shot.”
On March 29th, 1982, The University of North Carolina battled Georgetown University for the National Championship in New Orleans, Louisiana. This was a game for the ages. Two powerhouse schools: the Tar Heels and the Hoyas. Two larger-than-life coaches: Dean Smith and John Thompson. And two freshman phenoms: Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing.
There were strong supporting casts: James Worthy and Sam Perkins most notably for UNC, and Eric “Sleepy” Floyd for Georgetown. There was history: UNC lost the year before in the championship to Indiana, led by Isiah Thomas – a native Chicagoan and Jordan’s future NBA nemesis.
And finally, there was quite an atmosphere: over 61,000 in attendance at the Superdome in New Orleans, with another 17 million watching on TV. In front of those 17 million, with 17 seconds left in the game, Michael Jordan hit a 17-foot jumper than would change his life and the game of basketball from that day forward.
The tongue-wagging, 19-year-old Wilmington native was confident for sure, but also admitted he was nervous throughout the whole championship game. During a timeout with 32 seconds left and UNC down 62-61, Coach Dean Smith drew up a play designed for Jordan to shoot a jumper from the wing. “When I heard Coach Smith call my name, I was a little surprised,” Jordan admitted. “But I didn’t want to feel nervous. I just wanted to hit that shot,” said Jordan, in a 1993 Beckett Tribute magazine article.
Jordan’s shot would give UNC their first NCAA championship in 25 years, and would be the first for Coach Smith. That shot immediately placed Jordan in the national spotlight, and would give him a confidence and ego that would set him up for his legendary NBA career.
Roy Williams, now the head coach at UNC, was an assistant under Coach Smith during the team’s championship run. “In my mind, there’s no question that that shot elevated his confidence. It definitely elevated his respect around the world as a basketball player, and because of that his competitiveness drove him to be even better. I do believe that one shot, that one singular play, was extremely, extremely important to Michael psychologically,” said Williams, in a Newsweek Special Edition Jordan article.
Of course, before that shot, it wasn’t all perfection for Jordan. “In his freshman year, even up to the Final Four, you did not have any idea how good he was,” sports broadcaster Billy Packer recalled in Roland Lazenby’s book, The Life. “He did good things, but he didn’t control games. He didn’t explode offensively. He did what he was told to do within the system. He basically was a system player and I never saw him do the breakout things that we would see out of him later as a pro. I never saw him where you would say, ‘Holy mackerel.’”
ESPN Sports journalist Scoop Jackson was in attendance at the Superdome for the championship, and can attest to the fact that there was something about that game that changed Jordan. “I kept hearing rumors and reports of how good he (Jordan) really was in practice, but in my mind I couldn’t believe he was better than Worthy, Perkins or Jimmy Black. I was in school in New Orleans at the time, so I was fortunate enough to get tickets, and was in the Superdome to see that game. All I can remember is how throughout that game, my roommate and I kept saying, ‘That Jordan is a bad mutha——.’ And we were saying that before he hit the shot,” recalled Jackson.
It wasn’t all a fairy tale for Jordan up to that point in college, however. He wasn’t even guaranteed a starting spot on the team his freshman year. Upper classmen were treated with respect and special privileges at North Carolina. They earned their spots on the team because of the hard work and effort they put in over the years. Freshmen were treated like equipment managers, or worse. It was a humbling experience for MJ, but he went about his business and earned a starting spot – one of the few freshmen ever to do so under Coach Smith.
It was Jordan’s dedication to practice that helped him thrive so quickly in the UNC program. One of Jordan’s fellow residents in his dorm would videotape the UNC games, and Jordan would watch them over and over again in his room – something that was uncommon back then. When he went into a mid season shooting slump, he’d stay at practice and shoot 82 more shots, since it was 1982.
There must have been something only Jordan and a select few knew about those practices, because he kept wearing his UNC practice shorts underneath his Bulls shorts once he made it to the NBA. The spirit of the Tar Heels lived on for Jordan throughout his career. This month, Jordan Brand will honor that spirit with two UNC-inspired sneakers – the iconic Air Jordan XI, and the new Air Jordan XXXII. Both models are nicknamed “Win Like 82,” as a tribute to Jordan’s alma mater and their championship run in 1982.
In the today’s sneaker culture, there is a still a high reverence for the classic Air Jordan models. “I was born in ’94 so I didn’t get to see MJ live until the Wizards days,” said Max Resetar, Associate Editor at SLAM magazine. “Every year, when Jordan Brand releases a colorway of the XI, we all freak out, because it’s more than just another Jordan Brand sneaker, even if it’s a colorway he didn’t play in. The silhouette represents greatness, the highest of heights in basketball and sneakers. It serves as a reminder as to why we fell in love with this world. I was in Italy in August for the release of the XXXII, and Tate Kuerbis, JB’s Senior Footwear Designer, said that MJ’s ‘still super competitive.’ That’s coming from a man who spends time with Mike off the court.”
Eliot Robinson, Founder and CEO of @dunk, shares a similar respect for the GOAT, even though he wasn’t alive during Jordan’s college days. “When I think of Jordan at UNC, what comes to mind is greatness yet to be unleashed. People knew he had the potential to become one of the greatest; they truly did. You could see it in the way he moved and acted, but he had yet to unleash his full potential, and you never do know how college players will actually translate when they play with the big boys, aka the NBA.”
For the last 35 years, no other athlete has transcended sport and fashion like Jordan. People of all ages want to be like Mike – from his sneakers, to his baggy shorts, to his shaved head. Jordan created fashion statements without even realizing it. He wore longer shorts in the NBA because he had to cover up the UNC pair underneath. The first time he shaved his head, he joked that he wanted to look like his dad. The look stuck; everything MJ did stuck. He is one of a kind – the greatest of all time. And he can thank Coach Smith along with his teammates at UNC for starting him off on the right foot.
The above quotes have been edited for clarity.
Photos courtesy of Michael Sumner’s UNC media guide and newspaper archives.