By Michael K. Bohn
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Memorable sports events gather luster as time passes for several reasons. Often a game’s significance hinges on heroic individual effort – Bobby Thomson’s walk-off home run to beat the Dodgers in 1951 is one example.
Others represent a sport’s turning point – the 1958 Giants-Colts NFL championship game that changed pro football. At least one even owes its iconic status to the weather: the 1967 Packers-Cowboys “Ice Bowl” on the “frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.”
The 1982 NCAA basketball championship game, however, has the whole package. The event had a unique venue, legendary coaches, extraordinary player talent and team play, social significance, an iconic shot, and plenty of joy among the victorious and agony for the defeated.
The game also spawned a basketball superstar and turned a mental lapse into a life lesson. Today, the game ranks in the top five on most everyone’s list of the greatest March Madness games.
The cavernous Superdome in New Orleans welcomed 61,612 fans, then the largest ever college basketball crowd, to watch Georgetown play North Carolina on March 29, 1982. Tar Heels coach Dean Smith brought a talented team to the final. He hoped to get off the schneid of three losses in his previous championship appearances – 1968, 1977 and 1981, as well as another three losses in national semifinal games. His players, especially senior point guard Jimmy Black, wanted to break that losing streak.
“Jimmy called a team meeting before the tournament,” recalled Buzz Peterson, then a freshman guard and now the coach at UNC-Wilmington. “He said, ‘We’re gonna win the title for Coach Smith so people will stop bashing him.’ ”
John Thompson had begun a reinvigoration of a moribund Georgetown basketball program in 1972, and by 1980, had taken a team to the Elite Eight.
Smith and Thompson were good friends, forging a mutual admiration society when they coached the 1976 Olympic basketball team. “They had no tricks for each other,” said Peterson. “Each knew what the other was doing.” Both coaches are in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Worthy led UNC
Junior forward James Worthy led the Carolina squad, along with sophomore center/forward Sam Perkins, sophomore Matt Doherty and Black. A skinny freshman guard named Mike Jordan was in the starting lineup. Assistant coach Bill Guthridge had worked with Jordan after practice during the 1981-82 season, making him take 82 extra shots a day to improve his shooting mechanics and percentage. Nevertheless, the youngster wasn’t bashful. Thirty years later, Doherty, the head coach at SMU until he was fired March 13, offered his assessment of Jordan then, “Gregarious … cocky … talented … confident.” Ironically, Jordan had been runner-up to Peterson as the 1981 North Carolina high school basketball player of the year, and roomed with Buzz in college.
While Georgetown freshman center Patrick Ewing garnered most of the media attention, stalwarts on the Hoyas’ team included seniors Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, center Ed Spriggs and forward Eric Smith. Sophomore Fred Brown was the point guard. In a parallel to the Thompson-Smith friendship, Worthy and Floyd both hailed from Gastonia, N.C., and were good friends.
Led by Jordan, 12 of the 14 members of the 1981-82 Tar Heels team became NBA draft picks at some point. Jordan’s story is well known, but Worthy won three rings with the Lakers and is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Two-time All-America Perkins played 12 years in the NBA. On the Georgetown side, Ewing is another Hall of Famer, and the NBA eventually drafted Floyd, Brown, Spriggs, Eric Smith, Gene Smith, Bill Martin and Anthony Jones.
The game started with the 7-foot Ewing blocking Carolina’s first four shots but picking up a goaltending call on each one. “The plan was to have Pat be aggressive early,” recalled Kurt Kaull, a Hoya reserve. “Coach told him, ‘Just swat the first two or three out of there to set the tone.’ ” The tactic didn’t impress Carolina.
“We thought that was ridiculous,” said Doherty. “Thompson wanted to intimidate us, but it was like free money.”
Georgetown led the low-scoring game at halftime, 32-31, with 10 of Carolina’s points coming from a total of five Ewing goaltends. After trailing most of the second half, the Tar Heels gained the lead and protected it with their Four Corners offense that killed time in the days before college shot clocks.
Ewing cut the deficit to one, 61-60, with a 12-foot jumper at the 2:37 mark. In the ensuring Four Corners delay, Eric Smith darted toward Doherty near the halfcourt line, intent on a steal. He did pick the ball, but the ref called a foul. “I never touched him,” Smith claims today. “I had it.”
Doherty went to the line to shoot a one-and-one and thought, “Don’t lose the game for Coach Smith.”
Doherty fights tears
Alas, he missed the first free throw, and fought back tears as he ran back on defense. “It still bothers me today,” Doherty said. “It was tough missing a free throw in a situation you dream about as a kid.”
Sleepy Floyd responded. Driving the lane, he faked Worthy into the air and out of the play. His 12-foot floater, one aided by three friendly bounces on the rim, put the Hoyas up 62-61 with 57 seconds left. It was the 15th lead change.
As Black brought the ball across the 10-second line, Smith and assistant coach Eddie Fogler thought the set-up seemed wrong. “We didn’t like what we saw,” Fogler said recently. Smith called for a timeout with :32 left.
“I knew John would probably stay in a zone,” Smith later recalled of Thompson. He called for Black to look first for Worthy, and then Perkins, going down the lane. If they weren’t open, check the weak side.
That’s what happened, and Black threw a skip pass to Jordan on the left wing. Jordan caught the ball and shot in almost the same motion. His 16-foot jumper hit nothing but net with 15 seconds left. “It’s easy to shoot that shot with 2 seconds on the clock,” explained Doherty. “But with 15 seconds left, you’re a stone-cold killer.”
Brown dribbled up the court knowing he had to go to either Ewing or Floyd. Worthy was on the perimeter, 25 feet from the basket and out of position. Perkins yelled at him to get back to help with Ewing and Spriggs.
As time slipped away, Brown paused near the top of the key and picked up his dribble. Floyd looked open on the right side, but Jordan deftly stepped into Brown’s passing lane. Worthy anticipated Brown’s pass to Smith and gambled on a steal. Smith rightly moved away to an open spot as Worthy overplayed the possible pass so badly that he found himself behind Brown. The Georgetown guard caught a glimpse of a body where Smith had been a moment before. With eight seconds left, Brown threw the ball – to Worthy.
“I panicked,” Worthy admitted later. “I didn’t want to screw up anything.” He eventually dribbled toward the Tar Heels’ basket, but Smith fouled him with 2 seconds on the clock. “I almost tackled him,” Smith said. Shooting two on the intentional foul, Worthy missed both, but not intentionally.
Spriggs got the rebound after Worthy’s second miss and quickly threw it to Floyd. He got off a 55-foot prayer before the buzzer that missed.
Amid the immediate chaos on the court, Thompson gave Brown a hug. “He told me not to worry about it,” Brown said years later. “He said that I had won more games than I had lost.”
Now a financial adviser in Maryland, Brown has grown weary through the years answering questions about his bad pass. He last spoke publicly about it in 2007: “I played my heart out, did the best I could and didn’t worry about it one bit.”
Where are they now?
Coaches Smith and Thompson are both retired; Jimmy Black is a financial adviser in North Carolina; Worthy, a TV basketball analyst; Perkins, an assistant coach in the NBA development league and an NBA goodwill ambassador. Eric Smith works for Verizon in Maryland. Sleepy Floyd lives in Charlotte, makes promotional appearances and supports community activities. The game-winning shot transformed Mike Jordan into Michael Jordan, and the rest is history. Jordan became an NBA superstar with six league championships, but his career as a league executive and owner has had a few ups and downs.
Like against Georgetown on that electric night, Jordan, much like North Carolina, has mostly been up. And the Hoyas won the NCAA championship in 1984 – with Fred Brown gaining a measure of redemption.