The 1982 national championship between North Carolina and Georgetown is one of the all-time greats in NCAA Tournament history. It ended with Michael Jordan doing what he did a lot in his basketball career: hitting a game-winning jump shot. Almost 40 years later, that shot, that moment, remains iconic.
What was MJ like as a college freshman?
“Well, Michael came in and was somewhat cocky,” former UNC small forward and Tar Heels head coach Matt Doherty said on The DA Show. “Coach [Dean] Smith always made sure the star freshman was kind of squashed a little bit, but he had a gift of trying to control the temperament but also allowing him to flourish – and he started him. . . . That was unique.”
Jordan averaged 13.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists that season. He was the Tar Heels’ third-leading scorer behind James Worthy (15.6 points) and Sam Perkins (14.3).
“Michael, we all respected him because one, he was talented as all get out, and two, he was a sponge, he listened, he learned and he competed,” Doherty said. “To see him early in practice, his ability to go into the lane and hang and be able to find the basket and lay it up with spin and touch was really remarkable And then obviously his defensive abilities. With the short shorts, you can really see how long the arms are on some of these players and how big their hands are. Sam Perkins’ arms literally almost touched his knees. Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, the length on those players was remarkable.”
North Carolina lost to Indiana in the national championship in 1981. The Tar Heels, however, returned most of their team the following season. Adding Jordan certainly didn’t hurt.
“We knew we were good,” Doherty said. “We knew what we were capable of. We had really good guys. I think that’s such an important thing to recognize. The high character of the guys, the unselfishness – James Worthy was the first player picked in the draft that year, and he was an All-American, the MVP of the Final Four. He only averaged 15 points a game. Everyone jokes about Dean Smith was the only one who could keep Michael under 20 points a game. We had really good players.”
UNC and Georgetown battled back and forth in the title game, with Smith calling timeout before Jordan’s game-winner.
“His leadership in that moment was spectacular,” Doherty said of Smith. “He always would smile in times of duress and give us the needed confidence. Everyone is going to defer to the leader, so Coach Smith was very relaxed and he would smile and there’d be a twinkle in his eye. In that game, he said, ‘We’re right where we want to be.’ When we broke the huddle, I think Coach Smith went up to every player – because I know he went up to me – and he said, ‘If you’re open, knock it down.’
“Now he may have whispered it at me and yelled it at Michael Jordan,” Doherty continued, laughing, “but he did say it. That’s the confidence of a leader, especially against a zone. You can really only put your players in position and trust that they’ll make the right play.”
Jordan did exactly that. Heck, the shot didn’t even hit the rim.
“To this day, it blows me away to see Michael Jordan catch that ball with 17 seconds to go and fire it in,” Doherty said. “He didn’t have a great game up to that point. He had a good game, but he’s a freshman. He’s a freshman with James Worthy and Sam Perkins on the court. There’s 63,000 people at the game. It’s the first time they played in the domed-arena. He could have easily shot-faked the ball and moved it. But he took it. It wasn’t like it was a wide-open shot. But that’s the Michael Jordan we have come to know and love. He has it. Whatever you want to call it, he has it. That came through on that final shot in 1982.”