The Tar Heels, of course, had traveled to a much colder place. On our 14-hour journey from the Aloha State to the Last Frontier, we covered 4,265 miles, made two connections and one implacable enemy—the guy behind us who stashed his caged feline under our row of seats, where it's panicked yowling on the red-eye to San Francisco ruled out the possibility of slumber. The cat courier was unamused by our wee-hours offer to euthanize—quickly and humanely, with a little blue airline pillow—his tabby. It would have pleased him to learn that on the Seattle-to-Anchorage leg of our journey, we were seated directly behind a serial windbreaker.
Excluding passengers, the only thing more breathtaking than the sight of the forbidding Chugach Mountains, as one descends into Anchorage, is the $3 charge to use the airport's ATM. This larceny notwithstanding, Anchorage prides itself on its hospitality, a quality that also imbues the Shootout. Since the tournament's inception 19 years ago, local families have invited teams into their homes for Thanksgiving dinner. Shootout participants are almost forced to be active tourists. To do otherwise would be to hurt the feelings of their eager hosts.
Purdue's players visited the Portage Glacier, 30 miles south of Anchorage. "It was, you know, this, like, great big chunk of ice" was how Boilermakers guard Mosi Barnes described it. The Tar Heels went dogsledding early in the week, with mixed results. All-America junior forward Antawn Jamison wound up strapped into a runaway sled that flipped. Somehow, the musher had fallen off—he said gee, the dogs heard haw, perhaps—leaving the 6'9" Jamison in charge. Jamison learned that huskies don't respond to such commands as "Yo, slow down." He eventually made his way back to his teammates but not before having to make an unscheduled mile-long hike through scary terrain. "They've got moose and wolves and bears out there," he said, "but I kept my composure."
(His misadventure recalled that of Kentucky's junior point guard Wayne Turner, who got lost on a snowmobile for three hours during last year's Great Alaska Shootout. It was for this reason that Smith was reluctant to let Turner rent a Jet Ski in Maui; he feared his floor leader might inadvertently return to Alaska.)
While checking out the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, UCLA's players saw pictures of the devastation wrought by the 1964 earthquake, which measured 8.4 on the Richter scale. They may have recalled that exhibit the following night, when North Carolina junior forward Vince Carter threw down a series of savage, temblor-inducing jams and the Tar Heels won by 41 points, the Bruins' second-worst defeat ever. Without 6'10" center Jelani McCoy and 6'4" forward Kris Johnson, both of whom were suspended by Lavin in September for breaking team rules, UCLA was small and vulnerable. Every time the vertically challenged Bruins walked through the lobby of their hotel, they were mocked by a nine-foot bruin—a stuffed brown bear—who resides in a glass case.
After the Tar Heels crushed Seton Hall by 30 points in the semifinals, the question became: Can anyone give Carolina a game? In the same week that saw Indiana lose big to Hawaii, Wisconsin fall to Pacific and Illinois get dusted by St. John's in other offshore holiday tournaments, Purdue was out to salvage some honor for the sadly diminished Big Ten. The Boilermakers gave the Heels all they could handle in the final. With 8:05 left in the third quarter, Carolina—suddenly unable to hit the side of a glacier—trailed 40-29. Also, the Tar Heels were getting butchered down low, as Purdue center Brad Miller set about scoring a game-high 29 points.
Despite decisively winning the battle of the big men—poor North Carolina forward Ademola Okulaja took several elbows to the face and spent more time on the deck than Michael Moorer—the Boilermakers let the game get away down the stretch and the Tar Heels escaped with a 73-69 win. After the game, Carter, the aerial artist, asked to see a score sheet. "Your line is ugly," he was warned.
"I don't care about my line," said Carter. "I want to see the line of the guy I guarded." He had held Purdue guard Chad Austin to four points, shooting guard Shammond Williams had filled it up from outside, and Jamison had merely looked like the best player in the country. The Tar Heels appeared to be in good shape even without Dean Smith on the sideline.
Why then the look of concern on the face of John Kilgo? It was time for Kilgo, a TV broadcaster, to host the first Bill Guthridge Carolina Basketball Show. Kilgo seemed concerned that Guthridge's lack of emotion might make for bad TV. "He's only stood up once in six games," Kilgo said worriedly before going on the air. "It was in last night's game. He said to the official, 'He tripped him,' then he sat right back down."
Guthridge did just fine on the show. Although he tended to speak in an actuary's monotone, his insights were good, his sense of humor arid. This, after all, is the man who one summer asked Michael Jordan what Jordan had been doing since he left Chapel Hill. While Guthridge taped his show, Carolina's next NBA star sat in the dressing room, examining the Golden Pan he was awarded as the Shootout's MVP. When it was explained to Jamison that prospectors used such hardware to pan for gold, he said, "For real?"