THE DEAN IS DEAD. College Basketball has passed him by. North Carolina coach Dean Smith can't recruit anymore. Can't live off his name. Can't sell his system. Can't get today's supreme athletes to come to Chapel Hill to pass, screen and trap. Can't lure them to Carolina to execute the four corners, gather in a huddle before each free throw, jump off the bench to salute a teammate's good play, be polite or accept discipline. Can't get them and their grades into school—or control them when they do get in. And he can't beat a name team to save his Tar Heel soul.
Why, didn't North Carolina get embarrassed right there in the Dean Dome last season by Temple? Get knocked out of the 1988 NCAA tournament, absolutely humiliated, by Arizona? Get handed its gizzard just this past Thanksgiving eve by Missouri? And now that the man has up and quit his beloved cigarettes, you don't believe that, even if he isn't ready to kick the coaching bucket, Smith isn't just a teensy-weensy bit...moribund?
Well, save your Confederate butts—both kinds, gang—while you still can, because the 57-year-old, twangy-voiced, nicotine gum-smacking coach has risen once again.
During last week's inaugural Tournament of Champions in Charlotte, N.C., to which, coincidentally, all three of the Tar Heels' above-mentioned tormentors were invited, the only burials conducted were those for the visitors. While North Carolina's 6'9" bellringer, J.R. Reid, sat on the bench in his civvies, nursing a stress fracture in his left foot, and senior guard Jeff Lebo gave himself up as a decoy, a couple of mysterious no-names emerged. Rick Fox? Isn't he the lifeguard on A Different World? Kevin Madden? Doesn't he do hardware commercials? With the two of them leading the charge, the Tar Heels won the tournament going away.
Call the gala occasion Smitty's Salute: When Temple coach John Chaney congratulated Smith in a luncheon speech for forsaking the weed, the crowd gave their favorite mentor one of his countless weekend ovations (and this occurred in a state where tobacco is nearly as important as basketball, for heaven's sake). Or call it Dean's Redemption: "Vengeance was in the back of our minds," Tar Heel center Scott Williams said of the trio of defeats. Whatever tag you put on it, here was Smith starting his fourth and fifth different lineups of the young season—"We're just trying to have some fun; whoever beats me shooting free throws in practice gets to start," he said—as North Carolina, 6-1 at week's end, whipped Arizona 79-72 and plundered Missouri 76-60. All of which may have Reid wondering if he'll have to beg to get back in the lineup.
A more reasonable question is, What's going to happen to the suddenly mobile Tar Heel attack when the hulking Reid returns and takes up a considerable portion of the interior space in which Madden's baseline jump shots and Fox's turnarounds have been so effective? In Charlotte, Lebo's total of three baskets in two nights was more than offset by Madden's 30 points for the weekend. Fox's 24 against Missouri (plus the tournament MVP trophy) and the 22 rebounds in the two games by a scrawny sophomore named Peter Chilcutt, who is smack out of The Official Preppy Handbook. Chilcutt is also out of that legendary basketball hotbed, Eutaw, Ala., and if you think that's weird, please note that Fox, a 6'7" soph forward with a most unorthodox, low-slung gait, is from Nassau—not the county on Long Island but the city in the Bahamas. What in Carolina blue is going on here?
"A team thing," explained Williams, sounding like a certain president-elect.
The portents for this season were for misery among the Tar Heel faithful. It wasn't horrid enough that Reid had fractured a metatarsal bone in October, or that hated rival Duke had grabbed the spotlight of the No. 1 national ranking, or that Kenny Anderson, the New York high school prodigy whom the cognoscenti figured would be the next Tar Heel star, signed with Georgia Tech, making it two years in a row that Smith was shut out on the blue-chip recruiting circuit.
No, worst of all, college hoops' enemy No. 1, the NBA, had surfaced in the glorious new 23,500-seat Coliseum in Charlotte, and the newly hatched Hornets were leading the league in enthusiasm—not to mention attendance. The night before the tournament, the Hornets upset the Philadelphia 76ers for their—gasp!—second win in a row, and the city was aglow for the pros. "I have felt guilt and puzzlement," Carlton Tadlock, 39, told
The Charlotte Observer
. "Am I not a Carolina fan? But...if somebody asked me who I follow most emotionally, I'd have to say the Hornets."
Nevertheless, the city presented a show worthy of the Final Four, an event Charlotte happens to be bidding on for 1994 and 1995. The civic luncheon downtown included a multicolored balloon spectacle that put the Republican National Convention to shame, and there were many parochial entertainment options—although the visiting teams arrived at the Charlotte Motor Speedway after dark, too late to take a death-defying lap in a stock car. "We drove around the track in a bus," dead-panned Missouri coach Norm Stewart. "When these guys come to our tournament, we'll take them over to Booneville and show 'em how to cure a ham."