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A TEAM THAT WAS BLESSED
Frank Deford
March 29, 1982
That's what Wilt Chamberlain calls the unbeaten '56-57 North Carolina Tar Heels, who upset his Kansas Jayhawks in triple overtime in the most exciting NCAA final ever
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March 29, 1982

A Team That Was Blessed

That's what Wilt Chamberlain calls the unbeaten '56-57 North Carolina Tar Heels, who upset his Kansas Jayhawks in triple overtime in the most exciting NCAA final ever

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There was indeed an NCAA tournament then, had been for years, but Carolina dared harbor no serious aspirations of winning the national title, because everyone everywhere simply assumed that Kansas would win the crown in 1957. And in '58 and '59, for that matter. This was because a young giant from Philadelphia, Wilt Chamberlain, had decided to play for the Jayhawks, and now he was entering his sophomore year, his first of varsity eligibility.

He was then perceived as superhuman. "People today cannot imagine the impact that man had on us all at that time," Joe Quigg says. "Wilt was just a colossus." He stood somewhat over seven feet, he was powerful and quick, and he was black! His reputation preceded him to Lawrence, Kans., because he was surely the first high school athlete whose recruiting was coast-to-coast news. "I don't mean these things to sound wrong, but I was above all the other guys then," Chamberlain says. "I guess I was just ahead of my time."

The only question seriously debated was whether or not Wilt would destroy college basketball.

It didn't take long for teams that were playing Chamberlain to figure out that their only chance was to collapse the defense around him and hold the ball on offense. Kansas would even lose twice—both times by a basket in a low-scoring game on the road. "What they did to Wilt would have provoked you or me to distraction—two or three bodies always packed up against him," says Dick Harp, who was his coach. "He never got any breaks from the officials, but he never lost his composure."

"Looking back, I don't ever remember feeling any pressure that season," Chamberlain says. "All I can remember is getting bored so often." The championship would be restorative. Kansas drew San Francisco, the defending champ, in the semifinals. A 6'9" guy named Art Day jumped against Wilt. "So you're Mr. Chamberlain," he said, and Wilt only snarled at him and made it a point to "crush" Day's first shot. At that, Day looked up awestruck. "So, you are Mr. Chamberlain," he said, and Wilt broke out laughing, right on the court. Chamberlain scored 32, at will, and Kansas won 80-56.

It was so devastating that most people forgot which team was coming into the final game undefeated.

THE SEASON

Midway through their schedule, with their record 16-0, North Carolina traveled to Maryland on a train and played the Terps before the largest basketball crowd in the history of the South, 12,200. When Maryland got possession of the ball, leading by four with 40 seconds left, McGuire called time out for the purpose of reviewing how the Tar Heels were to act—like gentlemen—in defeat. They won in overtime. "After that, after I called time out to tell them how to lose, and still they couldn't, well, from then on I knew they were really something special," McGuire says.

But it was McGuire who set the tone. "The best thing he did was he left us alone, five guys who played Noo Yawk style," Brennan says. Much of the strategy, the matchups, McGuire turned over to his assistant, the late Buck Freeman, who had, years before, been the head coach of the St. John's Wonder Five. Freeman was tall and white-maned, leonine, but he was also a fussy old bachelor who liked his whiskey. Above all, he was an utter technical genius, perfectly complementing the younger McGuire, who was a master of tempo, of game and group psychology. It's said that no coach has ever better understood when to call time outs than Frank McGuire.

The Tar Heels aligned themselves in such a way as to defy conventional defenses. "There was a chemistry, patterns, not plays," Rosenbluth says, "and when you have that, scouting reports don't mean a thing." In fact, broken down, the Carolina offense more closely resembled that used by the Harlem Globetrotters than any other. Rosenbluth was in the middle, back to the basket, the "showman," as the Globies call their "lead" (Meadowlark, Goose, Geese, whoever). Kearns was the "floorman" (Marques or Curly) out front with the ball. The two more traditional sturdy-center types, Quigg and Brennan, weren't under the basket, where they might get in the showman's way, but were put out in the corners.

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