SI Vault
 
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Point of fact: Carolina had no business beating Michigan State. The Spartans' coach cried in the locker room afterward because he knew his team should have won. It took three overtimes. Rosenbluth went for 29, but he forced his shots, often firing attempts that Jumpin' Johnny Green slapped away. Kearns played his worst game of the season, and Quigg got only one shot before he fouled out.

So Cunningham, realizing he had to shoot, scored 21, his career high, and he and Brennan saved the streak. Still, it almost ended in regulation when, at 58-all, the Spartans' Jack Quiggle threw in a desperation try from past half court at the buzzer. But the referee said time had run out before the shot. "All the luck we had that year," Rosenbluth says. "I guess we used it up for all the Carolina teams that followed."

Chamberlain was to have the best word for it.

Then, at the end of the first overtime, it was truly finished. As they said in North Carolina at the time: "That's all she wrote." Reeves said that on the air. State was up 64-62, six seconds left, Jumpin' Johnny at the line, one-and-one. Kearns remembers how desperate the situation was. The little guy he was guarding just walked over to him and, with a big grin, said three dirty words, "Thirty and one."

But Green missed the front end, and on the left side, Brennan came down with the rebound. He didn't call time out. He didn't look to pass out. He turned and dribbled. If Pete put the ball on the floor, it was going up. Only this one time Pete was 80 feet away. He started upcourt by himself, and suddenly he found himself near the other end, 20 feet from the hoop, two defenders in front of him, all his teammates behind. So he pulled up and fired. The buzzer sounded just after the ball went through the twine.

The Tar Heels won, anticlimactically, two overtimes later.

Then they watched for a while as Chamberlain annihilated San Francisco. Far from being intimidated, though, they came away calm in the knowledge of how they had to play him. "San Francisco let him get away with too much," Brennan says. "I don't care how awesome he was. We had to be physical with him." The next day, in the lobby of their hotel, the Continental, Kearns hung out, loving it, advising whatever skeptics would listen, "We're chilly. We're cool. Chamberlain won't give us any jitters." At some point, too (all accounts differ), McGuire told Kearns that if he was so cocky, he should go out and jump against Chamberlain at the start of the game. Kearns said sure.

The arena was thronged, almost all Kansas. But even this failed to undo the Tar Heels, who had played only eight home games all season. And they did have the governor, Luther Hodges, with them. He flew out after the Michigan State victory, possibly because the games were being specially televised back home, and the state was on its ear. Before this weekend, ACC basketball was popular as a sport; after this, it was woven into the fabric of North Carolina society. Governor Hodges looked around and then plunked himself down in the most visible place he could find, between McGuire and his team, on the bench.

The coach apologized and invited the governor to take a seat at the other end, and then, as the fans blinked and snickered, here came Kearns, 5'10" and change, elbowing his way into the center circle opposite Chamberlain. The big man glared down. Kearns played it for all it was worth, tensing, getting way down as if he could spring 20 feet into the air.

So began the most exciting game in NCAA tournament history.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11