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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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In another hour or two he was back on campus in Lawrence. Louis Armstrong was playing there that evening. It was envisioned as a victory ball. "Old Satchmo was playing When the Saints Go Marching In, but we marched back losers instead," Chamberlain said ruefully a few weeks ago, smiling softly at a friend sitting next to him. The friend shrugged in sympathy.

It takes a lot of gumption for Wilt to talk like this, because as the years have passed he has come to understand how that one game in Kansas City changed the whole perception of him. He came in as the invincible giant, but when he went out, he carried with him some vague impression of defeat's being his destiny. It was with Bill Russell and the Celtics that this became a pox upon Chamberlain, but he knows only too well where the germ first alighted. He knows. "Of all the games in my career, and certainly so far as image is concerned, you understand, that goddamn one against Carolina was the biggest," he says.

It is ironic, too, that no one protests the unfairness of this stigma so much as McGuire and the champion Tar Heels do. Kearns, particularly Kearns, who was sent out to jump .center, to somehow mock and rattle the giant, refutes the loser's tag that clings to Chamberlain.

That Kearns had jumped center might have disturbed Wilt more than he ever let on, too. McGuire recalls that four years later, when he first met Chamberlain at Philadelphia, Wilt was quick to ask McGuire why he had done that to him in Kansas City.

In fact, there's no consensus on exactly where the center-jump idea came from. In contrast, Kearns knows precisely why he had the presence of mind to hurl the ball up, free and clear, in the last seconds of the game. He remembered hearing that Hot Rod Hundley had pulled that stunt once at West Virginia, and "There were a couple guys around me, but Wilt was in the back of my mind. I just figured even he couldn't get the ball if it was 400 feet up in the air."

Wilt did everything just right at the end, in the clutch. This is perfectly clear from the old films. When Quigg got the ball at the left of the top of the key, he gave a little fake as if to shoot, and Chamberlain came up on him some, as well he should have; he knew that the guy with the chewing gum could hit from outside. So then, when Quigg started to drive, he had a slight edge, maybe half a step, on Wilt. But Chamberlain angled back, so that he was comfortably between Quigg and the basket when Quigg shot. Wilt blocked the ball cleanly, and that would have been the end of that—except King had left his man and, helping out, had fouled Quigg. So that was how Chamberlain's man got the chance to sink the shots that put Carolina ahead.

Kansas called time, with five seconds to score. Everyone in the building knew the ball was going inside to Chamberlain, but still—although nobody seems to remember this except Wilt—Carolina botched it. Really. McGuire recalls telling Quigg to play in front of Chamberlain and Lotz directly behind. If Wilt got the ball, McGuire wanted Lotz to pin both Wilt's arms immediately. "At least make him beat us on the foul line," McGuire said. But if he gave those instructions, Lotz somehow failed to comprehend them, because when play resumed, Lotz was not only not behind Chamberlain, he was well in front, edging out to the foul line, where Ron Loneski would receive the inbounds pass. Lotz laughs now at the part he played in the drama. "It wasn't very bright of me, was it?" he says.

Quigg did get in front of Chamberlain and then realized, to his horror, that he, at 6'7", was all alone against Wilt. Brennan, the other forecourtman, was several steps to the side, ready to guard Elstun should he get the ball in the right corner. Quigg even remembers screaming in panic to Brennan, "Come back! Come back!" Brennan did, but it was too late. Brennan was never more than parallel to Chamberlain's right side, where he was defenseless to ward off a pass coming in from the left. If the pass had only been lofted a few inches higher, neither Carolina nor, for that matter, all the angels in heaven could have stopped Chamberlain from stuffing the winning basket through the hoop.

So the Tar Heels didn't execute that play well. Kansas didn't execute that play well. And for it, Chamberlain was the one who forever became a loser. That's all she wrote.

It's merely an added curiosity that Chamberlain retains a more vivid picture of the final seconds than do any of the winners. "The best teams I ever played against were the smartest," he says. "Boston, then New York in the pros. And Carolina this time. But you know what's so funny? Carolina didn't do one dumb thing that whole damn game until the worst possible time, the last five seconds. Then there just wasn't anybody behind me, you understand." He shook his head. "We should've won that game, Tommy."

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