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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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UNDEFEATED WINNERS OF THE NCAA TOURNAMENT

Year

Team

Record

Final Opponent

1956

San Francisco

29-0

Iowa 83-71

1957

North Carolina

32-0

Kansas 54-53 (3 OT)

1964

UCLA

30-0

Duke 98-83

1967

UCLA

30-0

Dayton 79-64

1972

UCLA

30-0

Florida St. 81-76

1973

UCLA

30-0

Memphis St. 87-66

1976

Indiana

32-0

Michigan 86-68

The United States of America was much more regional a quarter of a century ago. This was before designer jeans. People could be distinguished by what they wore and how they talked and what they ate and on a variety of other indigenous counts. For example, when Frank McGuire left St. John's, in New York City, to become the coach at the University of North Carolina in 1952, he had trouble persuading players to go South with him. This was because most of the best city players then were Roman Catholic, and the other coaches, friends and hangers-around, even a few priests, would tell a player and his parents that if the boy went with McGuire down to the Protestant Bible Belt, he would surely "lose his soul."

McGuire points out now, "This was my biggest hurdle—souls."

Sometimes parochial schools would even refuse to mail a prospect's transcript to heathen Carolina, but McGuire learned, to some extent, how to fight fire with fire. He would tell parents to look at it this way: Their boy wouldn't just be a basketball player, he'd also be serving as a missionary. And at some of the kitchen tables where McGuire raised this point, it went over very well.

Recruiting at that time largely took place right there, at the kitchen table.

The move South wasn't an easy transition for McGuire himself, either. He had come from the big time. The first game he coached at Chapel Hill, about 1,200 fans showed up in a gym that held only 5,632. His office was a shabby, reconstituted section of an old men's room, unable to accommodate two grown men standing shoulder to shoulder. The Carolina team traveled to away games in crowded private cars, and when the players arrived at the distant campus, they slept on cots set up in the host's gym. This was called "local entertainment."

For this bush stuff McGuire never would have left St. John's except for his son, Frankie.

McGuire was a New Yorker through and through, and one of the biggest names in college basketball, having taken the Redmen to the NCAA finals in 1952. Frank McGuire knew everybody in town, and everybody returned the honor. He had the gift of gab, a fine Irish way about him. He had a handsome, open face, and he parted his golden hair high and made you think of Dan Duryea—that is, if just once Dan Duryea had played the good guy. Certainly, McGuire would never have left New York, but in 1951 he and his wife, Pat, had a boy who was named Frankie. Frankie was retarded and had cerebral palsy, and it was very difficult caring for him in a small apartment in the big city. So it was that McGuire took little North Carolina up on its offer and then started to try to spirit the flower of high school basketball out of the archdiocese of New York.

It helped McGuire that a lot of the big city colleges recently had been caught fixing games; it also helped that Uncle Harry continued to work the territory for him.

Consequently, in their crew cuts and car coats, four defenders of the faith gathered as freshmen in Chapel Hill in the autumn of '54: Pete Brennan and Joe Quigg from Brooklyn, from St. Augustine and St. Francis, respectively; Bob Cunningham from All Hallows, residing just over the color line, in West Harlem; and Tommy Kearns, who had grown up in the Bronx and moved across the river to Jersey, but commuted an hour and a half each way into Manhattan, to play for Looie Carnesecca at St. Ann's, where he had a basketball scholarship. In those more free-wheeling times, the Catholic schools serious about basketball held tryouts, citywide, and practice began the week after school opened. It was pretty much the only dream in town. "We played some softball, too," Kearns says, "but it couldn't take you anyplace."

At the time Kearns made this observation, a few weeks ago, he was lying on the beach in Uruguay, a well-tanned role model.

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