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Technical Knockout
Alexander Wolff
April 12, 1993
When Chris Webber called a timeout his team didn't have, Michigan was hit with a technical foul that clinched the national title for North Carolina
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April 12, 1993

Technical Knockout

When Chris Webber called a timeout his team didn't have, Michigan was hit with a technical foul that clinched the national title for North Carolina

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There is also an electrical system of sorts—or there had been. Since the three-pointer was introduced in 1986, good shooters had a green light to shoot threes, those with a less deft touch had a yellow light (they could shoot only under certain circumstances) and a few lived on Deano's own Bourbon Street, in his red-light district. " 'Red light, green light' was making me more hesitant," says Reese, who was one of several Tar Heels who went to Smith during the off-season and prevailed upon him to scrap the rule. "This year there is no light, and the team is more comfortable with its shots. Coach Smith knows that a team of juniors and seniors isn't going to try anything wild."

Do all these systems add up to some sort of supersystem? Ultimately none of this is nearly as bloodless as the word system might suggest. It has been well documented how Smith, during his fourth season as head coach, returned to Chapel Hill from a loss at Wake Forest in 1965 to find that he had been hung in effigy. In the following, decisive months—before he had taken teams to Final Fours in four different decades—he found solace in a book called Beyond Our Selves, given to him by his sister, Joan. One chapter, "The Power of Helplessness," allowed him to turn a trick of paradox: An individual could plumb his own depths for strength, so long as he recognized that there were limits to what that strength could accomplish. Hence North Carolina's pathological exaltation of the team over the individual. (Hence, too, the intermittent revelations when Tar Heels enter the NBA and we find ourselves wondering why we had never seen the full breadth of their skill in Chapel Hill.)

Today Smith practices a self-effacement so scrupulous that it calls attention to itself. He's fastidious not only about remembering people's names but at memorizing the details that go with them and then using those recollections as a shield, to deflect any attention that might hunt him down. Last week Smith was feted, along with the other Final Four coaches, at a huge NCAA gala at which he was obliged to speak under conditions—at the center of a cavernous hall, with no podium to hide behind, literally in the spotlight—that made his discomfort palpable. Sure enough Smith was soon pointing out someone at a back table, a woman who had asked him for an autograph earlier in the evening, a Margaret from Arkansas.

There also abides in Smith much of the activist spirit that helped integrate lunch counters and campaigned for a nuclear freeze—the man who, like John Stuart Mill, believes that society is perfectible. The coach takes after the public man, and thus his teams are the product of constant refinement. This season the legend of his obsession with detail grew: When Montross and Reese caught a slow elevator before the Tar Heels' opening game in the ACC tournament and wound up a minute and 20 seconds late for a team meeting, that's how much time elapsed in North Carolina's next game before Smith sent them to the scorer's table to check in. Yet for all the rigor Smith brings to the game, none of his many rules is immutable. A Brian Reese can walk into his office and change Smith's mind.

There is also a part of Smith that repudiates secularism, that still holds fast to Beyond Our Selves. One player who recognizes this is Rödl, who suggests that the team's interdependency is well expressed in the epistles of Paul in the New Testament, which speak of the body's many parts. "You may not be equal in talent," says Rödl, "but everybody is equal in the eyes of God, whether you're a good player or a bad player." The coach is a sort of minister, vested with the duty to serve his ad hoc flock. He must see that the better players play more, of course, and remind players and press alike that differences in talent are matters relevant to how we make our way in the world. But he must also see to it that three years of investment in "how we do things at North Carolina" bring one closer to a state of grace than a few months do. That's why the senior walk-on adorns the cover of the media guide while the hotshot freshman helps the managers lug equipment. That's why junior college interlopers are not welcomed. And that's why, after Saturday's victory, Smith said (as he almost always manages to say), "I thought Scott Cherry really gave us a lift tonight."

In 32 seasons the Associated Press has never once named Smith its Coach of the Year; that may be because it's altogether too worldly an award for the struggle he goes through each season. Even on the podium he couldn't stop coaching. He actually orchestrated the cutting down of the nets so that the seniors, of course, went first. Smith himself severed the last strand with a pair of gold scissors that had been engraved with UNC 1993 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS—a gift from a fan who had sent a similar pair in '82. When the players returned to the locker room, someone had already written on the chalkboard: CONGRATULATIONS! GREAT TEAM!! NO PRACTICE TOMORROW.

No wrinkle to insert. No weakness to work on. No detail to refine. How ever will Dean spend the day?

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