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Know this about what it's like to play against the Tar Heels of coach Dean Smith and the University of North Carolina: Eventually you run out of time. Eventually you run out of timeouts. Eventually the passing of the years delivers Smith a brace of players so perfectly meant to play with one another—and for him—that they bring to glorious life all the precepts and rules and dicta of the Carolina way.
To secure his second NCAA title, with a 77-71 win over Michigan in New Orleans on Monday night, Smith—Dean, Dean the Witch Doctor Mean—dipped into his trusty gris-gris bag, just as he did in the same Louisiana Super-dome in 1982, when Fred Brown of Georgetown inexplicably threw a pass to the Tar Heels' James Worthy and thus cast a long-tongued kid named Michael Jordan in his now familiar role as hero. Once more, nothing rational, no philosophy, no scheme, no system, to use the word Smith so disdains but won't ever escape, can fully account for the strange doings in a title game involving Carolina on the Bayou.
In the final seconds, with the Tar Heels up two threadbare points and Michigan holding the ball, the Wolverines' splendid sophomore Chris Webber incurred a technical foul by calling a timeout his team didn't have (box, page 28). As the Tar Heels celebrate their third NCAA crown, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, Donald Williams—like Mike, a native North Carolinian and a shooter of wondrous skill—and his teammates should use "laissez les jump shots rouler" as their partying cry and give a nod of thanks to the mambo kings and queens of black magic. The Superdome court may have been manufactured in Michigan, but Monday night's baskets, through which Williams seemed to toss the ball at will, were made in North Carolina.
You can hear Smith now, in his contrarian twang: Donald needs to work on his passing and defense. He's a shooter, just a small part of the team. And Smith is right; was this not his most exquisitely assembled team? Its foundation came to Chapel Hill three autumns ago as the class of '94, the ballyhooed group of players—center Eric Montross, point guard Derrick Phelps, small forward Brian Reese, power forward Clifford Rozier and swingman Pat Sullivan—who were quickly forgotten when Michigan brought in its Fab Five a year later. Smith's group benefited from perfect subtraction (the malcontent Rozier transferred to Louisville after one season) and perfect addition (Williams and his crystalline jump shot arrived as Rozier left), while the perfect senior (the indomitable George Lynch) stood fast. Like spackling compound, a passer (Henrik Rödl) and a shot blocker (Kevin Salvadori) filled cracks and provided cohesion.
There's an optimal balance between freedom and responsibility that those who work with young people-teachers, parents and coaches alike-all strive to find. With these Tar Heels, Smith locked in on that balance and held fast to the coordinates. By late February the team's offensive decision-making ability caught up with a soundness at the defensive end that had carried it to that point. As Smith granted them more and more license, the players kept reciprocating, showing an ever keener sense of obligation. Smith would never admit it, for he flatly refuses to compare his teams, but no other had so completely bought into what he teaches.
Cynics might say that Smith, a man obsessed with minutiae, would especially savor a victory secured on a technicality. But they would miss the truth about this season's team, a group that allowed Smith to be more malleable than ever. The North Carolina coach promulgated the most recent of his rules last month, shortly after Phelps bruised his tailbone during the ACC tournament. Like any coach, Smith was tempted to hurry such an irreplaceable player back sooner than might have been prudent. Instead he vowed that no one would talk him into playing Phelps before the coach judged him ready. Certainly if a player was limping, out he would come.
So there was Phelps, seven minutes into the second half of the Tar Heels' semifinal game against Kansas, taking a hard fall and landing on his pelvis. After sitting out for 41 seconds, he came back in. Though clearly favoring his side and grimacing with every step, he carried on for more than a minute before Smith replaced him with senior Scott Cherry, a plucky reserve who, nevertheless, is essentially a glorified walk-on. No sooner had Phelps left than the Jayhawks' Adonis Jordan picked Reese clean and sailed in for a layup. Shortly thereafter Williams mishandled a pass from Cherry.
With that, Smith turned to Reese, who is Phelps's roommate. "You know him better than anybody," Smith said. "Can he play?"
"He can play," Reese replied, and one of Smith's rules met its exception. Phelps checked back in, and North Carolina celebrated his return by forcing a 45-second violation. The Jayhawks soon found themselves in tears at the Final Four for the second time in three years, after they lost 78-68.
A North Carolina box score from this season is like a passage of Hemingway: terse but eloquent and full of idiosyncrasy. Parse the final box from the Kansas game and you'll find every hallmark of these Tar Heels. The center gets the most shots (Montross took 14). The point guard (Phelps) passes off for baskets (six times) twice as often as he shoots (three). The power forward rebounds in double figures (Lynch pulled down 10). And the team's shooting guard (Williams) takes the three-point shots (he launched all seven of the Tar Heels' threes) and makes them (five found bottom).