An Air of Greatness: Michael Jordan's Freshman Year

An Air of Greatness: Michael Jordan's Freshman Year

Why you should care

Because greatness accrues in stages, and some unexpected ones at that.

“It was destiny,” Michael Jordan reflected years later. “Ever since I made that shot, everything has just fallen into place for me. If that shot hadn’t gone in, I don’t think I would be where I am today.”

For a man who made countless big shots in his basketball career, “that shot” requires some elaboration. The sports legend is not referring to any of the 24 or more game-winners he hit with fewer than 10 seconds on the clock in his pro career, or even the one known simply as “The Shot,” which he sank at the buzzer in the 1989 NBA playoffs against Cleveland.

No, he is talking about a 16-footer from the left wing that a college freshman named Mike Jordan sank with 15 seconds to go, lifting the University of North Carolina over Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.

Few watching Jordan’s first collegiate season…would have guessed they were watching the man who would become the most dominant player in the game…

“That shot” was just the exclamation point on an unforgettable freshman year for the 19-year-old kid from Wilmington, North Carolina. Still, few watching Jordan’s first collegiate season or the fairytale ending on the floor of the Louisiana Superdome in March 1982 would have guessed they were watching the man who would become the most dominant player in the the game for the next two decades, and perhaps in the history of the sport.

Part of the explanation, according to Roland Lazenby in Michael Jordan: The Life, his new biography of the basketball superstar, was how well the raw young athlete was able to assimilate into coach Dean Smith’s rigid system of team basketball at North Carolina. Playing for the Tar Heels may have somewhat masked Jordan’s prodigious talents, but it proved integral to their ultimate development.

As another college basketball season looms, and another crop of talented freshmen takes the stage, it’s easy to forget there was a time when the best college players did not leave after their first year, when they had to wait their turn to step into the spotlight.

That was doubly true for Michael Jordan when he arrived in Chapel Hill in 1981. Not only did North Carolina boast a squad of several returning starters, including future NBA players James Worthy and Sam Perkins, but Smith’s entire system was predicated on seniority.

The primary task that season for Jordan was carting around the team’s film projection equipment.

“Freshmen carried team bags and equipment and performed other menial chores,” says Lazenby. The primary task that season for the man who would become His Airness? Carting around the team’s film projection equipment.

But 1981-82 was a big year for Smith. Since 1962, the Tar Heels, who had lost to Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers in the NCAA final the previous year, had collected 460 wins and six trips to the Final Four, but zero national championships. Indeed, history had started running down the clock on the 50-year-old Smith in much the same way he did with opponents. A proponent of the antiquated four corners offense, Smith’s teams would often grab the lead late in a contest and then stall — a tactic that prompted the Atlantic Coast Conference to introduce the shot clock.

Smith needed to win soon, and to do so he needed a player on the wing to take the pressure off Worthy and Perkins inside, even if it was a cocky freshman.

“You heard him before you saw him,” Worthy, UNC’s unassuming star forward from Gastonia, North Carolina, would say later of his fellow future Hall of Famer. Jordan’s fiery competitiveness — and tendency to push himself by trash-talking opponents and his own teammates — did not go over well at first during Tar Heel practices. But Jordan’s willingness to be coached and adjust his game accordingly proved decisive.

Jordan immersed himself in Smith’s system, learning the intricacies of the game. Practices were quiet, structured and ruthlessly efficient affairs, designed to emphasize team play and chemistry. That fall, Jordan’s “unbridled athleticism … seemed to disappear almost overnight,” writes Lazenby. That was “just how deep his absorption into the Carolina program had been.”

Michael Jordan scoring off a left handed lay up over Patrick Ewing

Michael Jordan scores off a left-handed layup over Patrick Ewing in the 1982 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.

Source Wally McNamee/Corbis

The freshman made the team as its fifth starter and would average a solid 13.5 points a game that first year, shooting 53.4 percent from floor. But he was really just a role player, executing within a system that would propel UNC to a 32-2 record.

It wasn’t until that season’s ACC tournament championship that Jordan really grabbed the attention of a national audience after hitting four key shots in a row at the end to propel UNC to victory over rival Virginia and its 7-foot-4 All-American center, Ralph Sampson.

That same year, Jordan and the Tar Heels earned a date with another 7-footer in the NCAA Championship, Georgetown’s freshman center, Patrick Ewing. More than 17 million people watched Jordan’s date with destiny and one of the most dramatic finals in history.

It was a back-and-forth game in which Jordan hit a driving layup with his left hand — off the backboard and over Ewing — with 3 minutes, 26 seconds remaining. Later, with just 32 seconds left in the game, North Carolina was trailing the Hoyas 62-61.

Calling a timeout, Smith, in perhaps the biggest game of his coaching career, drew up a play that entrusted a freshman with what he hoped would be the final shot.

“Knock it in, Michael,” Smith told Jordan as the huddle broke.

And Michael Jordan, being Michael Jordan, did just that.

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