July 6, 2009

UNC celebrating 100 years: Legendary status

Editor's note: CarolinaBlue.com Senior Analyst Eddy Landreth conducted
an interview several years ago with former North Carolina All-American
Sam Perkins about Michael Jordan, his friend and former teammate.

Here is the interview. It is a part of the series that will celebrate 100 years of UNC basketball between now and the end of the 2009-10 season.

The cover of Sports Illustrated's college basketball issue in the fall of 1981 featured North Carolina's returning four starters and coach Dean Smith. The missing face belonged to the eventual fifth man: a freshman from Wilmington named Michael Jordan.

North Carolina played against Indiana in the national championship game the previous spring, with the Hoosiers winning 63-50. Many fans around the state and the country expected North Carolina to win the next national title, with stars Sam Perkins and James Worthy returning.

Few could have anticipated what Jordan's role would be. At first, even those around the program were not sure what to call him.

The media guide listed him as Mike Jordan.

Soon after it came out, then-sports information director Rick Brewer heard some players call the freshman Michael, so Brewer asked Jordan what he preferred. Jordan said the folks back home called him both. It really didn't matter.

Brewer suggested Michael had a better ring.

Even the coaches were not sure just how good this new kid would be.

Tar Heels assistant coach Bill Guthridge returned from scouting Jordan during the recruiting process and told Smith he thought Jordan would make a nice ACC player someday.

When practice began on Oct. 15, the secret had already begun to leak out. Jordan was named the MVP in the McDonald's high school All-America game earlier in the year, and his new teammates had seen his physical ability in preseason pick-up games.

But on a team with veterans such as Worthy, Perkins, Jimmy Black and Matt Doherty, Jordan remained the newcomer.

By season's end, Jordan had become the Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year, had hit the winning basket in a dramatic 63-62 victory over Georgetown for the national championship and had become a permanent fixture in North Carolina basketball.

The jump shot against Georgetown gave Smith his first national championship in seven attempts and changed Jordan's life forever.

He was well on his way to being known as simply Michael to the nation and one of the main fixtures in the great lore of Carolina basketball.

The following are Sam Perkins' words:

"It was like we should have won the year previously. Michael gave us another guy. At the time, we didn't know how great he would be or how much he would have an impact, but we felt with Worthy and the supporting cast, we had a crew.

"We just wanted to go play.

"Everybody picked us to be number one.

"It's not like we had to live by it. We didn't really pay attention to it, but we had talent on that team. Michael was good, but not like he is today. Still, he made an impact, especially when we played within our league.

"That's when he started branching out more and more, showing the dunks and the moves.

"He caught on quickly. He was a freshman, and even though freshmen weren't supposed to really play, this man out of Wilmington had to play.

"He did some things that freshmen are not supposed to do. Sometimes he would take over games. People didn't know much about him until they got to see him.

"Michael fit well in Coach Smith's system. He had talent beyond a freshman. Freshmen are supposed to learn and grow into their sophomore years. With the skills he came in with, he almost had a sophomore mentality.

"Sure he had talent on the defensive end, but he had talent on the offensive end, too. He shot well, but not like he does today. But he made a difference. He had a mentality of a second-year guy.

"Freshmen fill a certain role at Carolina. They chase loose balls in practice and drink water last.

"As I look back on it now, you accepted you were a freshman. Things weren't expected of you, but you just played. You forgot all the little titles they gave you, freshman this, freshman that. You still played to make a difference.

"We never saw ourselves as freshmen, but we had our freshman duties. We had to take the criticism from the seniors. Other than that, we just played.

"When Michael came in, he didn't think of himself as a freshman. He wanted to be just like everybody else. Everybody was like a vet on that team.

"The shot against Georgetown gave him more recognition as a freshman. In college basketball, there is no longer such a thing as freshmen having to sit out the entire season. Back in that day, the older coaches, their philosophy was, `Let him watch.' You might throw him a bone every now and then.

"Now you get groomed as soon as you get out of high school. I think when people saw that shot against Georgetown, as big as that was for him as a freshman, it paved the way for freshmen to have more responsibility to the game.

"He handled it well.

"He became the North Carolina favorite. You had a guy who was from North Carolina, who went to North Carolina, and now you had someone to associate with North Carolina.

"When the bells rung around him from that shot, it gave him a sense of responsibility. The next year he was a veteran as a sophomore. With the talent that he had, he was able to do that.

"Coach Smith prepared Michael mentally to keep his ego in check. Michael always talked about other people on the team. He handled it and carried the responsibility well.

"But when it came to the game, he was all-out, just like anybody else.

"When you go to a program like that, it gives you more of a sense of confidence. When you see you can win together and play unselfishly, the program really dictates your progress and reputation from thereon in.

"North Carolina was always a school where we had winning ways. When you have that, you go a little further. That helped propel me into the NBA. So having that respect for the game, and not thinking you are bigger than the game, really helps you go longer.

"People talk about Coach holding Michael down.

"We had so much talent, you didn't have to score 30. Everybody played together. Michael respected that. He didn't have to do all the work all night long. College wasn't like that.

"That's why we went so far. We played unselfishly, and we liked each other. If you scored within the system, you scored. But if you had a good night, you made sure you complimented the guys who got you the ball.

"That was everybody's mentality.

"The togetherness has continued. There is a Carolina kind of closeness within the [NBA] and we get to see everybody who is in the pros.

"Michael's fame makes it different for him. I can only see Michael on the court.

"He's still levelheaded, but with the fame that he has, he's all over.

"You can't go out with him. He can't walk the malls like an ordinary person like myself. It's almost a challenge for him to sneak out. So it's kind of hard to see him, but I do say hello.

"I've been around two people with the persona that he exudes: Magic (Johnson) and James Worthy. Michael has the personality to fit everybody's mindset of being a total player on and off the court.

"He's genuine to the fact of what he has, and he respects it. He's not like a Wilt Chamberlain, who brags about it.

"The way Coach trained us in college: that is the mentality Michael has now -- make sure you give thanks to the people who got you there.

"I think that is the mentality we all have. Even though he is on a bigger scale, he is still thankful for what he has.

"We all have almost the same sentiments for Coach. When he retired, we almost said the same thing, but we never rehearsed it or talked about it. The way he taught us how to play and respect one another stayed with us, especially for me. I'm sure it is the same way for Michael, James Worthy, Jimmy Black, Brad Daugherty, it goes down the line.

"Even if there was a negative, the good times and good things we've had overshadowed it."


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