The Season We Won’t Be Celebrating This Year: In Memoriam of 2001-2002


     From now until season’s end, Tar Heel Nation will be abuzz commemorating the 30 Year Anniversary of the 1982 National Championship. “The Shot” will be replayed more often than usual though I doubt any of us will complain. We will grin from ear to ear each time we see “Big Game James” Worthy embrace a relatively young Coach Smith in a giant-sized bear hug. And Fred Brown should probably turn off his television until the second week of April. For many Tar Heels, the 1982 Championship in New Orleans will always be the brightest “One Shining Moment” of them all. It was the year Dean Smith quieted all of his critics (at least temporarily). James Worthy achieved legendary status. And Mike Jordan became Michael Jordan. Most Tar Heels fans over the age of 40 can vividly recall where they were and who they were with the first time Carolina Blue flooded Bourbon Street.

Unfortunately, I don’t recall that particular Championship. I had just celebrated my first birthday five days earlier. No doubt I was certainly passed out in my crib still exhausted from all the revelry. But there was no doubt that I was a Tar Heel born and bred, especially a few days later when my parents placed a 1982 National Championship License Tag in my tiny hands. When you are born in North Carolina or to UNC alumni, you don’t become a Tar Heel. You just always are. However, what does happen around the age of seven or eight is you realize that the University of North Carolina is not just a basketball team. It’s also a school. It’s a damn good school, and one that in-state students can attend at a relatively low-cost. Just this past week, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine named UNC the best buy for public universities for the eleventh year in a row as UNC beat out peer universities like UVA and the University of Florida. 

If you were to ask all the ten-year olds in the state where they wanted to go to college, over half of them would say Carolina. However, with a 32% acceptance rate, not every kid in North Carolina gets to fulfill that dream. I was one of the lucky ones. Thanks to a combination of good genes and hard work, I scored that “magic number” on the SATs as a sophomore in high school. My scores along with my GPA pretty much guaranteed my acceptance and the realization of a life-long dream.

I began my freshman year at UNC in August of 1999 with Bill Guthridge at the helm. I stayed at Granville Towers which at that time also housed members of the basketball team. I remember seeing Assistant Coach Dave Hanners walking around the parking lot during the first couple of days of move-in and knowing that I had indeed arrived in Chapel Hill. The first year was great. Coach Gut and freshman sensation Joseph Forte took us to the Final Four despite being a #8 seed in the South bracket. Franklin Street was shut down for celebration several times that year. My sophomore year and Matt Doherty’s first year as Head Coach wasn’t too bad either as we went 26-7 before Penn State forced our early exit from the NCAA tourney. If you recall, Doherty was named AP National Coach of the year that same year.

Then it happened. All hell broke loose.

At the beginning of my junior year, there was already some trepidation surrounding the men’s basketball team. We had lost our senior leader and big man Brendan Haywood as well as leading scorer Joseph Forte to the NBA draft. Forte left prematurely after his sophomore season largely because his mother worked for a sports agent in his home state of Virginia. However, I also heard from insiders that Forte and Doherty had shall we say “personality differences”. Actually word on the street during the offseason was that Doherty was butting heads with just about every member of the team.

But there was still hope. We had very capable senior leadership in Kris Lang and Jason Capel plus the addition of three, highly touted freshmen in Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott and Jawad Williams. Then the season started. It wasn’t a good sign when the Yakima All-Stars handed us a preseason loss. And at this point in the season 10 years ago, the Heels were 5-6 which was certainly disappointing but the distress signals hadn’t gone out yet. But alas, ACC play began, and the Heels would win only three more games that season against FSU and Clemson. We can always count on Clemson can’t we? Even during our worst season in history we still somehow kept Clemson’s winless streak in Chapel Hill alive.

During those darkest of days there was no joy in Heelville. The question around Chapel Hill wasn’t what the Heels were doing at practice but if they were practicing at all. Every time I went home the Duke fans in my family had a new joke. “Did you hear about the Internet crashing at UNC?” No. “They couldn’t get three Ws in a row!” This was followed by sinister laughter. My roommate at the time was from Long Island, NY, and she was especially puzzled. She kept asking me, “I thought we were supposed to be good.” All I could do was say, “Me Too”, and take another shot from my Jack Daniels bubble shot glass.

The worst thing was the losses weren’t by a nose a fingernail or even a hair. There was almost never a “well we almost won” sentiment. The defeats were blow-outs, runaways and embarrassments. UConn beat us by 32. Duke won by 29  and 25 in Chapel Hill and Durham respectively. Maryland who would go on to win the National Championship delivered a 33-point humiliation in College Park. UNC might as well have been tied to the whipping post. After decades and decades of college basketball dominance, the rest of the country finally got to kick UNC in the face while they were down, and they showed no mercy.

It got so bad that Matt Doherty, beleaguered and befuddled, decided to reinstate the four corners offense. It was like the last breath of a dying man. Though I will say the late season adjustment did prevent a third straight, complete thrashing from Duke. Because of the change in pace, Duke only beat us 60-48 in the first game of the ACC Tournament. As the 2001-2002 season ended and the Heels finished with a record of 8-20, every Tar Heel in the country gasped for breath as the boots were finally taken off our neck.

So, I’m sorry to bring up such a sore subject, but as you can see I’m still a little bitter and a few scars remain. However, while I won’t be celebrating the 10th anniversary of the worst UNC basketball season ever, I do believe in remembering and reflecting. I mentioned before that the 1982 team will always hold a special place in the hearts of many fans. But for me, 2005 will always be my favorite National Championship team for three reasons: Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott and Jawad Williams. Those three guys went from worst to first during their UNC Basketball career. There is no doubt that each seriously considered transferring on multiple occasions. But they didn’t. They persevered and were duly rewarded with National Championship rings. So while we recall the pageantry and historical significance of 1982, let’s also stop and remember the depths of despair. Let’s reflect upon how far we have come and all we’ve accomplished in the past decade. We’ve already got more wins this season that we did for the entire season 10 years ago. So, here’s hoping the season ends the same way it did 30 years ago . . . with Roy Williams and  the boys in blue cutting down the nets in the Superdome.

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