Bill Russell and the 1977 Tar Heels Basketball Team Show College Basketball Used to be About Team and Family


I was reading Bill Simmons (“BS” to himself and his friends) today early in the morning in bed from my HTC Google phone. ESPN’s Grantland articles find their way sometimes into the ESPN Android App.

ESPN announcer Dick Vitale’s Detroit beat Marquette’s 1977 team in Wisconsin. Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It was his article about Bill Russell and Kobe Bryant. Sort of, and principally.

While using Russell’s book Second Wind as a backdrop, the article wondered about Kobe’s greatness, dwelled a bit on the greatest teammate who ever played the game, and focused a bit on the personalities of the latest twin intimidators in the NBA’s history, Jordan and Bryant.

Along the way, Simmons’ article taught a lot, allowed you not to read Russell’s book and still say something about it, and provided just the right stats to see how Kobe’s case depended a lot on longevity.

What Simmons and most others never dwell on is that Kobe is so young because he started so young. And that Kobe is more flawed because of his off-court incident than Michael with his gambling and baseball interlude. For some of us, the flaws overwhelm the talent.

What did come through is that the best player is often the guy who wins championships through some form of leadership. And that Russell is the greatest basketball mind and was the greatest teammate of all time. And in a way, Russell was also about making a basketball team a family. And about character above all.

The University of North Carolina Tar Heels also have had their Bill Russells. But what he was, and what the key ingredient and perhaps difference is between college ball and the pros, is precisely what Russell represented and Kobe and Jordan do not.

Teamwork and team. And family.

What is meant by the comment that Dean Smith was the only one who was able to keep Jordan under 30 points is that Jordan was forced to play as a team in college? Family and team, first and foremost.

While many may quibble about my choice, Tommy LaGuard was the Russell of the 1977 Tar Heels basketball team. Quiet and a leader, LaGuard was also there for everyone until February 1977 when he blew out his knee, and even afterwards on the bench and in the locker room.

The intersection of LaGuard and the Tar Heels best family and team is distant today. Not just because of the date. But also because of the transitions suffered by college basketball.

Dean Smith, unlike Bobby Knight, was the more calm family sort of guy LaGuard wanted as a basketball coach. So it was that LaGuard went to Carolina and Smith assembled the best family and team in Tar Heel history.

Certainly, 1977 was the year of the best of Carolina’s teammates. From Walter Davis to Phil Ford to Mitch Kupchak to baby brother Mike O’Koren, that team epitomized the way to a championship was through teamwork and being family.

Unlike the pros, where teammates can play together for decades (or so it seems), college was and has become again a way-station for athletes to gain fame and become pros. A year or two is all it takes. So even the concept of a team for three years, as it was then assured, is unknown.

Just what sort of dynasty could Kentucky have become with last year’s team committing to each other to stay together for four years?

Sadly, we will never know.

All of us do know what it is like to play with a single star whose role is to be a star. This is in large part a major concept of Bill Simmons’ article.

But the Marquette team did include some of the family and team concept, despite McGuire’s repeated claim that it was the “star” system where when you became a senior you would star. A bit different from the current NBA approach.

Thus, the 1977 Marquette team that beat the Tar Heels for the 1977 NCAA championship used that system, one devised by Al McGuire. But the words of Bo Ellis, one of several talented players on the team that used the retirement of its coach as motivation that night, tells a different story.

"“We do what we do for ourselves first,” Marquette forward Bo Ellis said. “We have a unity on this team. We win together, we lose together. We live together and eat together. When we win everybody gets the glory. For coach, it’s his last time. He gets most of the glory. It’s a super way to go, for him and for us. I’m glad for the people of Milwaukee, and even for those who said we wouldn’t get this far.”"

If we watched teams in the later 1970s, we had a great idea of what these teams and stars could do when the luck, perseverance, unity and coaching of that time came into play. In a way, it is hard to compare this era to any other.

College ball had experimented with a variety of rules designed to “preserve” the game. The “Lew Alcindor” rule stopped dunking in college basketball from 1967 to 1976. The three point rule at various distances. The shot clock altered the game, but this came after 1977. Smith and his famed Four Corners offense still existed and may have cost Smith the championship.

But for Carolina’s Tar Heels, injuries have been the most prevalent reason they have failed to succeed in the NCAA. And no year was like this one.

Point to last spring and try to show it was coaching that failed, as some claimed, when you know how incredibly valuable a point guard is to an NCAA team. Marshall’s loss before the Final Four was crippling to the Tar Heels chances. With Marshall, UNC wins another NCAA championship.

In 1977 came the most injuries in history to the greatest basketball team ever fielded by the Tar Heels.You can quibble about this, and like Simmons point to statistics (which was not the point of his article), but in reality none were more important and better teams than the talented Tar Heels that year. Much less cohesive team families.

The dismantling of the Tar Heels began when LaGuard blew out his knee during a February practice and never played in the tournament at all.

But teams, real teams, get going when the going gets tough.

And so the Tar Heels did.Yet for the two games of the Final Four, Carolina had even more injuries. Phil Ford had hyper-extended his elbow on his shooting arm. And Walter Davis had broken the middle finger on his shooting hand.So it was that the greatest Carolina team suffered defeat to Al McGuire’s Marquette team. The one that was said to be like the pros use today. The star system, filled with its Michael Jordans and Kobe Bryants.

In 1977, the Tar Heels football team put together one of the greatest defenses in college football history. Linebacker Buddy Curry told us why twenty years later: “We had a lot of talent on that team but what made it memorable was that we had so much chemistry. The teamwork and camaraderie is what I remember more than the wins and losses.”

This year, and last when Marshall was lost, seem to lack the family and team of so many great college teams. And perhaps, as Simmons says, the key is the star system. The decisions and personality of the one true star on a team.

If so, then we can pray that this never reaches the college game. For college learning should be about team and family. And about Bill Russell, whose NBA teams had him first and foremost as the big brother working hard to keep his family intact and successful.