WORDS by Jim Sumner
PHOTOS by UNC Athletic Communications
Dean Smith started the 1996-97 season with 851 wins, 25 behind Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp, who held the all-time mark. It was obvious that if the record came that season, it would come in March, when the stakes were the highest.
This was one of Smith’s youngest and thinnest teams. Carolina relied on a six-man core. Fifth-year senior Serge Zwikker manned the center spot, while junior combo guard Shammond Williams provided the outside shooting. A trio of talented sophomores – Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, and Ademola Okulaja – handled the forward spots, with some spare time at other spots. Smith turned the reins over to a freshman point guard, Ed Cota — the first time since Kenny Smith in 1984 that a newcomer had started at point guard for UNC. Before the season Smith joked that he hoped to win eight games that season and eight the next season and maybe he would eventually catch up to Rupp.
Of course, Smith was playing possum. This team had considerable strengths, talent being foremost. All of the top six players would go on to play professionally, either in the NBA or in Europe, with Carter and Jamison becoming top NBA players. The versatility of Jamison, Carter, and Okulaja was an asset. Cota developed into a superb playmaker and this team was capable of dominating on the glass.
Carolina lost its opener to Arizona at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic but then reeled off nine straight wins to go into the Christmas break 9-1. The Heels then took a trip to Europe, where they played games in Holland and Italy. In A Coach’s Life, Smith wrote that the trip was “a big scheduling mistake I made.” Smith felt that the trip tired out his players and took them away from the practice floor too long. Zwikker, a native of the Netherlands, recalls, “I’m certainly not going to second-guess Coach Smith and I did enjoy going home. But it was a long, hard trip and the jet lag was tremendous. By the time we got back to Chapel Hill, it seemed like we had been away forever.”
Something definitely happened. UNC dropped its first three ACC games, including a dispiriting 81-57 loss to Tim Duncan and Wake Forest and a man-bites-dog loss at home to Maryland, when the Terps overcame a 22-point deficit to win 85-75. Virginia then beat Carolina 75-63. Carolina almost started 0-4 but came from behind late to defeat North Carolina State. UNC finished the first half of the ACC at 3-5. Pundits agreed that a 5-3 finish down the stretch would probably keep alive UNC’s streak of consecutive NCAA appearances.
The Heels slowly were putting together a much more ambitious stretch run. Zwikker says, “We were very honest with each other. We cleared the air after the Virginia loss and everybody got on the same page. The rough start brought us together.”
Carolina did what championship teams always do to fight their way out of a slump; they worked and worked some more. “Coach Smith always had a plan,” Zwikker says. “He melded a bunch of guys into one team with hard work and practice. You could see the pieces start to fit. You could see us build and build.”
Jamison developed into the second-best player in the ACC (after Duncan), Carter overcame a series of nagging injuries, and Williams became a reliable three-point threat. Perhaps, most importantly, Cota became comfortable running the team. UNC ran the table in February, getting one pay-back win after another. The Heels finished the ACC regular season in early March with a 91-85 home win over conference regular-season champions Duke, a bizarre game of contrasts in which Duke made 17-of-34 three-pointers, but UNC outrebounded the visitors by an astonishing 49-18 mark. It was the start of a special month.
UNC finished 11-5 in the ACC and jumped to No. 5 in the AP poll after almost dropping out in early January. The Tar Heels entered the ACC Tournament with a nine-game winning streak.
The Heels opened against Virginia, a team they had split with in the regular season. Led by Courtney Alexander’s 27 points, the Cavaliers made Carolina work for 40 minutes. The game was tied at 59 with 5:35 left before Carolina methodically closed the door for a 78-68 win. Jamison led Carolina with 24 points and 10 rebounds. The finish would be typical of Carolina’s work through March. Opponents would stay close for a half, 30 minutes, 35 minutes, but the Heels would control the stretch. “Because of who we were, we always got everybody’s best shot from the opening buzzer — not everyone could sustain it,” says Zwikker of the trend. “We were in great shape and could sustain an effort for the entire game. But most of all, we were so well-prepared. We practiced every contingency. We were never surprised.”
Eighth-ranked Wake Forest was next, another rubber match. It was tied at the half, 35-35. Duncan was magnificent, with 33 points, but UNC had too many weapons. Five Tar Heels scored in double figures, led by Williams with 24 points and seven assists. Zwikker scored 17, while Cota added 7 assists. UNC again pulled away down the stretch, winning 86-73. Wake coach Dave Odom was impressed. “Who did we lose to today? The team that is playing maybe the best basketball in the country. The team that is playing the closest to its potential.”
North Carolina had an unlikely opponent in the finals. North Carolina State had come up through the play-in game to upset top-seeded Duke and Maryland. The Wolfpack had played Carolina tough twice that season, losing 59-56 and 45-44. The third game was just as tough, a methodical, possession-by-possession struggle. North Carolina led 30-24 at the half. Williams, who led all scorers with 23 points on the way to the Case Award as the tournament’s top player, hit some big shots down the stretch, and Jamison and Zwikker controlled the boards. North Carolina won, 64-54, giving Smith his 13th and final ACC Tournament title.
Carolina prepared for the NCAA Tournament, as they had every year since 1975. But this time the equation had a different variable. Smith was at 875 wins. “Coach Smith never mentioned the record, never,” Zwikker says. “We didn’t either, because we were so focused on the season. But by March you couldn’t avoid it. It’s all anyone wanted to talk about.”
UNC was rewarded for its ACC title by being sent a few miles down I-40 to Winston-Salem’s Joel Coliseum, where the Heels were joined by much of the national sports media. An 11-18 Fairfield team was the sacrificial lamb. Only they refused to follow the script. The Stags controlled the tempo, kept the much larger Heels off the boards, and made their open shots. They had an improbable 35-28 lead at the half. Jamison said, “I was so scared it made me mad. I was mad anyway about the way we were playing. Then I started getting really worried.”
UNC calmed down after intermission and began to take advantage of a sizeable height advantage down the stretch; Fairfield had only one starter taller than 6-4. Zwikker had one of his best games in a Tar Heel jersey, 19 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks. Carter scored 22 points, Williams 17, and Jamison 15. UNC shot 22-for-35 in the second half, which Smith later called “our best offensive half of the season.”
Greg Francis led Fairfield with 26 points, including 8-12 on threes. After the game Smith told reporters that he had tried to shake Francis’ hand but it was too hot. Smith gave Fairfield its just due. “We couldn’t stop them,” he said. “We tried everything. They hit against man, they hit against zone. When that happens we say ‘Congratulations’ because we can’t do anything more.”
Jamison added, “Our mind wasn’t into this game the way it should have been. It didn’t have anything to do with the record, either. We want the record for Coach, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the way we get ready. Maybe we just thought they would be easy or something.”
Zwikker, upon reflection, isn’t so sure. “The pressure was intense,” he says. “Having the game in Winston-Salem probably hurt us. With so many Carolina fans around, you just couldn’t escape the talk about the record. It definitely was a distraction.” Smith and Rupp were now tied.
Fate missed a great opportunity. Most thought that UNC’s second-round opponent would be Bob Knight and Indiana. But the Hoosiers and all of their tradition couldn’t get past first-round opponent Colorado. This was not the upset it seems. It was an 8/9 matchup after all and the Buffaloes had the best player on the floor, Chauncey Billups. His 24 points led Colorado to a surprisingly easy 80-62 win.
Colorado was unable to duplicate its effort against Carolina. The underdogs led 31-30 at the half but Carolina again controlled the second half. A 30-8 surge put it away. Billups was held to 5-for-16 shooting and UNC dominated the boards, 52-31. Jamison had 19 points and 16 rebounds, Williams 15 points, while Zwikker and Okuljuka each grabbed 11 rebounds. Zwikker says, “I don’t remember much about the game. Maybe that shows how much pressure we were under. It was very business-like. I remember the anticipation as the end got closer.”
The final was 73-56. Pandemonium ensued. With the capacity crowd chanting his name, Smith hastily sprinted for the locker room. Zwikker grabbed the game ball and refused to relinquish it to a security guard. “She told me they had a presentation planned to give Coach Smith the game ball. I told her we would take care of that. She was insistent; I was more insistent.” The ball stayed with Zwikker.
Dozens of Smith’s former players had returned to the Tar Heel state for the record-setting victory. This is Zwikker’s most vivid memory. “We knew the record was a big deal, of course,” he recalls. “But seeing how guys like George Karl and Mitch Kupchak dropped what they were doing and came back to honor Coach Smith really put it in perspective.”
North Carolina didn’t have long to celebrate. The season was still very much alive. A trip to Syracuse and a meeting with California were next on the agenda. In one sense the pressure was off,” Zwikker says. “In another sense it was intensifying.” California fell, 63-57, another close, grind-it-out game. Jamison led everyone with 21 points. “After you make the final eight, they take your ring size, just in case—that’s when it really sinks in,” Zwikker says. “You’re getting close.”
Smith’s 879th and final win came in the East Regional finals against Denny Crum and Louisville. Fans got three games in one. North Carolina exploded to a 54-33 halftime lead. After intermission, Louisville furiously cut the lead to single-digits. Smith called timeout and resignedly told his team that it had been a pretty good season. The ploy worked. UNC pulled away once more, winning 97-74, the biggest margin of any of Smith’s 11 regional title wins. Six Heels scored in double figures, led by Williams with 22.
Carolina had opened its season with a loss to Arizona and it ended it the same way, 66-58. UNC couldn’t buy a basket, making only 23-of-74 field goals. Arizona’s Mike Bibby and Miles Simon combined for nine three-pointers and that was the difference. Two nights later Arizona defeated Kentucky for the NCAA title. It was Carolina’s first loss since January and Dean Smith’s last game, although no one, Smith included, knew it at the time. Smith later wrote, “The 1997 team was special for the way it came back and for what it accomplished in very tough surroundings.”
Smith has always maintained that the record wasn’t something he sought. Ten years later, Smith reflected, “I don’t think you should ever have coaches’ total records … it’s something you do for your team.”
Zwikker says, “I’m sure he was proud of the record, but he certainly never expressed that to his team. If he had ended the 1997 season a win or two short of the record, I don’t think it would have made any difference in his decision to retire. He always put the players and the team at the forefront.”