Excerpted from Chapter Three of More Than a Game: "Covering the Team, 1995-2000." This clip refers to events in the 1996-97 season.
[With the loss to Virginia, Carolina fell to 0-3 in the ACC] and there was little doubt that Carolina was undergoing a serious crisis of confidence.
I drove eight hours across eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina from Sewanee, TN to Chapel Hill to cover the next two games against N.C. State and Georgia Tech. On break from seminary, I had been in a foul mood, largely because of the Tar Heels' struggles, so much so that my mom asked me if I was all right. I said I was--and said that I considered the journey to Chapel Hill almost like a faith mission. I shared the fan's superstition that somehow my actions could make a difference, that showing good faith by coming all that way to see a struggling team play might work out in some cosmic sense. And on the other hand, if this was really the moment that Carolina was going to have a really bad season, I probably wanted to be there to see that, too.
When I got to Chapel Hill, I found that not everyone still had faith that Carolina was going to be okay. Down at Jeff's Campus Confectionary on Franklin Street, everyone had a theory for what was going wrong. There was a letter in The Chapel Hill Newspaper saying that Dean Smith should resign. Later that week, The News and Observer ran a long article blaming Carolina's problems on recruiting decisions.
Against that backdrop, it was truly moving to sit on press row and watch Carolina take the court against N.C. State to a very loud, prolonged standing ovation from a packed Smith Center. Chastened by public criticism in a variety of media outlets, local and national, the crowd was there ready to do its part. But midway through the second half, UNC went on a long offensive drought that allowed State to build a lead. With just over two minutes to go, I began to compose in my head the article I'd have to write saying that Carolina had fallen to an unprecedented 0-4 in the ACC. State had a 56-47 lead and the ball, and was taking it up after a missed Carolina shot when Shammond Williams knocked the ball loose and Jamison recovered it for a lay-up. After a stop, Williams hit a 3 to cut the lead to 56-52, and after a steal, a Jamison basket cut the lead to two with under a minute to go. State missed a free throw, and Williams was fouled with a chance to tie, but could only make 1 of 2. But State missed yet another free throw, Jamison scored to give Carolina the lead, and then Carter stole the inbounds pass and made two free throws. State failed to score and Carolina had pulled off an incredible miracle comeback, winning 59-56.
After the game, the crowd rushed on to the court, and Carolina's players made no effort to hide their joy. I stood in the tunnel watching the participants walk off the court and into the locker area, and was amazed to see Carolina's players running and jumping through the tunnel, followed by Dean Smith, Bill Guthridge, and Dave Hanners, each of whom was walking very calmly with no obvious outward emotion, as if they were still a little troubled by what they had seen. It was an interesting contrast. However, Phil Ford, the other assistant, was pumping his fist and smiling. Moments later, outside the media room, an elderly N.C. State booster congratulated Smith but then muttered very loudly, "That was just typical."
In Smith's press conference, I had one of the first questions and asked Smith if the team had been under too much pressure for this game. In a memorable reply, Smith said yes, the team was under a lot of pressure--and that maybe we should all remember that, "There are a lot of people in China who don't care whether we win or not." It was his way of trying to keep things in a little bit of perspective--and also of saying that while Carolina had just come very close to falling to perhaps its biggest low since Smith's very early years as a coach, it wouldn't be the end of the world if that happened, despite what most people in Chapel Hill thought.
But if Smith would have liked the media and the public to look outside the fishbowl of Carolina basketball every once in a while and not take the whole thing so seriously, it was also obvious that he was indeed taking the situation very seriously. In the extraordinarily emotional Carolina locker room, Shammond Williams fought back tears as he talked about his missed free throw in the last minute and what it meant to win the game. Vince Carter said he didn't care if people called him the worst player to ever play for Carolina, he was going to come out and try to improve. Ademola Okulaja said that the letters to the editor attacking Smith angered him. Antawn Jamison said that it had been hard being around campus the last few days, but now Carolina was back. And all of the players talked about how Smith and the coaches had told them after the Virginia game to forget about 0-3 and 9-4, that the slate had been wiped clean, and that Carolina was starting off a new season at 0-0. That may seem like a rather corny psychological technique, but the Tar Heel players bought into it. It turned out that while most everyone else in Chapel Hill was freaking out about Carolina's poor start in January, Dean Smith was busy coaching.