Friday night was about honoring 100 years of basketball, which just happens to include 90 winning seasons. But this celebration was about more than achieving victory on the basketball court; wins alone don't draw former players by the hundreds and fans by the thousands.
It was an opportunity for everyone involved to give thanks and celebrate the people that have made North Carolina's basketball program one of the best in the country.
"Carolina has been very good to me," Charlie Scott said, echoing what so many other Tar Heels relayed on Friday. "The fans of Carolina [and] the alumni have been very good to me and have been very good to my family."
Nearly 70 former players participated in the Celebration of a Century Alumni Game, which paired generational participants together for several minutes at a time, with the oldest seeing three minutes of action and the youngest chewing up the clock for much of the second half.
Dewey Burke found Serge Zwikker in the paint for the game-winning basket with 20 seconds left to give the Blue team a 71-70 victory, but the true highlights began much earlier in the evening.
Bobby Gersten, a senior at UNC in 1942 that will turn 90 in August, started the festivities by out-jumping 83-year-old Nemo Nearman (‘50) for the opening tip. But Nearman got the last laugh, connecting on a smooth right-handed hook in the post for the game's first points.
Six minutes later, Phil Ford trotted up the Smith Center court and flashed the "Four Corners" sign, igniting the sellout crowd. During a later timeout, the 1978 National Player of the Year talked about the offense that has become synonymous with his own name.
"Like I've always said, I get a lot of credit for ‘Four Corners' that I think I don't deserve," Ford said. "It was the brain child for Coach Smith. They ran ‘Four Corners' at North Carolina before I got there and they ran it after I left… We were really looking to score, but I don't think people understood that. We would dribble around and look like we weren't looking to score and then we may get a layup."
The 40 minutes of basketball action were interlaced with interviews of living legends and a few displays on the court, whether it was Joe Quigg standing at the charity stripe discussing his clutch free throws to win the 1957 national championship over Kansas or Walter Davis attempting another miracle shot like the one he drained near midcourt against Duke on Mar. 2, 1974.
Halftime provided the grandest moment of the evening. Following a video montage praising Dean Smith for his 36 years of guidance, the Hall of Famer walked to midcourt with his 1982 national championship coaching staff, consisting of three National Coach of the Year recipients in Bill Guthridge, Eddie Fogler and Roy Williams.
After a lengthy standing ovation – met with Smith's futile attempts to quiet the crowd – all of the participating players circled around the 78-year-old to offer hugs and thanks.
Billy Cunningham, a 1985 Hall of Fame inductee, described what made Smith such a strong influence, saying, "Not only did he know what he was doing, but he demanded a lot of you, not only on the court, but in school. We even had to go to classes. He was conscious of everything. He assumed the role of leadership and of being a parent to all of the players when I first started playing at Carolina."
Following the game, 20 players with an elite common bond – their jerseys hanging in the rafters – took the court to conduct a "Centennial Fast Break." Jim McCachren, the oldest attending former player at the ripe age of 98, inbounded the ball to Cunningham, who passed to Doug Moe, who then threw it to Al Wood. Seventeen passes later, Tyler Hansbrough completed the exercise by scoring the final basket of the night.
The four-time first-team All-American would later tell a UNC official that was the most nervous he's ever been on the court.
There are sure to be bumps and bruises when the sun comes up Saturday morning, and possibly even sooner, as Donald Williams asked where he could find a bag of ice as he was leaving the Tar Heel weight room following his media interview.
But while any lingering pain will eventually fade away and be forgotten, this century celebration will stay with these players and coaches for the rest of their lives.
"That was North Carolina basketball," current head coach Roy Williams said about the evening's events. "That's what it was."