Maybe you watched The Last Dance, and the glorious end of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls career. This is about his last dance in college basketball. It didn’t turn out so well.
On March 22, 1984, North Carolina played Indiana in a Sweet 16 game in Atlanta’s Omni. We should remember what it looked like on paper.
The Tar Heels were 28-2 and ranked No. 1, their two losses by a combined five points. They had four future first-round draft picks in the lineup, and another coming off the bench. Those five — Jordan, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, Kenny Smith and Joe Wolf — would eventually score nearly 70,000 points in the NBA. Dean Smith was already secure as a legend — getting his first title only two years before, with considerable help from Jordan — and assisting him was another future national champion coach, Roy Williams. “There was nothing we didn’t have,” Williams said of that team, 36 years later. “We had everything that you need to win the national championship.”
The 21-8 Hoosiers were unranked in the Associated Press poll. Of their starting lineup that night, only two — Steve Alford and Uwe Blab — would play a day in the NBA. Their combined career scoring total was 1,249. But they also had Bob Knight, who knew something about preparing a team to beat any opponent. “To get that group to believe was something very special that Coach did,” Alford said.
The history book confirms how special. Indiana 72, North Carolina 68. The game ended with Jordan on the bench, having fouled out after only 13 points. Between foul trouble and strong Indiana defense by a future coach and broadcaster named Dan Dakich, it had been an awful night for Jordan. And it would be his last as a Tar Heel.
Indiana over North Carolina doesn’t sound so much of a shocker. Those are two heavyweight names, especially in 1984. The Hoosiers had won a national title only three years before, beating the Tar Heels. “It’s not like they’re North Carolina and we’re Ivy Tech,” Dakich said. But then you look at the names in the scorebook. Alford in his freshman season and Blab and Dakich and Marty Simmons and Mike Giomi and Stew Robinson knocking aside Michael Jordan and Brad Daugherty and Sam Perkins and Kenny Smith? “If you put (those Hoosiers) in a Bowling Green uniform,” Dakich said, “it would be the biggest upset in the history of college basketball. But since it’s in an Indiana uniform in the ‘80s, it’s not.”
So what happened, that Jordan’s college career ended with a train wreck?
The bushwhacking was set in motion the weekend before.
Williams scouted Indiana’s first NCAA tournament win — 75-67 over Richmond — and saw enough to be wary. “A friend of mine said to me, ‘there’s no way they can beat us.’ I said, ‘Yeah they can, because they’ve got a ball-handling guard (Alford) who doesn’t turn it over, and who makes every free throw. So if we don’t have a good night shooting, it’s going to be a close game.”
Besides, this was not quite the same Carolina juggernaut that had started the season 21-0. Kenny Smith, who directed the Tar Heels machine from his guard spot, had fractured his wrist in late January. “When Kenny Smith went down it changed everything,” Williams said. Smith was back, though in a cast and not near March-ready form, Williams said. “He could dribble the ball, but he was not Kenny Smith.”
After beating Richmond, Knight gathered his Hoosiers to begin plotting the Carolina coup.
“He came in the room and made us all believe we were going to win the game,” Dakich said. “He basically said any of you blankety-blanks who don’t think we’re going to beat North Carolina, then get the blank out of this room right now. That includes you managers, that includes you coaches, that includes you trainers. But if you’re going to stay in this room, you’re going to learn how we’re going to beat North Carolina’s ass.”
OK, so how?
Alford: “The thing I remember absolute most is Coach Knight — and he did this about two or three times in my four years — kinda went against the norm of what people thought his team was going to do against an opponent. For instance, in ’87 he decided he wanted to run with the Rebels (when Indiana outsprinted No. 1 UNLV 97-93 in the Final Four). He did the same thing with Carolina. So many teams were very passive against their press and he sent me down the floor and basically said we’re going to attack this thing and throw it over the top and we’re going to get any shot that we want. By attacking that press, I think that, along with Michael getting in foul trouble, were reasons why we were able to win.
“There was never any mention they were No. 1 in the country, there was never any mention of how great they were. It was all about, this is how we’re going to beat them.”
And the Indiana defense, especially against national player of the year Jordan?
Dakich grew up in the northwest corner of Indiana and was such a fan of the Chicago Bulls, and particularly star Bob Love, he wore Love’s No. 10 in every sport in high school. He was a junior and only a part-time starter in 1984, but at the pre-game meal, under four hours before tipoff against North Carolina, got the final word from Knight. He’d be in the lineup — and guarding Michael Jordan.
Alford: “Dan was a tough guy. He took that as a personal deal.”
Dakich: “I tell the story how I saw my body and I saw his body, and I went to my room and threw up. But the truth of the matter was I was sick all week. This is how dumb I am. I thought I could eat my way out of it. At the pregame meal I ate a combination of a hamburger, spaghetti, eggs, ice cream. Then we had our meeting (when he learned he was guarding Jordan). Everybody left the meeting and I kind of sat there, acting like I was really getting ready for the game. The truth is. I just didn’t want to throw up in front of everybody.”
He barely made it to his room before he lost his meal. He’d need a bucket hours later on the bench, after fouling out. So while Jordan would one day have his famous flu game — or food poisoning, or whatever it was — in the NBA Finals in Utah, Dakich had his stomach virus game in the Sweet 16 in Atlanta.
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Knight’s instructions to him were clear: Make Jordan do his damage from the outside. The Jordan jumper was not yet as deadly as it would be in Chicago. “Knight simply told me, ‘If he beats you, he’s going to have to beat you with a jump shot. If he gets an offensive rebound, if he gets a back cut or if he posts you up, you’re coming out. It’s that simple.'”
And so it began. Jordan scored a couple of early baskets, but picked up his second foul only 7 ½ minutes into the game. Dean Smith had a decision to make. “Coach Smith was really struggling what to do during the course of that season whether to keep guys out,” Williams said. Jordan sat most of the rest of the half. The Tar Heels’ offense stalled, and the Hoosiers eased to a 32-28 halftime lead. Indiana was in full-belief mode.
Dakich: “During the game — and I love Buzz Peterson — Buzz Peterson took a jump shot from the lefthand corner. I remember this like it was yesterday. Jordan was out of the game and I remember thinking, with their players in the game right now, they’re no better than us. I remember thinking between Kenny Smith, Buzz Peterson, Steve Hale, Matt Doherty, they were no better than us. Now Perkins and Jordan, yeah. Perkins was a monster and Jordan was Jordan.
“If we played them again the next week, I might not feel that way. But in that particular game on that particular night, from the look in their eyes, the body language they had, with Jordan out of the game, I had the feeling we were just as good, if not better. Stupid to look back at, right? Stupid to think that way. But that was that particular night, that particular game.”
Jordan was back the second half, but defended by Dakich, could not get going. He went 13 minutes without a point. At one stage, Dakich leaned on something he had learned about defense from a coach in elementary school — walk into a player who is trying a fadeaway shot.
“If I’m going to have a video on my gravesite, it’s Michael Jordan taking a turn-around jump shot in the second half, and I walked into him, and instead of lifting up and shooting, he fell backward and threw it away. So my story is I intimidated Michael Jordan on that turnaround jump shot because of my sixth-grade coach.”
The Hoosiers’ lead grew to 12. The Tar Heels fought to get close, but Alford finished them off with free throws, on his way to 27 points. Williams’ fears had proven true. The Tar Heels struggled to shoot at 41.9 percent, and it haunted them. Knight’s plan had struck gold. Indiana got its shots, and shredded the Carolina defense with 64.9 percent from the floor.
“We couldn’t get the ball out of Steve Alford’s hands,” Williams said. “We were trying to foul Uwe Blab. It was like hack-a-Shaq. Joe Wolf was holding him with both hands around his waist as they were running down the floor twice in a row and they wouldn’t call it, and we ended up having to foul Steve.
“We just never got in rhythm. You have to give Indiana credit because they played a ball-possession game. They were sky high and played a phenomenal game. I’ve had two losses in that stage of the tournament I’ll never forget and that was the first one. The other was when Jerod Haase broke his wrist in 1997 and we (Williams was coaching Kansas then) lost to Arizona. I think we ended the season 34-2, we had been No. 1 the entire year.”
Dean Smith was renowned for his implacable nature through good times and bad, but was noticeably unsettled that night. He understood that Kenny Smith was due to get his cast off in time for the Final Four. A national championship — and a much more pleasant way to end the Jordan era — might well have been lost.
“He handled those losses so much better than I did. He had handled them so gracefully and so internally.” Williams said. “He and I talked much later when I was coaching at Kansas about bad losses and difficult losses to handle. I said, ‘Coach I always wonder what if (in 1984).’ He said, ‘I do a little bit, too, but you can’t do that.’
“But that one stuck out in his mind as well.”
There were numerous postscripts to Jordan’s last college dance.
Two days later, Indiana was denied a trip to the Final Four in a rather dreary 50-48 loss to Virginia. “A big thud,” Alford said. “I think that’s where our team probably showed some of our youthfulness, in trying to handle having a victory like that and not responding in the manner we should have responded.
“Every time I bring (the Carolina game) up to MJ, he always comes back, ‘Yeah, and less than 48 hours later, you lost to a team that finished fifth in our league.’ That’s what March Madness was.”
The defeat was partially sealed with a late turnover by…Dan Dakich. Oh, how the NCAA tournament can be so two-faced. Dakich said he still thinks of four games nearly every day of his life; two when he coached, another when he played in high school and lost by one point in the Indiana state finals. And Virginia.
“People say, ‘Dakich you’ve lived off one game, Jordan’s game.’ If they only knew, I never think about the Carolina game, unless someone brings it up. But that bleeping Virginia game and turning back as I’m walking off the court watching Virginia cut down the nets, If I could have not had the Jordan game and not had the Virginia game, I would take it. It haunts me every freaking day and it took me a long, long time in my life to admit that.”
In the summer of 1984 Knight was coaching the U.S. Olympic team, which included Jordan and Alford. Opponents in Jordan’s last moment as a collegian, they were suddenly teammates.
“Mike just took that team, I think, to a whole other level in just learning how to be at your best every single time,” Alford said. “For an Indiana kid, it was unbelievable pickup games all summer, and Mike was the energy behind it. When the best player never takes a play off, never takes a day off…I’ve seen a lot in my years of playing and coaching and I’ve seen players nowhere near him that take plays off, take days off, take games off. I watched all of (The Last Dance) and the thing that really hit me of all the comments that he made was, he never asked any more of his teammates than he asked of himself. As a teammate in ’84, that was the case.”
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What didn’t get discussed much was what had just happened in March. Jordan would rather stick his face in a fan than lose at anything, so it seemed a topic to avoid.
“It wasn’t like it came up a lot,” Alford said. “I did send him a text years later the day the Omni was imploded, just to jog his memory a little bit.”