A poster-sized reproduction of Sports Illustrated's cover for its 1981-82 college basketball preview issue hangs above the replica playing floor at the Carolina Basketball Museum, which is a site to behold. College hoops might not have been invented here, but the Tar Heels' stately shrine to their own excellence surely suggests it was perfected here.
North Carolina was SI's pick to win the '82 NCAA tournament, and the cover jinx didn't hold -- the magazine got it right.
The cover photo suggests a missing-man formation in that it includes only four players: James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Jimmy Black and Matt Doherty, returning starters from a 29-8 Tar Heels team that lost to Indiana in the '81 title game.
Buzz Peterson was supposed to be the fifth. The slick-shooting guard from Asheville had been prep Player of the Year in Carolina in 1980-81, but an SI cover would have been a bit much given coach Dean Smith's aversion to publicizing freshmen.
Besides, anyone who had seen or heard about the Tar Heels' informal preseason scrimmages knew otherwise.
"I watched one day, and I came back and told the other coaches, 'I think I've just seen the best 6-4 player I've ever seen,' " said Roy Williams, then a Carolina assistant who took over as head coach in 2003 after a 15-year apprenticeship at Kansas.
If his fellow staffers were skeptical, it was understandable. Williams, a fourth-year assistant, had less seniority than longtime Smith aides Bill Guthridge and Eddie Fogler, and he had recruited the player he was so high on: Mike Jordan, a lesser-known 6-foot-4-inch guard from Wilmington, N.C.
"You try not to get carried away," Williams said, "but even then he had so many intangibles to go with that explosive talent. The work ethic, the toughness, the competitiveness. ... You just sensed he had a chance to be something special."
Buzz Peterson's early take: "I'm thinking I better find a new position."
But an obvious truth engendered no bitterness; the two were roommates as well as teammates and remain close.
And sure enough, 18-year-old Mike Jordan seized the starting spot with the ferocity and flair that would characterize his play for nearly two decades. He scored the first two points of the season in a 74-67 victory over Kansas, and the last two on perhaps the most storied bucket in Carolina history: an 18-foot jumper from the left wing that beat Georgetown 63-62 in the Louisiana Superdome for Dean Smith's first national championship.
Along the way there were increasingly frequent glimpses of the once-in-a-lifetime player he would become ... Michael Jordan, not Mike.
"That was Coach Smith's doing," recalled Carolina historian Rick Brewer, then the school's media relations director. "In Wilmington he was Mike, and most of our players called him Mike. Coach Smith always called him Michael. I asked him which he preferred, and he said it didn't matter. So we went with Coach Smith's choice. Rolled off the tongue a little better."
Jordan had ambition to match his talent.
"We used to kill our guys in preseason conditioning drills, really try to bury them so they'd welcome being in the gym," Williams said. "Michael and I were talking one day as they were cooling down after some strenuous running and he told me, 'I want to be the best guy who ever played here.' I said, 'Well, Michael, you've got a chance to be a great player, but you're going to have to work awfully hard.' He said, 'What do you mean? I work as hard as anyone.' And I said, 'That's just it. You're at a different level now. As hard as anyone won't get it done -- you've got to work even harder.'
"Next day he came in and it was like, 'I'm going to show you.' From that point on he tried to win every sprint, every drill, dominate every scrimmage.
"And the only thing he did better than play was talk. Whether it was basketball or pool or cards or golf later on, if he was competing, he was going to win. And he was going to tell you about it."
Peterson can attest: "He came home with me for a weekend one time and he was yappin' to my mom about beating her at cards. Probably cheated her, just to win."
As can Worthy. "I used to hide from him," he said. "Every day, no matter how hard we practiced, Mike wanted to play one-on-one. I was pretty much regarded as the best player on the team, and he wanted to test himself. 'Come on, Junior, I'm going to take you today,' and he'd have stayed out there all night until he did."