The basketball was alive above the rim and Mike O'Koren was reaching for it. Duke's Jim Suddath was up there with him. The whistle blew and Suddath and North Carolina's O'Koren turned to hear the verdict.
The foul was on Suddath. Duke Assistant Coach Bob Wenzel jumped off the bench. "Just because O'Koren's All-ACC doesn't mean he can't commit a foul," Wenzel yelled in frustration.
O'Koren grinned and shot the free throws. Then, as he turned to run down court he dashed past the Duke bench, "Hey coach," he yelled at Wenzel, "I didn't make All-ACC last year, remember?"
"Yeah," answered Wenzel, "but you should've."
The O'Koren-Wenzel encounter in the recent Big Four championship was, in many ways, quintessential O'Koren. Few players as talented as he have ever played the game with the combination of intensity and joy he brings to the court.
O'Koren takes basketball seriously. Watch him mix it up underneath or lead the fast break and that becomes apparent quickly. But he also has a unique ability to step back for a moment -- even in a tense situation -- and say, "This is supposed to be fun and I'm going to enjoy it." Few who play college basketball at the ACC level can do that and not lose concentration.
But O'Koren is atypical in many ways. He loves winning but he loves playing the game just as much. Basketball is important to him, but unlike many other sure-fire NBA first round draft choices, it is not an obsession.
He did not make the All-Atlantic Coast Conference first team a year ago largely because he had to adapt his style to several new teammates. He had to handle the ball more, had to lead the fast break more often. And he no longer had Phil Ford for a teammate.
North Carolina Coach Dean Smith insists that O'Koren's junior year was his best as a collegian, that he did things that did not show up statistically. hOthers say Smith's system, trying to involve five players in the offense, kept O'Koren's point per game average at 14.8.
Today, as the eighth-ranked Tar Heels (4-1) prepare for their 2 p.m. (WRC-TV-4) confrontation with fifth-ranked Indiana (5-1), O'Koren is doing just fine as a scorer -- 17.8 points per game. But his other statistics are testimony to his all-around abilities. He is shooting 59 percent from the floor, leads his team in rebounding, (seven a game) and is second in assists, (four per game).
"I don't worry about statistics," O'Koren said. "They teach you right away when you come here that there's more to basketball than shooting. I think I've improved as a player because I play better defense now. I pass better. I suppose I could score more if I really wanted to, but it's never been that important to me. I didn't even score that much in high school."
O'Koren was sitting in a cluttered dorm room, one he shares with teammate Jeff Wolf, talking about his four years at UNC and now he thinks he has changed since he arrived here as a wide-eyed street kid from Jersey City, N.J.
"Let's put it this way, I was very glad when the games started that first year," O'Koren said, his voice still thick with the New Jersey-New York accent he developed as a youngster. "Now, though, I just love this place. I probably fit in better here now than I would at home. I'm going to miss this life. You go to class and you play ball. The rest of the time is free. It's very relaxed."
UNC and Chapel Hill are different from the surroundings O'Koren grew up in. Steamy, smokey Jersey City was a rough place and O'Koren ran with a tough crowd.
He learned his basketball in junior high school from Ron Steinmetz, only seven years older than he, his friend, as well as coach. To this day he lists Steinmetz as his No. 1 athletic hero. It was also Steinmetz who ordered O'Koren to stay away from the kind of antics he and his older friends were prone to and Steinmetz who O'Koren turned to for support when his relationship with high school Coach Joe Pope soured.
O'Koren attended Hudson Catholic High School, a private school. His mother Rose worked long hours at a local hosptial to put him through school after Mike's father died of emphysema when he was 11.
The style of ball was slow and disciplined at Hudson, with teamwork emphasized. O'Koren teamed with Jim Spanarkel, the former Duke star now with the Philadelphia 76ers, to give Hudson Catholic its greatest teams ever.
It was just prior to his junior year that O'Koren was spotted by Eddie Fogler, Carolina assistant, at a summer camp. While he was not tearing things up, Fogler liked what he saw and told Smith there was a kid from Jersey who was "a Carolina player."
"It wasn't that he scored a lot of points, because he didn't, Smith says now. "In fact as a junior I think Mike only averaged about 11 points a game because Spanarkel did all the scoring.
"But he had those intangibles we looked for. He was unselfish, he passed the ball well, he didn't seem obsessed with scoring a lot of points."
By his senior year O'Koren was 6-foot-7-3/8 and a highly recruited athlete. In December he chose Carolina. "It just seemed like the best place for Mike O'Koren," he said. "I wanted a college town, I wanted good basketball, I wanted an education. I've gotten all three here."
O'Koren burst upon the college scene with a flourish. You couldn't miss him on the court with his enthusiasm and intensity; leaping into teammates's arms after a good play; finding ways to win games for the Tar Heels.
He had a solid, regular season (14 points a game) as the second freshman to ever start for Smith -- Phil Ford was the first -- and when Carolina was beset by injuries during the NCAA tournament it was largely his work that carried them to the national final against Marquette. O'Koren was a star and only 18.
Carolina lost that championship game to Marquette and when it was over O'Koren wept on Walter Davis' shoulder. "We had the national champtionship," he said, shaking his head again at the memory. "We could've won it, we should've won it. I still think about that game almost every day." w
Three years have passed since that national champtionship game. O'Koren has changed little: the curly brown hair is short now, the angular, bony face still lights up when he talks about his hijinks as a freshman.
"I've changed a lot since that year. I've learned a lot. Even if we had won the national championship my freshman year I wouldn't have thought about the pros. I wanted four years of college, of growing up and I want my degree. That's very important to me now. You never know when something will happen to basketball. You need something to fall back on."
Barring injury, O'Koren will become a wealthly young man this spring after being chosen in the first-round of the NBA draft.
"He'll go in the top 10," Washington Bullet General Manager Bob Ferry said. "He's got everything you need to play pro ball. He's got the intensity, the aggressiveness and he's got a pro body. He can play small forward or big forward although he's an ideal small forward."
Carolina players have traditionally done well in the pros. Bobby Jones, Phil Ford, Walter Davis, Mitch Kupchak, Tom LaGarde, John Kuester, Bo McAdoo being a few examples. But Ferry points out that, because of Smith's system, it is sometimes hard for a pro scout to judge a player's individual skills. "You can't really scout a guy's one-on-one abilities," Ferry said. "But you know the kid will be well-coached in the fundamentals coming out of Smith's system."
The idea that his system holds players back upsets Smith, who points out that in UNC's passing -- game offense, no player is held back. But O'Koren has never been one for trying to be flashy or fancy. Spanarkel, who played with him for three years in high school and against him for three years in college, says he has always been a heady player.
"The best thing about Mike is he plays within his limits all the time," Spanarkel said. "He knows just what he can and cannot do. He doesn't try to do the spectacular. I don't think he's ever really changed in his approach to the game. He's always been that way.
"Mike's not going to walk into this league (NBA) and dominate it, but he's going to be a good pro.When he gets something in his head to do, he usually does it."
The serious side of O'Koren is one that he rarely shows. Most people think of him strictly as a typical sophomore with teen-age enthusiasm. But O'Koren is a very religious person, religious enough that he does not rule out the idea of playing Athletes in Action next year -- the athletic arm of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. O'Koren does not like to talk about those things.
The O'Koren that everyone knows is the O'Koren who decided to try roller skating in Chapel Hill this summer and spent a good part of the night careening down streets yelling "LOOK OUT, I'M OUT OF CONTROL," scattering bodies left and right in his wake.
The O'Koren that everyone knows is the O'Koren who never thinks a game is lost, who has shot better than 50 percent from his first day as a college player, who rebounds when asked to rebound, who plays defense like a cat chasing a mouse, who can lead a fast break as well as any guard in the country.
"I love playing the game," he said. "Basketball is an emotional thing with me. I love to win and when I'm happy, I show it.That't just me. It isn't going to change any time soon."
O'Koren who maintains basketball is not his whole life, will graduate this spring with a degree in theraputic recreation. He wants to play in the Olympics and professionally. Beyond that he isn't sure what the future holds. But even now he thinks about what his life would have been life if not for basketball.
"If it hadn't been for the game I guess I would have stayed at home and tried to build something there with my family," he said. "It would have been very different from the life I'm leading now. I think about that a lot.
"I don't think about the future much. I'm kind of sad this is my last year here, but you have to move on to other things. You have to grow up sometime."
On the basketball court, O'Koren has been ready for the pros since the end of his freshman year. But off the court he is different, more sure of himself, better-rounded as a person. In the long run, that will make him a better basketball player. He knows that. But he also knows that four years ago, basketball was all that mattered. Now he sums up his feeling for the game simply:
"I'm told I have a good future in the pros. That's nice. I'm glad. I hope it works out. But if it doesn't, I can handle that. I'll have my diploma and I'll have my experiences here. These $99"Text omitted from SOURCE".