North Carolina was lapping up the spoils of victory, nets being snipped in the Tar Heel way: freshmen first, then sophomores, and so on through Dean Smith and two assistant coaches who argued vainly that they'd just as soon wait until New Orleans. As Jimmy Black waited his turn, a Carolina official whispered to him, not too softly: "Phil Ford only made the final four once."
Next week, Black will have made it in back-to-back seasons. That hardly makes him twice as good as Ford. But the reason publicist Rick Brewer mentioned it at so special a moment today is that a whole gang of hoop harpies the last two years have insisted Black wasn't even half as special as Ford.
Black's value involves a whole lot of basketball grays, although the bottom line--as Smith has been saying over and over and over, many times before anyone bothers asking--is that he's a winner. The Heels were 29-8 and NCAA tournament runners-up with him at point guard last year; they were 30-2 after drawing away over Villanova in the NCAA Eastern Regional final.
It is not quite right to say Black makes the other Carolina players better, although that happened this weekend when he rarely missed against Alabama and Villanova and made the all-tournament team. What he mostly does is make sure nobody panics on the court and that Tar Heels superior to him get a chance to strut with the ball in the places they perform best.
Carolina has enough stars. What they need is glue to keep them from flying out of control, in directions contrary to the best interests of the team. This is why Black had the players over to his room about three weeks ago, before the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, to simply remind them:
"This is it."
The meeting involved more than three words, but that was the essential message: we can sweep everything--the ACC, the regionals, the NCAA, together; we can lose everything being selfish.
There will be another session this week. The agenda: winning the NCAA title for Smith.
"I haven't stressed it yet," Black said. "I've mentioned it, but I will stress it this week. Everybody says he chokes in the final four, and I'm tired of listening to that. I'm tired hearing it, and I've only been here four years, so I know he's tired of it."
Smith has been to the final four six previous times without winning the championship, the one flaw in an otherwise matchless career.
"We're gonna try and change that," Black said.
He had a green badge pinned to his jersey, one that welcomed the NCAA to New Orleans.
Where'd it come from?
"Somebody gave it to me," Smith said, "and I thought he earned it."
He had. Once again today a team correctly handicapped him as the Carolina weak link, sagging almost inside the shorts of James Worthy and Sam Perkins and daring Black to beat them outside.
So the Bronx senior was four for five from the field and three for four on free throws. The Heels' spread offense also allowed him to open the backdoor several times for layups. He had 10 assists--and two steals off a wonderfully conceived Carolina half-court trap.
In high school, it was all but inconceivable that Black would be a Tar Heel. Or a big-time player at all, for he chose not to attend the fashionable summer camps that attract the best high-school prospects and the most college scouts. Carolina got two tips that Black was blue chip stock. One was from a rival New York high-school coach; the other was that he was the sleeper of the season, and about to sign with Iona.
Assistant Bill Guthridge saw Black play once, on the way to recruit Corny Thompson, now with Connecticut. At halftime, Guthridge recalled, he phoned Smith and said: "We've found our quarterback."
Guthridge elaborated: "He took the ball right through the press, was unselfish, got the ball to the right men in the right places and knocked in the jumper when he had it. You look and you look, knowing what you want, and it only takes a few seconds to know you've found it when you see it."
Iona was close to home, a team on the move in the late '70s with Coach Jim Valvano and center Jeff Ruland. Why did Black back off?
"The system here, the staff and players. Also, I visited around Easter, when the trees were blooming. That flipped me out."
A car accident two summers ago almost cost him his life.
"Going to Myrtle Beach," he said. "Driving with too little sleep. Dozed off for about five seconds, and the next thing I knew I was heading for a tree. I was a fraction of an inch from being paralyzed (with a neck injury), and at that point I wasn't even worried about basketball."
Black could have watched Carolina's NCAA semifinal opponent, Houston, beat Boston College today but did not. He avoids most college games.
"They might have a bad effort," he explained with Smith-like logic, "and you might let down when you play them."
But tips gained from watching a possible opponent might outweigh the psychological factor.
"Everything we need to know," Black said, "coach will tell us."
If the public knocks have bothered him these last two years, Black has used them well.
"He pulled me over (before today'sgame)," said fellow senior Chris Brust, "and said how we were supposed to have been one of the weakest (recruiting) classes ever to come to school here, how many games we've won since we've been here"--it's 103 and counting--"and how we just have to grin.
"We started calling him Boss a long time ago, 'cause he said he's the boss man on the court."
Once Black might have dreamed about being the best man on the court; now he's more than satisfied to be the one more skilled players listen to.