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True Blue

From Dean Smith to Michael Jordan to Roy Williams, perhaps no college basketball program has stronger alumni ties than North Carolina

March 22, 2007|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

Imagine if every summer for more than 30 years, young Trojans in the NBA -- some of them already All-Stars -- kept returning to USC's North Gym or the Sports Arena or now the Galen Center to play pickup games.

And imagine if year after year, Bill Sharman, Tex Winter, Paul Westphal, Bob Boyd, Stan Morrison, George Raveling and Henry Bibby -- all of them with some connection to USC -- got together with Tim Floyd to play golf, talk basketball and hold a coaching clinic.

That is what USC is up against in North Carolina.

"They've got the best tradition in the world," said Trojans guard Lodrick Stewart, who remembers playing at the Dean E. Smith Center as a sophomore. "You look up and see all the best names -- James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Michael Jordan -- players I grew up idolizing. You just look at them and are like, 'Man, I'm on the same court and sitting in the same chairs where the best played.' "

Never mind that the Smith Center opened after Jordan, Worthy and Perkins finished their careers. And Stewart and his teammates don't have to face NBA greats, just Tyler Hansbrough and a batch of talented freshmen, when they play the Tar Heels in an NCAA tournament East Regional semifinal Friday at East Rutherford, N.J.

Nor did those four national championships and 16 Final Fours help North Carolina last season, when the Trojans defeated the Tar Heels at the Sports Arena, 74-59.

But there is something about North Carolina that has survived Duke's rise to prominence and the bleak days of an 8-20 season under Matt Doherty that eventually brought Roy Williams back from Kansas.

Consider that Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak graduated in 1976 and has been in Los Angeles since 1981. Yet every September he returns to North Carolina for a golf outing at Pinehurst with former coaches Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge, current coach Williams and other assorted members of what they like to call the Carolina family -- including Larry Brown, Doug Moe, Billy Cunningham, George Karl and Jordan.

The Carolina guys stick together, and you see it not just on reunion nights in Chapel Hill, but in the NBA, where alma mater is thicker than water for the Tar Heels even 30 or 40 years after they graduated.

Think only a conspiracy theorist would imagine Karl's rant at New York Knicks Coach Isiah Thomas after the Knicks and Karl's Denver Nuggets brawled was really over Thomas' treatment of Brown, who like Karl is a member of the Carolina club?

Roll your eyes when you hear that Jordan, part-owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, is considering hiring Brown, whose Carolina career ended 20 years before Jordan's?

"That's real," Kupchak said. "We just all got to know each other at reunions and alumni games, and in the NBA we run into each other all the time.

"I always get ribbed about it by Frank Hamblen, one of our assistants. He'll see George and say, 'There goes one of your Carolina guys.' "

It all starts with Smith, of course, and that hasn't diminished in the 10 years since Smith, now 76, retired.

"Every year at Christmas since I graduated, I get a team media guide and a handwritten note from Coach Smith," Kupchak said.

So does every other letterman, from 1961 to 1997.

"It takes a little longer now," Kupchak said. "You might get it in the third or fourth week of January. But it's unbelievable, it really is."

Doherty, forced out as coach in 2003 after three seasons, still gets his media guide and note from Smith too. Had the Southern Methodist team Doherty now coaches not had a game on the night this season when Carolina honored the 1982 NCAA championship team he played on with Jordan, Worthy and Perkins, Doherty said he'd have been at the Smith Center with them, forced out or not.

"Obviously, the situation I've been through puts a strain on that relationship, just as it would with any family," Doherty said. "It's not like it used to be, but there's still a relationship. I still talk to Coach Smith and Coach Williams.

"It is a special club, even though I had a bad experience on the coaching end. I still hang my jersey in my office, and I still wear my championship ring on my finger."

There are other schools with tradition, of course. Many former UCLA players have close relationships with John Wooden, and they have reunions too. But even though summer pickup games on the UCLA campus draw an impressive array of talent, those aren't only Bruins alumni, but an assortment of college and professional players who convene in Southern California.

What seems to set Carolina apart from UCLA or Kansas or Kentucky or Indiana is the length of the unbroken chain from Smith's arrival in 1961 to now, from Smith to Guthridge to Doherty to Williams.

"It's a unique deal," said Doherty, an assistant at Kansas under Williams earlier in his career. "There were some similarities at Kansas, but it wasn't constant.

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