Michael Jordan completed his run to the title in ESPN’s College Basketball Greatest of All Time bracket on March 31, defeating Nancy Lieberman, Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Stephen Curry, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in public voting conducted on Twitter and Instagram. Though his NBA career is widely considered a more prominent part of Jordan’s basketball legacy, his greatness was established in the collegiate ranks, as Jordan led the North Carolina Tar Heels to a national championship as a freshman and was a key figure during the ACC’s golden era.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas bore witness to the rise of Jordan, playing against him five times in the North Carolina-Duke rivalry during the 1982-83 and 1983-84 seasons. Bilas reflected on what he experienced in watching and playing against Jordan as a competitor during that period.
Your first meeting against Michael Jordan was Jan. 22, 1983, about 9½ months after he made the iconic shot to beat Georgetown in the ’82 title game. What did you already know about Michael Jordan heading into that game at Carmichael Auditorium (a 103-82 North Carolina win), and what did you learn about him in that first meeting?
Bilas: We had played against the North Carolina players in fall pick-up games in both Chapel Hill and Durham. It didn’t take us very long to figure out exactly who the best player was, and it was Jordan. He was so athletic, quick and powerful … and his hands were huge. When our teams first met in Carmichael, it was a mismatch. Carolina were the defending champions, and we started all freshmen. Jordan was too good for us, but the entire Carolina team was too good. That team should have reached the Final Four that season, if not won it. People tend to forget that Carolina had Sam Perkins, Matt Doherty, and Brad Daugherty on that team, too. They were spectacular. But Jordan (a career-high 32 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists) was the best player, and impossible for us to contain. He was simply amazing, and never took a play off. Amazing.
What do you remember about Mike Krzyzewski’s game plan to neutralize him?
Bilas: Whatever the game plan was, we couldn’t properly execute it against Jordan our freshman year. We tried to limit his catches and pressure the ball and show help, but we were simply too young and inexperienced to limit him or limit Carolina.
Did the approach to defending Jordan change after his career-high 32-point outing in Game 1? Did those alterations matter?
Bilas: There were really no major changes in plan, it was simply that we were not old enough or experienced enough to be able to execute on the plan at the highest level. And, that’s where North Carolina and Jordan were … at the highest level. In the second game against Carolina, Jordan was defending against a run-out and leapt up to block a shot. In doing so, he hit his head on the backboard. I had never seen anyone hit their head on the backboard, and Jordan didn’t graze his head, he hit his head. That was superhuman.
Jordan’s legendary competitiveness is generally one of the first things mentioned about him. Could you sense that kind of supernatural will to win in him when he was a 19-year-old college sophomore, or did that come later?
Bilas: He was different from the rest, and there were great competitors in the ACC in the 1980s. I have heard Coach K say on many occasions that the best era in the ACC and in college basketball was the 1980s. Think about the players in the ACC then … Jordan, Ralph Sampson, Len Bias, Mark Price, John Salley, Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Horace Grant, Lorenzo Charles, Nate McMillan, Kenny Green, Muggsy Bogues … it was ridiculous. Yet, Jordan stood out above everyone as a competitor.
The Jan. 21, 1984, meeting at Cameron Indoor Stadium — which UNC entered as the No. 1 team in the country — was contentious. UNC won 78-73, and Dean Smith and Coach K both complained vehemently about the officiating. What do you remember about that game, and Jordan’s role in it?
Bilas: In 1984, Duke against North Carolina was a fair fight. It was a great game, but it was Jordan who made plays at the end to get the win. That was the game in which Coach K claimed there was a double standard in the ACC, in favor of North Carolina. While officials might have been reluctant to call a technical foul on Dean Smith when he hit the scorer’s table, I think it was just perception given just how dominant North Carolina was. What Coach K’s statement meant for us was that we were not waiting our turn. We were coming for what we thought was ours, now. It was pretty powerful, at least for us.
Fans and pundits have spent the past 30-plus years speculating about whether Maryland’s Len Bias, who died tragically in 1986 (and went out in the first round of the ESPN player bracket), could have scaled the same heights that Jordan did in the game of basketball. You faced them both … is it possible to compare them?
Bilas: Len Bias was an all-time great college player, and would have been an all-time great NBA player. He was Superman. Bias was a great jump-shooter, and a far superior shooter to Jordan in college. Bias was a powerful leaper, and a spectacular two-footed jumper. Bias got better every year, and he was the best player in the ACC in 1985 and 1986, along with Johnny Dawkins and Mark Price. In his senior season, Bias averaged over 23 points and shot over 50% from the floor, primarily as a jump-shooting forward. He also shot over 80% from the foul line.
As great as Bias was, and he was just awesome, Jordan was the better overall player. Jordan was the better defender and the tougher competitor. Still, the fact that it is even a discussion demonstrates just how great Len Bias was.
Jordan had 27 points in the March 3, 1984, game at Carmichael, which was a 96-83 overtime win for the Heels on Senior Day and also marked Jordan’s final home game (though he was a junior). How aware were you that you were likely watching Jordan’s final days as a collegian?
Bilas: That was perhaps the most heartbreaking game of my basketball life. North Carolina was No. 1 and the best team in the country but, as a team full of sophomores, we were ranked in the top 20 and proving ourselves to be a very good team. We thought we had the game won when we made a stop to win the game (we thought) and a foul was called off the ball that stopped the clock and put Danny Meagher on the line for a one-and-one. We missed, and Matt Doherty hit a jumper at the buzzer to tie the game and send it to overtime. We wound up losing that game in double-overtime, and it was a brutal feeling in the locker room. We knew how good Carolina was, and how good Jordan, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty and Kenny Smith were.
It didn’t dawn on me that Jordan would not play in Carmichael again, because there was still so much season left. But, looking back, it was an amazing way for Jordan to close out his home career at Carolina.
Your final personal meeting with Jordan was in the 1984 ACC tournament, which also marked the first win of your career against North Carolina and only win against Jordan. (Editor’s note: Bilas posted his second straight double-double against UNC in that win.) What do you remember about that game, and Jordan’s role in it?
Bilas: Our team felt like we would win that game. Carolina had lost only once, but we felt we should have beaten them twice. This was a neutral-site game in Greensboro, and Carolina certainly knew the game would be a fight. We played well, and I’m sure that Carolina felt like they didn’t play well. We wound up switching defenses and Jordan was guarded by David Henderson and Johnny Dawkins. Our help defense was better in 1984 because we were far more experienced.
That year, we had three great games. What I remember was just how good that team was. Carolina had Jordan, the best player in the country; Sam Perkins, one of the best players in Carolina history and a first-team All-American; Kenny Smith, another all-time great player; Brad Daugherty, a future first overall NBA draft selection; Matt Doherty, one of the most versatile players in the ACC; and Joe Wolf, a future NBA player. Then, you looked over at the bench and saw the coaching staff of Dean Smith, Bill Guthridge, Roy Williams and Eddie Fogler. They were stacked, in uniform and on the bench. When the game ended and we had won, you realized what an honor it was to play in the ACC, and what an honor it was to play in a game of that magnitude, let alone win it.
What would the Michael Jordan of that era find easier about playing college basketball in 2020? Would anything that made him great as a collegian be more difficult in 2020?
Bilas: The all-time greats would be great in any era. Jordan would be the best player now, and would own SportsCenter and social media, and he would be bigger than Zion Williamson. Nobody could guard him now, or then. He was that great. It would be easier now for Jordan because the game is better spaced due to the 3-point line. He would have far more room to operate. It would also be easier in that the best players are much younger.
It would be more difficult in a way because the players, generally, are far better and far more athletic than in the 1980s. However, if Jordan were playing in today’s game, it is unlikely he would ever have reached his sophomore season, let alone his junior year. Because he stayed for three years, he had a profound impact on the game and on the ACC. If it had been only one year, which is the norm now for great talents, he would have been viewed like Kevin Durant or Zion, a great talent that thrilled us for a year, but would we ever really have gotten to know him as a player and competitor? We were so lucky to watch him play, and I was so lucky to have played against him. He was truly unbelievable. Just unbelievable.