If you are a college basketball fan from North Carolina you are undoubtedly familiar with the images of Michael Jordan’s game winning shot in the NCAA championship game to give UNC the 1982 title, or legendary NC State coach Jim Valvano running around the court in utter disbelief after the Wolfpacks’ improbable cinderella run to the championship in 1983. These are two legendary moments in college basketball - and North Carolina - history.
That 1983 championship was NC State’s last and the Tarheels have gone on to win three more titles since 1982, but what about North Carolina’s two leading public universities previous basketball championships? UNC won its first NCAA championship in 1957 and NC State won its first in 1974, yet these two great championship teams from North Carolina are little known and rarely talked about. These teams played in an era where only the conference champion went to the NCAA tournament and the media coverage at the time was nothing compared to what it was in the 1980’s, much less today, yet each of these teams had quite interesting stories - and runs to their championship titles.
1957 University of North Carolina Tarheels
The 1957 Tarheels were the second undefeated team to win the NCAA championship after the San Francisco Dons, who were led by future Hall of Famer Bill Russell, ended the 1956 season with a 29 - 0 record. The 1957 Heels, who went 32 – 0, are also one of only seven teams to ever make it through the season undefeated and win the NCAA championship (UCLA in ’64, ’67, ’72, ’73 and Indiana ’76 being the others).
Hall of Fame coach Frank McGuire, who was from New York City, assembled a roster largely made of players from in and around New York City. Lennie Rosenbluth, who was a senior in 1957, was one of those players and still holds the UNC records for most points scored in a season (895) and highest scoring average over a career (26.9). Ken Rosemond from Hillsborough, NC was on this team as well and ended up becoming Dean Smith’s first assistant coach.
Coach McGuire prepared his team with a road heavy schedule and by the time of the NCAA tournament, only eight of UNC’s games had been played at home. On top of a grueling road schedule leading up to the Final Four, the Heels had to win back-to-back triple overtime games in the final two days of the tournament to take the championship.
In the Final Four, UNC defeated Michigan State 74 – 70 in triple overtime. For the championship game the next day against Kansas, held in Kansas City and essentially making the game a home game for the Jayhawks, the Heels had to battle against Wilt Chamberlain, one of the most dominant players of all time and holder of too many NBA records to count. After yet another triple overtime game against Kansas, the Tarheels emerged victorious 54 – 53, giving UNC their second undefeated season and their first NCAA championship (their first undefeated season was 1924, prior to the NCAA tournament).
1974 North Carolina State University Wolfpack
The 1974 Wolfpack, who finished the season 30 – 1, were only one loss away from being the second undefeated team from North Carolina to win a NCAA championship. The Wolfpack was undefeated in 1973 but missed that year's NCAA tournament due to questions about the recruiting of high school phenomenon David Thompson. The Wolfpack’s only loss in 1974 was an early season matchup between the dominant #1 ranked UCLA Bruins and the #2 ranked Wolfpack. NC State lost that game 84 – 66 to a UCLA team which was deep in the midst of an NCAA record 88 game win streak, had gone undefeated the previous two seasons, and had won the previous seven national championships. However, the Wolfpack would avenge this loss to UCLA in dramatic fashion later in the season.
The Wolfpack were coached by Norm Sloan, who had previously played both basketball and football at NC State. The teams’ star player was NC native David Thompson from Shelby, NC, whom many consider to be the greatest basketball player in ACC history. Thompson’s nickname was "Skywalker" because of his incredible 44 inch standing vertical leap. While Thompson played during an era when the slam dunk was outlawed, the alley-oop pass, now a staple of today's high-flying above-the-rim game, was "invented" by Thompson and his 5' 7" teammate Monte Towe, and first used as an integral part of the offense by NC State coach Norm Sloan to take advantage of Thompson's leaping ability.
Thompson was rumored to be able to grab a quarter off the top of the backboard and was so legendary in his day that North Carolina's greatest basketball legend, Michael Jordan, has said that Thompson was his basketball role model as a young man. Thompson was such an inspiration to Jordan that he asked Thompson to introduce him during his 2009 Hall of Fame induction. Thompson, a Hall of Famer himself, also remains the only player in NC State men’s basketball history to have his number retired.
The 1974 Wolfpack also included another NC native and fan favorite, the 7’ 2’’ Tommy Burleson, a senior from Newland, NC who was key to NC State’s defense of UCLA superstar Bill Walton in their Final Four game. The 1974 Final Four was held in Greensboro and in the semifinal game, NC State faced off against the dominant UCLA Bruins. The game went to double overtime with the Wolfpack coming back from down 5 points late in regulation and then coming back from being down by 7 points in the second overtime to win 80 – 77, ending UCLA’s streak of seven straight national championships. NC State’s 76 - 64 championship game win against Marquette was much less competitive and anti-climactic in comparison, but brought a successful end to NC State’s greatest season - and greatest team - in history.