Saturday, January 29, 2011

The time Duke led UNC 7-0 at halftime

When played correctly - the "right way," as Larry Brown loved to say at all 37 coaching stops in his career - basketball is fast-paced, often beautiful to watch. But basketball's also unique, in that one team can slow the game down to accentuate its strengths, or hide its weaknesses. No matter how long a pitcher takes between pitches - an average of 49 seconds it seems during an average Yankees-Red Sox game - he eventually has to confront the hitter. Football teams can milk the clock with a running game, but it's not the same. Stalls are unique to hoops. In the pros and college it's now impossible for teams to execute them. But in high schools, where most states don't utilize a shot clock, it's still possible for one team to take the air out of a ball and turn a hoops game into two hours of torture.

Last week in Texas, a highly ranked team won three overtimes. Flower Mound survived to defeat Plano West, which usually held the ball for more than a minute and maintained possession for the final 2:30 of regulation. It's the kind of game that, if you saw it, say, every 10 years, might be entertaining. Watch that type of effort on a consistent basis and you might be calling for congressional hearings to shut down the sport.

But nothing compares to the slowdown efforts perfected by North Carolina legend Dean Smith, whose four corners offense gave the Tar Heels numerous victories but earned them few fans. Smith's teams usually possessed superior talent, and those superior players killed the clock as helpless foes chased the ball and point guards like Phil Ford. The four corners usually appeared at the end of games. But not always.

At the end of the 1979 season, the Tar Heels hit the road to face rival Duke, in a game that set the game of basketball back to about five minutes after Naismith put up the first peach basket. North Carolina had defeated Duke 74-68 earlier in the season. Yet in the rematch in Durham, Smith's troops held the ball. And held the ball. Then held it some more. Duke scored after gaining the tip, surging to a 2-0 lead. The Tar Heels held the ball for the next 11 minutes. The reason? Smith wanted Duke to come out of its 2-3 zone. The Dukies finally deflected a pass but after inbounding the ball, North Carolina held it for two more minutes, before turning it over. Mike Gminski hit a free throw to make it 2-0 with 5:43 remaining.

The Blue Devils added a pair of field goals before the buzzer and went into halftime leading 7-0. North Carolina took two shots in the first half, including a half-courter at the buzzer. Neither hit the rim. The first, by Rich Yonakor, led to the Duke crowd chanting "airball." Basketball historians who specialize in such trivial matters, believe that's the first time a crowd chanted "airball." Considering the Tar Heels entered the game ranked fourth in the nation, it should have also turned into the first game where a crowd chanted "overrated."

In the second half Carolina played a real game, but still lost, 47-40.

It's a game that will never be forgotten, even if it should have been. And now, thanks to YouTube, the game - two minutes of it, anyway - can be seen forever.

Behold, basketball at its...well, it's basketball. Sort of.

There's no sound on the clip, which adds an eerie element to one of the oddest games ever. Some nice bounce passes by the Tar Heels, good hustle by the Blue Devils. Following this game, you'd think the NCAA would have implemented a shot clock in time for the following week's games, but the 45-second clock actually didn't appear until the 1986 season. In 1982, Sports Illustrated wrote a story pleading for a shot clock, citing games such as "Missouri beating Kansas 41-35 and 42-41; Virginia beating North Carolina State 39-36 and 45-40; Notre Dame making 213 passes before shooting in one possession against Kentucky; and North Carolina making 15 foul shots and no field goals in the last 12 minutes of its game at Clemson."

Two hundred and thirteen passes? And Hickory's players thought Norman Dale was too conservative.

Low-scoring games still exist, of course. But blame ineptitude for those games, not obscene coaching. Stalls live on in Texas and in high schools across the land, but they're thankfully extinct everywhere else. Dean Smith won 879 games. But it's one of his losses that remains one of the most memorable games of his career. Or at least, the most infamous.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great recap of a great game!! Kenny Dennard was nice enough to post a clip that has sound. Your clip is great but the commentary adds a lot. Dennard's site is here (look for the clip called "The Original Airball" in menu on top right)

or view direct from YouTube:!

Shawn Fury said...

Thanks a lot for that clip! It does add a lot to it. God, what a fiasco.