There are moments when New Orleans is perfect.
Moments like your first bite of a fresh beignet at Cafe du Monde, or settling into a small jazz club as time stops and the music repairs your soul. And there’s nothing quite like when the deep bass of the tuba from the morning jazz band echoes off the church in Jackson Square, signaling to the world that the sun’s up and the vampires have gone to sleep for the day. Everything makes sense, and everything is right in the world, for those brief, fleeting moments when New Orleans is home, even if you live far from the bayou.
Michael Jordan’s jumper in 1982 was one of those moments, just pure Big Easy poetry that gave North Carolina the national championship. Keith Smart’s jumper in 1987, too, smooth as the jazz that soothes your soul. Carmelo Anthony didn’t have a singular moment for Syracuse in 2003, but he had moments, plural. Same with fellow freshman Anthony Davis and his fellow youthful Wildcats.
Of course, there are moments when New Orleans can crush your spirit. Ask anyone who’s overindulged on Bourbon Street. Or, y’know, Chris Webber.
Let’s take a look at the five very memorable national title games played in New Orleans, with a little help from TSN’s archives.
1982 – North Carolina 63, Georgetown 62
Well, you know.
The Tar Heels inbounded the ball with 32 seconds left in the game, trailing by a single point, 62-61. They had spent the entire game swinging passes around the outside of Georgetown’s 1-3-1 zone, looking for openings inside to get the ball to James Worthy, and this possession was no different. Jimmy Black inbounded the ball to Jordan. Back to Black, back to Jordan, back to Black, then to Matt Dougherty near the the top of the key. Dougherty kicked it to Black on the right side. Black took one dribble toward the middle of the court and lobbed the ball over the defense to Jordan on the left wing as Worthy cut into the lane to draw the defense. The freshman caught and shot it all in rhythm, before the defense could adjust and shift back to the left side.
When the ball swished through the rim — the first of so many iconic shots Jordan would hit in his career — a legend was born. He finished the game with 16 points and nine rebounds. The win was sealed when Georgetown’s Fred Brown accidentally threw the ball right to Worthy and he ran out most of the rest of the clock. That was a foreshadowing of a similar jaw-dropping mental mistake that would happen in New Orleans 11 years later.
The thing you might have forgotten
It took North Carolina more than 13 minutes of game time to finally put the ball through the hoop while Patrick Ewing was on the court, which is just an incredible statistic. The Tar Heels either got their points while Ewing — then a freshman, like Jordan — was getting a rest on the bench, or via goaltending calls against Ewing.
North Carolina’s first eight points were the result of four goaltending calls!
The first two were on short jumpers in the lane by James Worthy. Both obvious goaltending calls. The third was a layup attempt by Jordan, Ewing’s hand swatting the ball away after the shot had banked off the glass. The fourth was a short put-back attempt by Sam Perkins.
A few years later, head coach John Thompson told the Washington Post this: “I just told him to block anything that came to the basket. ‘Go up after it and don’t worry about goaltending. Establish the fact that you’re going up. A kid is aware of the fact that you blocked his shot, whether it’s goaltending or not.’ ”
Truth is, after watching all four, the layup attempt by Jordan might have been the only one that would have been made. The other three looked to be coming up short.
Ewing added a fifth goaltending violation before the first half was over. Georgetown had a one-point lead at halftime, with 10 of UNC’s 31 points via goaltending violations.
TSN ARCHIVE: Michael Jordan seals Dean Smith’s first title at North Carolina
The lasting legacy
Few moments have evolved more through history than this championship for North Carolina. Now, it’s remembered as the moment Michael Jordan arrived on the national stage, showing the talent and poise and knack for rising to the moment that would define his legendary career. But at the time? The man who would become arguably the greatest basketball player ever was a footnote in this game. He was the freshman who hit the shot, sure, but this title was all about Dean Smith.
Until this championship, Smith was in the conversations about the greatest college basketball coaches never to win a title. Smith didn’t lend much credence to that, but it was absolutely the No. 1 talking point before — and after — the game. Here’s what he said after the win, as written in the April 17, 1982 issue of The Sporting News.
“I don’t feel the great ecstasy or the emptiness, whether we’ve won or lost,” Smith said, still jacketed and formal as he accepted the hugging in the dressing room. “If we lost, I’d have another shot: I’d feel for those kids who wouldn’t have another chance. Just because they won, I won’t like them any more than last year’s team.”
1987 – Indiana 74, Syracuse 73
You already know Keith Smart played the hero in this game, but his game-winner was a bit of a redemption bucket, too. Smart had almost single-handedly kept the Hoosiers in the game — he wound up with 17 second-half points — but he’d missed a bunny with 38 seconds left that could have tied the game.
The bigger miss, though, was by Derrick Coleman. Syracuse’s stellar freshman forward was a monster on the boards, grabbing 19 rebounds in the game, but he missed the front end of a 1-and-1 attempt with 27 seconds and his Orangemen ahead by a point, 73-72. That set the stage for Indiana’s final possession.
The Hoosiers were methodical in setting up the possession, as Smart and Steve Alford traded passes in the back court. With 10 seconds on the clock, Smart dumped it in to Daryle Thomas, who was guarded on the block by Coleman. He took a dribble out and shoveled the ball back to Smart.
You can barely even see Smart on the CBS broadcast, as he’s on the far side, hidden behind Syracuse’s Howard Triche. Suddenly, he appears with a dribble to his left and he elevates as if the jazz gods of New Orleans are lifting him clear of the fray. Triche leaps and swats with his left hand, but his fingers find only Bourbon Street regret. Smart releases the silky smooth jumper as the ball swishes through the net as the clock flashes :05.
“I just went to the open spot and let it go. I didn’t now for sure it would go in but I was praying it would,” Smart said, as reported in a Paul Attner column in TSN on April 6, 1987.
It’s only fitting that Smart was wearing the same uniform number — 23 — as the man who made the game-winner in New Orleans five years earlier.
It’s also fitting that Smart was the one who leapt and intercepted Syracuse’s last-ditch attempt to tie the game, catching the heave by Coleman to end the game.
The thing you might have forgotten
This was the first national championship played with a 3-point line. Hoosiers coach Bob Knight was a pretty vocal critic of the rule change all season, even though he had one of the best long-ranger shooters in the country in guard Steve Alford. The Indiana native took — and made — lots of long-range shots even when they were worth just two points, but the three-pointer that wasn’t a focus of the Indiana offense, and Bob Knight wasn’t a fan.
Turned out pretty well for his Hoosiers, though. Alford missed his first attempt from beyond the arc, but made seven of his final nine attempts, including one at the halftime buzzer that put Indiana up, 34-33. That was his fourth of the first half.
“I don’t like the three-pointer,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said, as reported in the April 13, 1987 issue of TSN, “but Bob likes it even less. Yet when all is said and done, they got more out of 11. If not for the three-pointers, we’d be national champions.”
That last line is funny in retrospect, isn’t it? It’s not that the Hoosiers were firing 3-pointers all night; Alford was 7-for-10 and Keith Smart was 0-for-1 and nobody else attempted one. Syracuse was 4-for-10 as a team; Sherman Douglass was 2-for-2 and Greg Monroe was 2-for-8. So, yes, while it’s technically true that the extra three points Indiana got from the 3-point line made a big difference, to say “we’d be national champions” is a bit silly.
It’s interesting to note that a rule change that happened years later could have helped Syracuse in this game. Smart’s jumper left the net with :05 on the clock, but the clock operator didn’t stop the clock until there was just :01 left. Replay review? What’s that?
Yep, even though it was clear with even a simple replay look that more time should have been added to the clock, that’s not a thing that happened back then. So Syracuse had just one desperate attempt, and we already told you how that ended.
TSN ARCHIVE: Steve Alford’s treys make Bobby Knight’s day
The lasting legacy
Smart still hasn’t paid for dinner or a drink in Bloomington, as far as we know.
Any conversation about Bob Knight and legacy is complicated. So we’ll just stick to the on-court stuff; with the victory, his teams moved to a perfect 3-0 in national championship games, and that’s where he would stay. His Hoosiers only made it back to the Final Four one more time, and they lost to the Duke Blue Devils in the semifinal by three points. Indiana made the NCAA Tournament every year during the expanded-bracket era (1985 and beyond) with Knight in charge, but didn’t survive the opening weekend in his last six years as the IU coach.
1993 – North Carolina 77, Michigan 71
The Superdome sits between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, about a mile-and-a-half from where the French Quarter ghosts and goblins haunt the night. And apparently the ghoulish characters of New Orleans lore are Tar Heels fans, because the same spirits that influenced Fred Brown’s mistaken pass in 1982 had one more last-minute Carolina-blue trick up their sleeves.
This time, Michigan was the victim. The Wolverines were back in the national title game for the second year in a row, an unbelievable run for the Fab Five and company. North Carolina had a six-point lead at halftime, but Michigan came roaring back, thanks in large part to Chris Webber, who finished the game with 23 points, 11 rebounds, three blocked shots and one turnover. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Jalen Rose hit a 3-pointer to put Michigan up, 65-61, with 5:24 left, right after Webber helped the Wolverines break a press attempt by North Carolina. Play-by-play man Jim Nantz praised Webber for his strong hands and size in helping in that area, and color commentator Billy Packer said this: “Plus, he makes excellent decisions after he catches the ball.”
But the Tar Heels rallied. They were up three when Webber grabbed an offensive rebound and scored to cut UNC’s lead to one with :37 seconds left in the game. With :20 seconds left, North Carolina’s Pat Sullivan missed the second of two free throws and Webber grabbed the rebound with Michigan down by two. Three Wolverines streaked up the court. Rose came back and demanded the basketball, but with George Lynch looming, Webber hesitated and started dribbling up the court as Packer was screaming “Oooh, he walked! He walked and the referee missed it!”
Webber crossed halfcourt and was basically guided into the corner by two Carolina defenders. He picked up his dribble, cradled the basketball and …
Well, you know. Webber clearly called timeout. The Wolverines didn’t have any timeouts remaining. It was a technical foul, meaning UNC got two free throws and the ball. Donald Williams made both technical fouls, then two more to seal the victory.
“It takes 40 minutes to lose a ball game. not one play,” Jalen Rose said, as reported in the April 5, 1993 issue of TSN. “Without Chris, we wouldn’t be here. He’s a great player and great players do things by instinct. He could have made the shot to win it.”
Like Brown 11 years earlier, Webber’s mistake didn’t lead to the deciding points, it just kept his team from having a chance to tie or go ahead. Does that distinction matter?
“Even if the timeout hadn’t occurred,” North Carolina coach Dean Smith said after the game, “I think we would have won. … It’s all part of the game. Luck, yes. Fortunate, yes. But it still says NCAA championship. It doesn’t bother me. I’m happy. It’s exciting, it’s over. We won it.”
The thing you might have forgotten
The fact that the 1993 Final Four would be played in New Orleans wasn’t lost on North Carolina’s head coach. How so? From an article in the April 12, 1993 issue of TSN …
Smith had already planted the championship seed. Before the season began, he had given the players pictures of the Superdome from the 1982 title contest. But instead of 1982, the pictures proclaimed North Carolina the 1993 national champions.
“I’ve never been very goal-oriented with my team,” Smith says, “but a good friend of mine at the university sold me on the idea by giving me the pictures.” Montross kept one in his locker and another over his bed.
“It reminded me every day of what we wanted to do,” Montross says. “By the time we got here, we felt it was almost predetermined. We wanted it very badly.”
TSN ARCHIVE: Chris Webber’s mistake in the moment lives forever at Michigan
The lasting legacy
For Smith, it was a second title. He’d often been criticized for not winning enough titles — seems very silly in retrospect — but this one silenced the remaining critics. Not that his legacy would have been empty without No. 2.
But mostly, the lasting legacy about this game rests with Michigan and the most famous group of recruits in college basketball history. The Fab Five — Webber, Rose, Jimmy King, Juwan Howard and Ray Jackson — changed the sport, in so many ways. They changed not just the sport, but the culture around the sport. You still think of the Fab Five when you see that gold Michigan jersey, and no NCAA sanctions or vacated wins can ever take that away.
2003 – Syracuse 81, Kansas 78
Syracuse’s run through the NCAA Tournament was all about freshman Carmelo Anthony. He showed he was college basketball’s best, most unstoppable player game after game, and he had 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in the title game. Behind the six first-half 3-pointers from Gerry McNamara and Anthony’s strong play, Syracuse built an 11-point halftime advantage, and led by as much as 18 at one point.
But Kansas just would not go away. The Jayhawks came back time after time, with just enough answers — combined with awful Syracuse shooting from the free-throw line down the stretch — to have a chance on their final possession. So that’s why, if we’re just looking at one moment, that moment belongs to Hakim Warrick.
Warrick had just missed two free throws with 13.5 seconds left on the clock, keeping the Jayhawks within three points. With everything they’d overcome just to be in that moment, a made 3-pointer seemed almost inevitable. Kansas brought the ball down court. Aaron Miles kicked it to Kirk Hinrich beyond the top of the key. He shuttled it over to Michael Lee, who was all by himself on the wing.
Well, he was all by himself for a moment. When Hinrich let go of the basketball, Warrick had both feet in the middle of the lane. He still had both feet in the lane when Lee caught the ball. But he took one giant step and leapt toward Lee as Lee rose to shoot the basketball. Somehow Warrick’s hand got there in time and he swatted away what surely looked like a game-tying three pointer.
“I really thought it was like the last second shot like I didn’t think there was going to be any more time so I just pretty much ran and laid out and tried not to foul him,” Warrick told CNY Central in 2020. “Then if you can go back and look at the video I’m jumping around thinking it’s over and I kind of like look around and see there’s more time left.”
Unlike in 1987, when Syracuse didn’t get the benefit of time added back onto the clock in New Orleans, replay was a rule in 2003 — so were tenths of a second — and the officials reset the game clock from 0.7 to 1.5. Hinrich did get a look, but it was not a good one and the shot missed everything. Syracuse was the national champion.
The moment you might have forgotten
We’re going to use this section to talk about Anthony, because he deserves his own section. And we’ll defer to TSN’s own Hall of Famer, Mike DeCourcy, and what he wrote for the April 7, 2003 issue of the magazine.
Anthony was so good he eventually caused two Kansas starters to foul out: wing Keith Langford, who started as Anthony’s primary defender, and center Nick Collison, who took over and did a credible job of suppressing Anthony’s influence on the game. Thing was, playing Collison away from the goal opened the inside for guards Josh Pace and Billy Edelin to drive toward a combined 14 second-half points.
“Everybody who’s played against him has gotten into foul trouble,” Boeheim says. “There’s no way to guard him unless you do.”
Kansas coach Roy Williams was impressed by Anthony’s display of mettle near the 13-minute mark, with Kansas down 61-58 but suddenly in possession of the ball after Jeff Graves’ steal. Anthony had just failed to prevent Aaron Miles’ layup that drew the Jayhawks so close, and he had a backache that developed late in the first half. But when Pace stole Graves’ desperate heave that posed as an outlet pass, Anthony accepted a lead pass and instantly launched the 3-pointer that doubled the lead. Kansas didn’t come as close again for another dozen minutes. “Great players make great plays, and that’s what he did,” Williams said. “He might be the best player we played against all year. He’s so gifted.”
In Syracuse’s semifinal victory over Texas, the Longhorns tried to help 6-4 Royal Ivey double-team Anthony, and Anthony still logged 33 points and 14 rebounds. He scored not just because of his superior size and skill but with an intelligence that put him in the proper position to make plays.
“I’m not sure I’ve played against a guy that beats you in so many ways,” Texas coach Rick Barnes says. “You know what I love? I love his demeanor. He comes by one time and says to me, ‘Coach, how much you paying that ref?’ And I said, ‘Not as much as Jim.’”
TSN ARCHIVE: Carmelo Anthony rocks Kansas to cap a season like no other
The lasting legacy
This was the battle of future Hall of Fame coaches who had never won an NCAA title. Williams had started at Kansas in 1988 and guided the Jayhawks to the Final Four three times previously, losing in the title game to Duke in 1991.
Boeheim had finished as the runner up in 1987 — thanks, 3-point line — and his team was again the national runner-up in 1996, when the Orange lost to Kentucky. The 2003 championship was basically his final stamp on a Hall of Fame resume, and he was inducted in 2005. He’s been back to the Final Four two more times, in 2013 and 2016.
Williams, after saying ‘I could give a shit about North Carolina right now’ to CBS’s Bonnie Bernstein live after the game, indeed left Kansas for North Carolina one week later in the wake of Smith’s retirement. He won his first national title in 2005, added a second in 2009 and finished the trifecta in 2017. He retired after the 2021 season. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2007.
2012 – Kentucky 67, Kansas 59
It’s downright eerie how many similarities these Final Four events in New Orleans share. The first time Kansas played a national championship contest in the Big Easy, the Jayhawks fell behind by 18 points. The second time Kansas played a national championship contest in New Orleans, the Jayhawks fell behind by 18 points. Both times, they made momentum-swapping comeback attempts, and in both games they had legitimate shots to win late in the game.
Both times, they came up just short.
This time, Kentucky made its free throws, so unlike in the Syracuse game, Kansas did not have a chance to tie in its last possession. So we’ll give the moment to Anthony Davis’ only basket of the entire game. The soon-to-be No. 1 draft pick had a horrible night scoring, going just 1-for-10 from the field.
“I said, ‘Listen to me, don’t you go out there and try to score,'” Kentucky coach John Calipari told him at halftime.
With 5:13 left, Davis made his lone field goal of the game, an in-rhythm baseline jumper. Kansas had been threatening to cut the UK lead to single digits, but Davis’ jumper put Kentucky ahead, 59-44, and 15 points with about five minutes left is pretty secure.
And even though Davis wasn’t scoring, he still impacted the game in just about every way. He finished with 16 rebounds, six blocked shots, five assists and three steals, while committing just two fouls and playing 36 minutes for the ’Cats.
Oh, and Davis’ uniform number? Yep, it was 23, same as Superdome heroes Jordan and Smart.
The thing you might have forgotten
Davis had his all-around game. Doron Lamb scored 22 for Kentucky. Marquis Teague scored 14. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 11 points and six rebounds and was the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft shortly thereafter. But don’t forget the contributions of sophomore Terrence Jones. He’d averaged 15.7 as a freshman, but accepted a smaller role in the offense when the freshman group of Davis, MKG, Teague and others arrived.
But UK doesn’t win the title without him. Again, from Sporting News college hoops guru Mike DeCourcy, from 2012.
That was essential to Kentucky’s ability to build an early lead because he was presented with the most challenging defensive assignment: Defending Thomas Robinson. With Jones standing firm and getting plenty of help, Robinson was limited to 3-of-11 shooting in the first half.
Jones also scored six early points, including a dunk on the secondary break off a sweet feed from Teague. And, perhaps most indicative of Jones’ desire to win this game, he scrapped on the floor for a loose ball beneath the Kentucky goal (not exactly his M.O.) and bounced up and walked off what appeared as though it could have been a potentially devastating ankle injury with 9:04 left.
Jones was loose on the fast break at that point, but he stepped wrong and his ankle looked as though it twisted in three different directions. He was down for a moment but pulled himself up and trotted to the defensive end, having turned over the ball as he fell.
Perhaps his biggest play was to run down and save a wildly errant crosscourt bounce-pass thrown by Lamb with about 1:18 left. Rescuing that possession allowed Davis to draw a foul and make one free throw for a six-point lead.
BENDER: Remembering Kentucky’s 2012 championship run
The lasting legacy
This was John Calipari’s first national title, and it was largely seen as a validation of his philosophy of recruiting a series of multiple one-and-done recruits, the type who would play college ball for a year — maybe two, at most — and head to the NBA. Freshmen had played key roles for championship teams before, guys like Jordan for the 1982 Tar Heels, Pervis Ellison for Louisville in 1986 and Anthony for Syracuse in 2003.
But a team starting three freshmen and two sophomores? That wasn’t supposed to work.
Anything’s possible in New Orleans, though.