Tournament Tales: Antawn Jamison

March 19, 2012
Antawn Jamison
Plenty of big-name colleges tout their proud basketball history. Then there’s the University of North Carolina.

The numbers don’t say it all, but they’re impressive. The Tar Heels program has 2,062 wins and an all-time winning percentage of .738. North Carolina has won five National Championships, won the ACC regular season 29 times and its tournament on 17 occasions. They’ve reached the NCAA Tournament 43 times, earning 105 wins and counting. The Heels have made 31 Sweet Sixteens, 25 Elite Eights and 18 Final Fours.

Throughout their history, they’ve had 46 All-Americans chosen 75 times. One of those players – chosen three times – is veteran Cavaliers forward Antawn Jamison.

For all the greats that have come through the hallowed hoops halls of Chapel Hill, Jamison is one of only eight players to have his number retired. In his three years at UNC, he averaged 19.0 points and 9.9 rebounds per contest. As a junior, Jamison was named both the Naismith and Wooden Award winners as the most outstanding men's college basketball player in the nation.

The only thing Jamison failed to accomplish at North Carolina was a National Championship.

In his final two years as a collegian, his team was loaded with talent. As a junior, UNC featured four All-Americans: Jamison, Vince Carter, Ed Cota and Shammond Williams. But they never cut down the final twine in either season.

In the 1997 NCAA Tournament, Jamison’s No. 1-seeded Tar Heels thumped Louisville by 23 to advance to the Final Four. But they never reached the Champiionship Game, falling to the eventual National Champion Arizona Wlidcats – who topped Rick Pitino’s Kentucky Wildcats to give Lute Olson his first national title.

The next season, legendary coach Dean Smith unexpectedly retired before the start of the season, turning the reigns over to longtime assistant, Bill Guthridge.

That year’s loaded squad rolled to the Final Four – crushing their first four opponents by double-digits. But again in the semifinal game, Jamison’s Heels came up short – falling to Rick Majerus’ upstart Utah Utes, a team that featured a pair of former Cavaliers – Andre Miller and Michael Doleac – not to mention the future head coach of the Canton Charge, Alex Jensen.

In today’s installment of Tournament Tales, one of the top Tar Heels of all-time talks about his runs at the ring way back in the late 20th century …

As a kid growing up in North Carolina, was it your dream to play for Dean Smith and UNC?
Antawn Jamison: I was born in Louisiana and we moved to North Carolina when I was nine or ten. So, in middle school, I wasn’t keen on what the ACC was all about. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I was like, ‘They’re not playing around when it comes to basketball here.’ And I wasn’t a die-hard Carolina fan. Duke was around, N.C. State. So I watched some pretty good basketball.

It wasn’t until I really started taking basketball seriously. It wasn’t until I started visiting universities. I went to Duke, I went to N.C. State, South Carolina. (I wanted to stay close to home.) But after I went to North Carolina, it was over.

What separated UNC from the others?
Jamison: For one, it was the coach – Coach Smith. You go visit other universities and they’ll tell you, ‘We’ll make you the best basketball player, this and that.’ Coach Smith said, ‘I can’t promise you’ll make it to the NBA, but you’re going to get an education here and you’re going to learn the right way to play the game.’

Just hearing him talk – it felt like what I was accustomed to in my home. Somebody with authority and discipline, but who cared about not just what I could do on the court, but what I was about as a human being off the court. Meeting the assistant coaches, walking around the Dean Dome and the university – that was like heaven. And I knew this was where I was supposed to be.

How difficult was it moving forward after Dean Smith retired before the start of your junior season?
Jamison: It was tough because we didn’t foresee that happening. And this is a legend – Coach Smith! We figured he’d be 100 years old and still coaching Carolina. But for him to say he had to leave because of medical reasons, it shocked us. It took us by surprise; shocked the whole world. This is, in my eyes, the greatest college coach to ever coach the game.

But once it was time to play basketball, Gutheridge was ready to go because he was Coach Smith’s right-hand man. He knew everything about the system and we knew him. He already had the keys, he just had to get into the car.

You had three memorable Tournament experiences, though they all didn’t end how you’d have wanted.
Jamison: Our freshman year, we lost in the Sweet Sixteen. But one thing I respect about that team: we were focused. We knew that we had talent. We knew that it would be such a great story to have us win.

Going back to my sophomore year, we felt like we were Championship-ready. We thought it was our shot. We got to the Final Four and we just didn’t play well to start the game. And Arizona did a phenomenal job.

After that (loss), after about two weeks, guys were right back at the gym. There was the expectation that Vince (Carter) and I were going to leave after our sophomore years. But we came back. We said we don’t know how long we’re going to be here, so let’s get this done before our senior year.

We blazed through the season. But the first five minutes of that game (against Utah), we couldn’t get it back. They were up by 15 or 20, and we just couldn’t catch up. In the Final Four the pressure is on, and you want to play well – and now you’re down and you’re trying to do things on your own. It was just heartbreaking. You’re a young guy, still learning about life, thinking this is your time. And to come up short, it was definitely something hard to deal with.

And around this time of year, every time we see one another, it’s just like déjà vu. Instead of being talked about as one of the best teams ever assembled, we’re an afterthought.

North Carolina alumni are like the Skull & Bones Society of college hoops. Why are UNC alumni such a tight-knit group?
Jamison: I just think it’s because of the emphasis Coach Smith put on family. It’s the one thing we know we all have in common – whether it’s Coach Smith, Coach Guthridge or Roy Williams – because all the coaches have been through it. The things that I went through in college are the same things Charlie Scott did back in the day. It’s just no different.

And we all understand it – that family atmosphere, caring for one another. Putting that uniform on, there’s nothing like it. Walking into that Dean Dome (or, before that, Carmichael) – that is tradition.

And you’re still tight with guys to this day?
Jamison: I still see those guys to this day. I saw Shammond about a week ago. Ed is in Charlotte. Of course, Brendan stays around the corner from me in Charlotte. Me and Vince, our daughters are the same age and she stays in Charlotte.

So there’s always that connection with Carolina. No matter when you played. I could see Rick Fox or Sam Perkins and it’s an automatic connection. We talk about Carolina and the guys there. How your family’s doing – things like that.

You see other guys from other universities – they don’t have that. And they try to figure it out. ‘How do you Carolina guys do it?’ But it all comes down from Dean Smith. He instilled that in everybody.

How far can this year’s North Carolina team go in the Tourney?
Jamison: If we can stay healthy, I think we have a great shot. We have the experience. If we face a team like Kentucky or Syracuse, I think mentally we have the toughness to face a team like that.

Like I said, as long as we’re healthy, I think we can get the job done.