All season long’s “Hoop It Up” will be republishing select excerpts from Return To The Top on the 20th Anniversary of Dean Smith’s 2nd NCAA title season in 1993. Check back on Monday of each week for the next RTTT.

By Matt Wenstrom, UNC ‘93

The 1992-93 Tar Heels will always be remember as a collection of great basketball players. What many people couldn’t see, however, was that this was a team of fascinating characters. The personalities meshed so well off the court as the talent did on the court. There’s no doubt that was a major influence on us developing the chemistry all championship teams have.

We were a very loose team. We were focused and serious when the opening tap went up each game but we were always relaxed and having fun until then. I think Carolina basketball is an outstanding mixture of discipline and free-wheeling fun. We may look to the public like the “IBM of college basketball” as some people call us. We’re also the “Toys ‘R Us”. It’s like Coach Smith says, “The disciplined person in society is the free person.” We’re given a very disciplined structure in which to function that, in turn, provides us with the freedom to be ourselves.

We had a lot of fun with little pet superstitions that most everyone on the team had. I insisted, for example, on sitting on the fourth seat on the left on every bus we rode. I put two sticks of yellow gum in my left sock every game (Juicy Fruit, but we called all gum by their colors, not their names) and my mouthpiece in my right sock. I wore the same beat-up old pair of shoes all year. Scott Cherry played the same music before every game, beginning with Jam by Michael Jackson and continuing with luminaries from American music such as Hip Hop Hurray by Naughty by Nature. Travis Stephenson even crossed the line (from country) before games and listened to Scott’s rap music. Scott was also the last one to pick up his uniform from our equipment manager before our home games – no matter how late it was. And Derrick Phelps was the last one to get dressed. Sometimes he’d be listening to music and we’d say, “Derrick, are you going to dress tonight?”

One of the funniest superstitions that arose during the march to the NCAA title was that Travis’ mother, Helen, found a head-sip penny entering Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem before the ECU game. After we won, she insisted on finding a heads-up penny in the arena. She found one minutes before we tipped off against Michigan in the Superdome; what she didn’t realize was that Travis’ father, Gene, had been discreetly tossing pennies ahead of them, hoping his wife would find one and that it would be heads-up.

All of our clowning was done in good fun and within the overall context of what we’re at Carolina for: get a degree, number one, and wins basketball games, number two. We get away with it because we all like each other and get along so well. You can’t joke around with people unless there is a real affection among all of them. We know each other so well, there’s not much you can get away with without hearing about it .You just have to suck it up, take the abuse and come up with something better yourself.

I knew coming into the season we’d be a better team than the year before. We lost Hubert Davis, who was a great, great scorer. But I knew how well Donald Williams was shooting. You knew scoring would not be a problem. I knew we were good; all we needed was a little edge, a little luck. That’s eventually what happened. Every championship team gets breaks. You just have to be there when the breaks come. People talk about the “luck” we got with Chris Webber calling the timeout that Michigan didn’t have in the NCAA championship game. Maybe we made our luck by forcing them with good defense to waste a timeout earlier in the second half. Maybe we made our luck with a great double team by Derrick and George Lynch that forced a super athlete to panic.

One of Coach Smith’s thoughts for the day was, “One of the last human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” Each of us had the power to choose every day what kind of attitude we would take onto the court. We could have a bad attitude if we lost the night before or if someone had a bad game or if someone wasn’t getting the minutes he wanted. We could also make the best of any situation, which this team did very well, all season long. Coach is very big into the mental side of the game. He feels you can push the human body only so far physically and that the next great frontier in coaching will be the mental side of the game.

We were really competitive among ourselves in practice. Eric (Montross), Kevin (Salvadori) and I killed each other every day. There were a lot of collisions in the paint, a lot of pushing and hitting. It had to have helped Eric in a game, because what he got in practice from Kevin and me was as rough as what he saw from anyone else.

Basketball players never get as much playing time as they’d like. It’s hard to make noise about playing time if you’re only losing four games a year. I could have gone somewhere else and had more points and rebounds after four years, but I wouldn’t have gotten as well-rounded an experience as I did at Carolina. I’m a firm believer that there’s more to life than basketball.

NEXT: Finishing first in the ACC, including two great wins over Florida State.